By Eddy Maloka

The world has just commemorated the 1994 Rwanda genocide – that fateful day when Rwandans hunted down other Rwandans that they believed to be different.  

Parallel to these global commemorative events, in South Africa, groups of our people were also in the streets, armed to the teeth, hunting down fellow Africans that they believe to be undocumented and therefore illegal in the country. 

Some Cabinet ministers were as engaged in this hunting expedition through a well-staged and highly organised media campaign.

Images of black South Africans in the streets, ready to kill fellow Africans, and senior government leaders being cheered on social media for finally taking action, and ridding our country of these ‘unwanted, illegal lot’, is disquieting. It is a concern that could lead our country in an undesirably precarious direction.

It’s absolutely normal in this era of state sovereignty for countries to have borders and people they recognise as “citizens”, as opposed to others they consider as “foreigners”. 

Moreover, crime is crime and should be eradicated, whether it is committed by local or foreign nationals.  There is also absolutely nothing inherently wrong with a government protecting some of its industries or the labour market from foreign competition. This happens all the time, and probably in all countries.  

What is different in our case is for these measures to be accompanied by political, mass mobilisation and the incitement of disconcerted mobs against foreign nationals.

South Africa has been grappling with this xenophobia phenomenon since Thabo Mbeki’s presidency.  During Jacob Zuma’s time, we had to on several occasions respond to this challenge in African Union and SADC meetings.

What is however new about the current wave is the emergence of an identifiable, violent xenophobic social movement. Its leaders are no longer faceless people we don’t know, but individuals we see on TV proudly expressing their hatred for foreign nationals and calling for violence against them.

We now even have political parties established expressly for xenophobic purpose. Their leaders may not be as violent as those at the head of the social movement, but they also go about telling South Africans that the foreigner is a problem that must be pushed out of the country. 

At the top, including in the ruling party, the ANC, it is no longer considered an embarrassment to openly espouse xenophobic views and campaign for policies targeting foreigners. 

What we once believed to be a false narrative is now widely accepted – that our country’s key problems – unemployment and crime – are caused by foreigner nationals and we complain that foreigners do in South Africa what they can’t or don’t do in other countries. 

We are projecting our own failures on the OTHER – the foreigner. We conveniently confuse the cause and the effect, and make them swap roles in our inverted logic, in our effort to cover up for our own inadequacies. 

For politicians who have lost connection with their mass base and are suffering electoral defeats on the ground, the foreigner has become an issue to use opportunistically to reconnect with this eroding base.

This presents South Africa with a new problem. During Zuma’s time we used to explain this problem away by simply stating that xenophobia was not government policy. We could get support, solidarity and even sympathy from our African Union and SADC colleagues.

Now, this argument will no longer hold because of the prominent and visible role played by some MPs in the current wave. We could face unintended consequences that may be more difficult to handle.

Unintended consequences are when far away, in an insignificant place, a tiny butterfly flaps its wings, and this leads to an unexpected storm in a big city like Joburg. They are unavoidable and inseparable from the intended consequences. They can be an irritation and even invasive to a point of turning the tables around and stealing the show from their intended opposite. An example is when a soccer player hurts his foot while trying to score a goal and has to be substituted, or when you accidentally spill a drink on your favourite dress and you then have to abandon your plans for the day.  

These mass hunting campaigns of African migrants will have their own unintended consequences. In Rwanda, the unintended consequences took over and turned what began as isolated incidents into a mass movement of genocidaires. When this thinking is applied to statecraft, it means government leaders should always think about the possible unintended consequences of their actions, and not be carried away, concerned exclusively with their noble intentions.

By the way, how do you identify an undocumented migrant among a crowd in the streets of Joburg? Do they bear a mark of Cain on their forehead? Or maybe they are Kaizer Chiefs fans with their golden jerseys?

Must we resuscitate the apartheid-era “Black Jacks” who used to enforce influx control measures by breaking down our doors in their search for the illegals of that time who did not have the “dompass” to live in the cities?

I feel for South African diplomats. Our ambassador to the AU will be summoned by the Peace and Security Council to explain himself, AGAIN! Our expatriates on the African continent will now have to lock themselves indoors, because their compatriots back home have turned them into soft targets. 

When our streets are tense like this, I can only think of my colleagues at the NEPAD, APRM, and Pan African Parliament offices in Midrand. Like South African expatriates, they live in fear, for themselves, their children who are in our schools, or relatives they married away to our children. 

Our AU security teams will issue alerts to staff. Our offices may have to be temporarily closed. I’ll have to swallow my shame and send my report to the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa.

The “we” and “them” divide is not helpful. If anything, it exaggerates differences and creates more tension and animosity. 

It’s easy to say “these people should go back to their homes” or “this is our country”. It’s the easy way out, with potentially dangerous unintended consequences. 

An alternative option is to learn from Singapore or Dubai that when your country is so sought after by others, when it is a preferred destination for international migrants, use this for your benefit. Turn this mass movement of migrants heading your way into an opportunity for developing your nation.

Trying to stop this wave is as futile as standing in front of a flood to attempt to block it. We know that even steel walls don’t work. The Mediterranean Sea has also failed as a barrier.

Instead, what you’ll get is hatred and more hatred, and xenophobia and more xenophobia. But the migrants will keep knocking on your door and won’t go away.

Modern South Africa is a colonial creation that began as a refreshment station and a point of intersection between the East and the West. 

There’s a reason why the Indian and Atlantic oceans meet on our shores, at the Cape Point. 

We shouldn’t fear this role placed on us by our history and geography. It’s an opportunity.

All we need is to dig deep into our imagination to unleash the creativity we require to harness our country’s location in this global flow of international migration, to our advantage. 

The gun, burning tyre around the neck, spear and machete are tools used by barbarians, not the children of Nelson Mandela.

Eddy Maloka is a Visiting Professor at the Wits School of Governance 

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