The danger of mixed messages on xenophobia

2016-04-17 15:00

On Tuesday, the KwaZulu-Natal provincial government released a long-awaited report on the causes and consequences of last year’s xenophobic violence in the province.

The report covers the misconceptions that have nurtured tensions between locals and foreigners, as well as the socioeconomic conditions that have been allowed to fester between South Africans and foreign nationals living in the country. There is, however, a major problem with the report.

The probe, led by Judge Navi Pillay, found no evidence of the role played by Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini for his allegedly inflammatory remarks against foreigners during the attacks. The king is reported to have said at a rally in Pongola, northern KwaZulu-Natal, in late March 2015 that foreigners were changing the nature of South African society.

Zwelithini was quoted as saying: “We request that all foreigners should take their baggage and be sent back.”

During the press conference for the release of the report, Pillay said: “No one came forward saying that they heard the king’s comments and went forward to attack foreigners.”

This is a strange argument. Why would anyone admit that they attacked foreigners, and give up their king as their motive for the attacks? It is understandable that the Zulu monarch may have been quoted out of context, but this was not the argument made in the report. There were, after all, 31 complaints made to the SA Human Rights Commission about his comments.

The commission says it travelled to Pongola to investigate whether the king’s utterances had any lingering effects there. In a meeting with foreigners and locals, they were told that social cohesion in the area had not been affected by his comments. This is inconsequential. Many victims of last year’s violence said they were told by their attackers that the king had ordered foreigners to leave. Surely there are more ways to investigate the effects of a speech than by asking people to own up to them?

The report then acknowledges the xenophobia imbizo, held in April 2015, where King Zwelithini is said to have condemned the violence. But it offers no evidence to prove that the mass meeting had any positive influence on social cohesion. Where is the proof that the imbizo stopped any violence? This does not negate the fact that the imbizo was important; so were the king’s reported xenophobic comments.

Socioeconomic competition, together with biases among the communities, have left foreign nationals feeling insecure about their place in South Africa. At the same time, having been fed lies about foreigners not paying taxes, operating illegitimate businesses and living a better life at their expense, South Africans are anxious in a tough economy. The sense of abandonment by an uncaring governing authority is palpable.

But there is more to it. According to the report, the way the press covered the early days of the crisis only made it worse. And fabricated messages spread over social media also contributed to the panic.

But there were triggers for the violence. It may have started off as a labour dispute; it may have been unresolved tensions from 2008; it may have been the king’s comments fanning the flames. Or not. What is certain is that all these factors contributed to the violence in Durban and surrounding areas last year.

Ndabezinhle Sibiya, spokesperson for Premier Senzo Mchunu, told Al Jazeera that the report exonerated the king for his role in the violence. But this is not true. The report merely said it did not find evidence. The SA Human Rights Commission is yet to release its final report, but a preliminary one leaked to the media in December found that while the king’s remarks did not incite violence, they could have been construed to be hurtful. The commission also found that his remarks had violated the dignity of foreigners in South Africa.

The commission’s findings should have been released in February, but were deferred to the end of April because of the “complexities involved in this matter”. It bears noting that the king did not communicate directly with the commission during its probe, and refused to meet Pillay and her team to clarify his comments.

There is no simple explanation for 2015’s events. But to be sure that hateful words were not the reason is baffling. The report condemns inflammatory speech, urging leaders to refrain. Yet it is at pains to clarify that “no evidence” existed between spoken word and action. The ambiguity is unhelpful. Either inflammatory speech is problematic, or not. Again, we see mixed messages. Again, a person in authority escapes accountability. And as the report says, we can expect it all to happen, again.

Essa works for Al-Jazeera

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May 19 2019