Like an unexpected thunderstorm, the ‘xenophobic’ attacks swept across our country with unprecedented horror and unabated anger. The warning signs were very much in place before the full onslaught happened. But somehow we were completely unprepared as a nation for the unleashing of such violence towards some of the most vulnerable people in our midst. The image of a pleading, burning Mozambican met by laughing onlookers is etched in our memories. Is this what we have come to?
Xenophobic attacks were not unknown in South Africa, but their manifestation in this instance was distinctive in several respects.
Firstly, the attacks were on black foreign nationals. There is no record as far as I understand of any whites or Indians being caught up in the attacks. It does seem as if these categories fall into another classification, i.e. tourist, visitor, investor or something far more elevated.
Secondly, although many nasty things might well have been said to the wealthier of those foreign nationals amongst us, by and large it was the poorer and more vulnerable foreign nationals that were exposed to the most vicious onslaught. As we know, some of those who were most seriously affected had been in the country for more than 35 years and the attacks destabilised their entire livelihood and family.
Thirdly, at least a third of the people killed were South African and so the violence was visited on the particularly marginalised of our society, taking on ethnic and xenophobic connotations. There were 62 people killed in the attacks; tens of thousands of people were displaced and fled for their lives to police stations and other places of safety.
Clearly, these attacks have exposed a raw nerve in society. One can see from the deluge of donations and gifts and compassion that this issue deeply affected the nation. It somehow exposed the fact that after 14 years of democracy all is far from well in the psyche of the people. It seems as if the nation is suspicious and fearful and vexed with profound disparities between the haves and the have-nots. Whether that disparity is felt more keenly in discrimination with regard to service delivery or whether it is an indication that we have not transformed as a nation in our political mindset is a moot point.