It seems that the authorities have fallen into their old habit of denialism. With rumours and reports of xenophobic tensions, and even attacks, circulating, government has done little more than issue denials, referring to "acts of criminality".
Whether the reports of xenophobic violence are true or not, they threaten to derail the progress made towards unity during the 2010 FIFA World Cup, as well as damage the positive image that South Africa produced when the eyes of the soccer world were upon it.
While largely negative reports prior to the World Cup, citing race wars, machete brigades and poisonous snakes ready to take out foreign visitors, proved unfounded, will the foreign tabloids not have a field day if these predictions (minus the snakes) come true after the event?
I can picture the headlines in the British media:
"SA holds off the hordes until after the World Cup"
"SA World Cup was a false façade"
There is a great paradox in the enthusiastic acceptance of foreigners during World Cup, and post-World Cup xenophobic sentiments.
Renowned cartoonist Zapiro's comic in The Times of July 15, 2010, depicts this irony. South Africans in Ghanaian regalia cheer with excited African patriotism for the last remaining African team in the World Cup in the one block, while in the other block, South Africans chase Muslim-attired Africans with knobkierries, machetes and axes.
How can these two images possibly be reconciled?
While there is a great difference between the foreigners that visited the country during the World Cup, and those that are looking for work in South Africa, surely the spirit of African unity during first World Cup on the continent cannot have dissipated so quickly?
The lead up to World Cup was a time of hope: jobs were available on the construction of World Cup stadiums and the country had a common goal. Post-World Cup, those jobs are no longer available, there is no longer a common purpose, South Africans are unhappy with services and limited opportunities.
The South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) said on July 13 that there has been little change in the environment that gave rise to xenophobic violence in 2008. SAIRR Spokesperson Catherine Schulze said that "poverty, unemployment, and incomes indicators have not shifted significantly since 2008," while high levels of crime and violence are an everyday reality in many poor communities.
An article from worldsocialism.org describes the cause of xenophobia as the usual problem of "the haves and have-nots, which is central to war, violence and hatred".
It is inequality, limited opportunities and resources and poverty that lie at the heart of the issue. South Africans evidently need a scapegoat to blame for their problems. To whom do they turn? Innocent immigrants who are in the same position as them; just trying to make a living.
In my understanding, xenophobia is mainly driven by jealousy: envy of migrants who get the jobs that South Africans need because they are willing to work for less and resentment of foreigners who come to South Africa to compete for already scarce resources.
A July 14 report cited three nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) - the Social Justice Coalition, Equal Education and the Treatment Action Campaign - saying that they had learned of at least 15 incidents of "xenophobic criminal activity" in Khayelitsha alone since July 11. "Most entailed looting of Somali-owned shops by roving gangs ranging from ten to 30 individuals."
Although it does not seem to be taking place to the same extent as the xenophobic violence of 2008, this is evidence that a certain group of people is being targeted, whether through criminal acts or intentionally xenophobic attacks.
However, the government has done little more than deny xenophobia.
On July 12, President Jacob Zuma told journalists in Sandton: "I'm not certain whether there have been threats of xenophobia. I know that there have been rumours that have been reported." He followed this with: "We are not necessarily failing to do our duty to ensure that it does not happen, but let us just make a distinction between a rumour and a real concrete report with a clear source of information."
Fair enough, but surely prevention is surely better than cure?
The Mbeki government's policy of denialism of HIV/Aids only led to a greater problem, as government action against the disease was delayed until it became a mop-up operation rather than a prevention process.
When asked to comment on reports of xenophobia, Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa, responsible for the safety of all in South Africa, only criticised what he calls "alarmist phobia" in another case of denialism.
The three NGOs have said that the government seems to be avoiding the use of the word "xenophobia" in the hope that the violence in the Western Cape will go away.
Denial of xenophobia does not help.
Government has said that it has contingency plans in place in case xenophobic violence does erupt, but surely it would be better to prevent it before it happens? I understand that the government does not want to cause panic, but hiding the problem is never a good solution.
Zuma has since been a bit more forthcoming about the threats. In a statement on July 15, he appealed to South Africans as well as foreign nationals, especially those from the African continent, to "unite and work together to isolate and report to the police, those elements [that] may be seeking to sow mayhem in communities."
At least he is now acknowledging that there is a problem. However, the government needs to do more to alter the mindset of South Africans in this regard.
Free State University vice-chancellor Jonathan Jansen said, in his column of July 15 on Times Live: "I am a foreigner to xenophobia, to race-hatred, to stereotyping, to the physical and emotional abuse of our neighbours, to mindless patriotism."
Jansen is talking about the need for a re-education of South Africans.
Rather than deny it, government should educate people on how to avoid it. This involves a change of attitude.
In order to re-educate its people, government should be saying:
Immigrants are not bad people. They are in the same position as you, if not worse off. They have left their country because of poor opportunities there, or because of threats to their lives and livelihoods. They have come to South Africa because they see it as a place of hope and opportunity. Why not be thankful for what we as South Africans have, which is no doubt better than most Africans, and welcome foreigners as people looking for a hand up. Why not offer them that hand up?
President Zuma was on the right track when he said: "We appeal for calm, tolerance and unity amongst all." But more needs to be done if we are to get to the root causes of xenophobia. A greater drive for job creation may be a good start.