The xenophobic violence we witnessed recently across Gauteng tells us a great deal about ourselves.
Of course, in human rights terms the violence and looting targeting non-South African shop owners is fundamentally unacceptable. Beyond this, it is worth reflecting on the possible meanings of and the type of thinking that informs this outbreak of violence and aggression.
Firstly, our communities seem to be in two minds about ‘acceptance and rejection’ of the traders that hail from other countries. At one level, the community gives many indications of acceptance, ranging from opening accounts with traders, to renting shop space to opting to primarily use these immigrant-run shops. Then, out of the blue during January and February 2015, scores of community members go on the rampage against these shops, looting and vandalising.
Secondly, many among us seem confused about formality and informality. On the one hand, many of us rely on and support informality as a way of making a living. In our minds, not all informal activity is illegal. In line with the World Bank and United Nations, we acknowledge the livelihood opportunities that spring from the informal sector. But then, when it suits us, we lambast foreign-owned spaza shop-owners for not being registered – offering this as our justification for plundering these stores.
Thirdly, we seem to be undecided about whether we love or hate the prices and services we get from immigrant traders. We toyi toyi and demand that immigrants who run the small township shops “get out” - implying that life would be better with the old South African owned spaza shops back. Some of us argue that it is unfair that such shops sell goods at lower prices. But after the violence subsides, we line the streets and tell members of the media a different story. We want the “friends” to return. We yearn for their cheaper goods, their longer opening hours and the fact they seem to stock many of the small things we need at short notice.
Fourthly, we seem to be schizophrenic in our attitudes to townships. We rejected them as dormitory townships in which we were forced to stay. We took up Oliver Tambo’s call that we move out of these camps and start putting our stamp on other areas even as we continue community-building in the locations. But, with the attacks on foreign spaza owners, we appear to be asserting a jealous love of these townships. One clearly got the sense from many Gauteng community members that they draw the line with "coming to compete in our own backyard".
This looting and violence targeting immigrant-owned shops raises questions about how we understand ourselves and who we are. It raises questions about our own identity and issues of belonging – and points to confusion about how we want to respond to refugees that have found a safe haven in South Africa. Are we decent people (with values about society-building) or bullies who use thuggish behaviour to get our way… or a mixture of both? Do we prefer speech and articulation (of things we feel) or do we favour acting out in the form of aggressive and intimidating conduct? Are we ambiguous about human rights -- do we emphasize rights when we have to claim them for ourselves but forget about the responsibility we have to live out these rights in our relationships with other humans we come across in our daily lives.
We seem to be unsure about ourselves – as indicated by our inconsistent responses.
In addition, although South Africans view ourselves as proactive citizens able to engage to advance our own interests, we are not – it seems – empowered and organised enough to speak to the spaza shop owners or their association about issues that perturb us. Rather, we allow anger to simmer for long periods and then surprise them by breaking into their shops and helping ourselves to their stock. Do we not have confidence in our ability to raise issues, assert our needs and then craft lasting solutions with other stakeholders?
The violent attacks also tell us something about the patterns of power and disempowerment. Power is often analysed vertically – focusing on how power relations should be analysed between those who are dominant and those who are forced into the role of the oppressed or exploited. But the xenophobic attacks remind us that power should also be analysed in terms of how it plays out horizontally.
In this regard, the xenophobic violence is an expression of conflict between poor versus poor. In our communities, weighed down by frustration and intractable economic problems, (in this case) we lash out at the nearer target of people we consider the “other” but who can in no way be described as wealthy and powerful. These targets are easier to reach, It is much more difficult, and would take greater planning and organisation, to confront the captains of industry and those who continue to ensure the production and retail systems remain in the hands of a racially defined few.
Ngugi Wa Thiong'o wrote the book Decolonising the Minds, a book that has wide application in post-colonial Africa. If indeed we ‘decolonised our minds’, would responses in our communities to developments around spaza shops be different? If indeed we were able, through organisation, to make more meaningful interventions to change the economic system, would we find other entry points for change?
Where are we headed, what are our objectives (what do we really want?) – these are the questions that come to haunt us in the wake of the unlawful and violent actions against non-South African shop owners trading in townships.Frank Meintjies