By Linda Bordoni
Following a wave of xenophobic violence, South African police have arrested dozens of people and confirmed several deaths after riots in Johannesburg and the capital Pretoria in recent days, when roving groups attacked shops mainly owned by migrants from the rest of Africa.
Church leaders in the country have strongly condemned xenophobic attitudes and called on political leaders to stop inciting hatred against migrants and refugees.
Jesuit Father Russell Pollitt, Director of the Jesuit Institute South Africa, told Linda Bordoni that the upsurge of xenophobic violence is rooted in sentiments of frustration and anger for lack of service delivery, economic empowerment and security of poor South Africans.
But, he pointed out, xenophobic rhetoric is also very much to blame as it leads to xenophobic behaviour and said that politicians must be held accountable for their words:
Pollitt describes the wave of xenophobia sweeping Johannesburg and beyond as stemming from a complex socio-political reality. He notes that a number of political leaders have in the last couple of months made inflammatory statements such as that foreigners “have infested the city”, that there need to be better border controls, that there needs to be a limit on the number of foreigners who can come into the city and so forth.
In some ways, he said, “I think that this language has enflamed local people” adding to “a cocktail of poverty, an economy that is slowly grinding to a halt, corruption, the lack of resources” leading to a very situation.
“So, I think that the wording of these political leaders is not the only factor, but certainly a contributing factor to the problems that we are facing in South Africa,” he said.
Politicians need to apologise and to take responsibility
Pollitt goes on to point out that for them “to stand up now and condemn the violence is just ingenuous, because they have used words that have led to this. They should be standing up and apologising to South Africans and to foreign nationals for what they have said”.
And they must go further, he said, they must also take responsibility and publically say that they have used the wrong language and should not be blaming evil on migrants and refugees.
“This country, without migrants and refugees, had economic and social problems of its own that were there long before there were migrants and refugees,” he said.
The anger of the continent
Today we are seeing Africans from across the continent – both diplomats and celebrities - expressing their condemnation of what is happening in South Africa by refusing to travel to the country or to engage in sports with the South African team, much like when embargos were set against the nation during the apartheid regime.
Pollitt said that the 2019 World Economic Forum on Africa kicked off on Wednesday with a number of leaders including from Zambia, Malawi, DRC and Rwanda announcing that they will not be coming in protest. He said the Nigerian Minister of Foreign Affairs has spoken very harshly because a lot of the violence has been targeting Nigerians.
The voice of the Catholic Church
Yet again, the Catholic Church in South Africa is raising its voice to speak out against injustice and discrimination. Both Cardinal Napier and the Archbishop of Johannesburg have condemned the violence as has the Anglican Primate of Southern Africa.
I asked Pollitt whether the government is listening.
“I’m not sure the government is listening to anybody at the moment,” he said. And that’s partly, he explained, because the country has a very weak leadership at the moment “with the governing party so embroiled in its own internal political battles that they are not paying much attention to what’s going on around them”.
He said the government has promised to put more police on the streets and vowed there is going to be a crackdown on perpetrators of violence, but those promises, he said, are only makeovers.
What is really needed, Pollitt said, is to deal with serious political issues that are pulling the country down: “until the ruling party and the President can get themselves out ‘fight-mode’ between them, and the President can make some very strong decisions to get rid of people in government who shouldn’t be there and effectively lead, I don’t think the government is going to be very effectual in dealing with this problem at all”.
I pointed out that the statement released by the Jesuit Institute South Africa embraces Pope Francis’ stance on migration.
“The Holy Father”, Pollitt said, “has spoken out many times about questions of migration”. Amongst other things he says very clearly that he believes that “political addresses that tend to blame every evil on migrants and to deprive the poor of hope are unacceptable.”
The Pope’s words, he concluded, the Pope’s words are so prophetic in South Africa, where those with political responsibility are trying to cover up their own weaknesses by scapegoating migrants, refugees and the poor.