Nothing new, only worse

A policeman walks past a burning shack after xenophobia attacks in a Johannesburg squatter camp in May this year

A policeman walks past a burning shack after xenophobia attacks in a Johannesburg squatter camp in May this year

Two years ahead of the Football World Cup in South Africa, a wave of xenophobic violence is sweeping the country. Xenophobia has been part of South African life for a long time, however, as politicians and the media have been stirring this climate for years.  (Gepos Bon Carolyne Ahiambo Ngara vlugtelinge in Suid-Afrika – Blog).

Xenophobic attacks are nothing new in South Africa. Offences rooted in this hostile attitude have been reported almost every month since the end of Apartheid. Nevertheless, riots escalated to a previously unknown scale in May. Nationwide, more than 60 African migrants were killed, and some 37,000 were displaced. Poverty and rising food prices may have contributed to the intensity of violence, but they are not enough to explain the xenophobia among South Africans. Nor do they explain why it is African foreigners who are bearing the brunt.

The results of the World Values Study of 1995 and studies done by the Southern African Migration Project from 1997 to 2006 show that xenophobia is widespread in South African society. Moreover, a close look at the data reveals that the relatively affluent white South Africans differ only slightly in their attitudes from the black majority.

Since 1994, both the media and politicians have been fuelling feelings of rivalry among the local people, along with a sense of being swamped by foreigners. According to estimates, a large number of the African migrants living in the country came to South Africa without valid documents. However, there is no reliable data on exactly how many such migrants there are. Nonetheless, officials and academics seem happy to quote statistics. For example, one study in 1994 concluded that there were about nine million foreigners in the country, the equivalent of 20 % of the total population. Half of them were said to not have valid papers.

Academically accurate research, however, puts the number of foreigners at closer to six to 12 %. Nor is there any empirical support for the claim that about 3 million Zimbabweans have fled to South Africa. That would amount to one quarter of Zimbabwe’s total population.

Nonetheless, South African media are quick to pick up unreliable figures and turn them into sensationalist headlines. Again and again, there have been reports on the increase in undocumented immigration, often with inflammatory language such as “invasion”, “hordes”, “waves” and “floods”. On average, South Africans who were questioned on the issue in 2001 estimated the share of foreigners to be about 27 %.

Since the end of Apartheid, politicians have continuously put the blame for any evil in the country on African migrants, thus exploiting – and promoting – xenophobic sentiments. In 1994, for example, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, then home minister, stated that all Nigerians were criminals and drug dealers. Three years later, he said that unemployment, then at 34 % in South Africa, would not be an issue were it not for the illegal migrants.

South Africans have developed a new sense of nationalism, and this nationalism may be contributing to a climate of xenophobia. Studies show that South Africans are extremely proud of their nation. Research on prejudice, however, has shown that a high level of nationalism often goes along with little tolerance of foreigners.

The South African government must rise to these challenges. Xenophobia is not only an important political issue. It also has economic relevance. There is no doubt that South Africa depends on skilled labour from other African countries.

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Writer Exhorts Arabs, Muslims To Meet Obama Halfway For Change, Peace, Democracy

Residents watch a television broadcasting the speech of U.S. President Barack Obama from Cairo while sitting in a cafe in Kerbala, 80 km (50 miles) southwest of Baghdad ,June 4, 2009.

Residents watch a television broadcasting the speech of U.S. President Barack Obama from Cairo while sitting in a cafe in Kerbala, 80 km (50 miles) southwest of Baghdad ,June 4, 2009.

If the basic goal of Obama`s speech in Cairo tomorrow is to improve the relationship with the Muslim world, the question that is more useful to ask is: What are the signs for improving this relationship in the Muslim world itself? It has become the norm in our countries to blame external forces for corrupting our internal conditions and for causing the tension in relations among the different sides in the Arab and Muslim world. The notion of “clash of civilizations” was tantamount to a gift by the West to perpetuate this mental image among the Arabs and Muslims. It turned into a firm argument after the 11 September 2001 attacks when the neo-conservatives became enamored with taking their revenge from all the Muslims and punishing them for what a very few of them did. George W. Bush unleashed his “crusader wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq and the neo-conservatives vied with one another in supporting Israel until Israel for a moment began to think that it owns the Middle East and everyone in it. It waged two bloody wars in less than two years (in Lebanon and Gaza) and Bush gave it “a promise of guarantees” that clearly undermined the essence of Palestinian and Arab rights.

However, what is said above does not in any way negate the responsibility of the Arabs and Muslims themselves for the tragedies and ordeals that have befallen them or for their relationship with the West. This is clearly obvious when Obama`s desire for change is compared with the desire of the Arabs and Muslims for change as well as in their ability to bring about change. This point can be tested in three major issues. The first is the issue of democracy in the Arab world. The United States has played an important role in propping up certain tyrannical regimes in the Arab and Muslim world over the past six decades. This was openly admitted by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in her famous speech at the American University of Cairo four years ago. Nevertheless, the responsibility of the Arab elites – both ruling elites and ruled elites – is also essential in this. These elites were confused by the Bush Administration`s call for change (note Obama`s use of the same term) in the Arab world. On the pages of this newspaper, the Arabs differed on the usefulness of US support for democracy in their countries and the Arab elite became divided on the notion of “by my hands and not by the hands of anyone else”. However, there was a vast distance between the ambitions for change by this elite and its ability to make it. When the empathy of “the hands of anyone else” toward the rise of Islamists in several Arab countries regressed, the Arab “hand” remained in fettered and unable to make this change.

Many are now appealing to President Obama not to forget to talk about democracy in his anticipated speech. However, the Arab regimes seem to be more crafty and cunning. In the past few months and after the departure of the Bush Administration, they enacted several noticeable political changes. Some released their opponents from the jails while others pardoned them. Some regimes proposed sudden institutional amendments while others preferred to amend some charters and constitutions in order to remain in power for ever. It seemed that the implicit message that these regimes wished to convey to the outside world is “we will make no change under duress”. Obama was well aware of this point. In his inaugural address, he avoided talking directly about support for democracy and referred this responsibility to the peoples concerned.

The second issue is the responsibility of the Arabs and Muslims for their conflicts stretching from Somalia to Pakistan. These are basically struggles for power although they may be packaged in slogans of religion, identity, and tribe. What is taking place in Somalia at present is similar to what happened in Afghanistan in the late 1980s after the departure of the Soviet troops. It can be summarized in one phrase “a war of everyone against everyone else”. Everyone in Somalia carries arms. Even Sufism – that we have known to be a moderate spiritual Islamic movement – has entered the armed fray in a confrontation with the “Al-Shabab” movement that is trying hard to establish the “Emirate of Somalistan” in the heart of the Arab world. What is happening in Yemen is incomprehensible. The country is sitting on a hot tin roof not only because of the struggle between the state and the jihadists and insurgents but also because of the re-emergence of the “virus” of national and geographic division after many thought that this virus has left the Yemeni body. Although the Americans have a clear role in it, the roots of what is happening in Pakistan are undermining the Pakistani society and the state`s institutional structure. What is most worth noting in the current confrontation between the Pakistani army and the Pakistani Taliban movement is that it causes more damage to the Muslim world than the damage caused by the neo-conservatives. This is not only because it is taking place between Muslims and the price is being paid by Muslim victims but also because it is sowing the seeds of future conflict that may erupt among the tribes and federal regions in Pakistan that may put an end to the state.

As for the third issue, it is related to the matrix of Arab-Arab relations on one hand and that of Arab-regional relations on the other. Although the US factor – that has played an influential role in this matrix over the past eight years – has changed, the stands of the other sides involved in it have not changed at all. In light of the above, Obama`s chances to make a quality change in the relationship with the Muslim world are governed and dependent on two points. The first point is Arab and Muslim readiness to shoulder part of the responsibility of mending this relationship. This is particularly true regarding a review of the terms of the ideological and religious discourse and lexicon toward the West in general. The second point is readiness to admit our own responsibility for many of our problems and structural differences distant from the American “scapegoat”. With his courageous admission of the mistakes made by his predecessors in managing the relationship with the Muslim world and in his efforts to correct these mistakes, Obama is essentially throwing the ball to the Muslim “court”. He is thus invalidating one of the strong excuses we have used to justify our domestic problems and calamities.

It is true that despite its attractiveness, the change that Obama is proposing aims at safeguarding American interests first. Nonetheless, the way in which Obama is calling for this change leaves the Arabs and Muslims with a freedom of movement and room for maneuvering that have perhaps not been available since the fall of the former Soviet Union. I believe that Obama will not wait long to test the Arab and Muslim reaction to the desire to improve relations with his country. He may end the period of review and testing if he concludes that it is not feasible to mend this relationship. In such a scenario, only interests – without values and principles – will be the basic guide of the US options toward the Arabs and Muslims. And Obama is brilliant at this. Obama may be forced to return to the strategy of “cost and dividend” regarding the issues of the Middle East. Obama, for instance, will not wait long regarding the dialogue with Iran. He will not accept anything less than are view by Iran of its slogans and options not only toward his country but also toward his country`s moderate allies. Obama will not venture angering Israel unless the Palestinians agree on the usefulness of the option of a peaceful settlement. Obama will not sacrifice his allies in Lebanon unless Syria promises to adjust its relations with Iran, Hizballah, and HAMAS. Thus, there will be no change without a price.

Sheik Muktar Robow Abu Mansur, former spokesman for the al Shabaab hardliners, addresses journalists in the Somalia capital Mogadishu, May 21, 2009. Somalia`s government has accused Eritrea of supporting al Shabaab insurgents with planeloads of AK-47 assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons. Sheik Abu Mansur resigned from his position as spokesperson of the al Shabaab insurgents.

Sheik Muktar Robow Abu Mansur, former spokesman for the al Shabaab hardliners, addresses journalists in the Somalia capital Mogadishu, May 21, 2009. Somalia`s government has accused Eritrea of supporting al Shabaab insurgents with planeloads of AK-47 assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons. Sheik Abu Mansur resigned from his position as spokesperson of the al Shabaab insurgents.

Gepos Bon Carolyne Ahiambo Ngara vlugtelinge in Suid-Afrika