08 May 2015

Dog-whistle politics makes a serious problem even worse

Written by  Adekeye Adebajo

No. 333: Dog-whistle politics makes a serious problem even worse / Adekeye Adebajo / Business Day
8 May 2015

The recent xenophobic attacks in SA can be explained by the phenomenon of "dog-whistle politics". This is political messaging that uses coded language to appeal to certain groups while sounding innocuous. A dog whistle is heard only by dogs, not humans. Perhaps the most famous example was English King Henry II's question: "Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?" The king's men took this as a signal to murder the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, in 1170.

In the contemporary South African case, another monarch, King Goodwill Zwelithini's reported depiction of foreign migrants as "lice", and his call for them to "pack their belongings and go back to their countries", in effect served as a coded signal for his subjects to hunt down foreigners.

I had an awful sense of déjà vu amid flashbacks to the equally brutal xenophobic attacks in 2008. The same crocodile tears were now flowing down many cheeks, while the same base wordplay, denialism and pseudo-scientific analyses flowed from the mouths of politicians and the pens of pundits. The question my jurist mother asked during the 2008 attacks remained unanswered: "Have South Africans not got any leaders who can talk to them?"

The most frightening aspect of the recent xenophobic attacks is that they are a continuation of the savage murders of foreign migrants that started long before 2008 and have never actually stopped. In the past seven years about 350 foreigners have been murdered. There were xenophobic attacks in Cape Town and the Free State in 2012.

In 2013, policemen on the East Rand tied a Mozambican taxi driver to the back of a police van for an alleged traffic offence, and dragged him down the street, leading to his death. Scores of Somali shopkeepers continue to be killed in Cape Town. A reported 73 Nigerians were murdered by police or locals last year. Last month, a mob of arsonists in Durban locked Ethiopian Tescsma Marcus in his shop and burned him alive.

This xenophobia has been fuelled by the dog-whistle politics of politicians, many of whom, in their disoriented denialism, have sought to pretend that attacks on foreigners are merely criminal acts. This has not just added insult to injury, but mocked the intelligence of a global audience that has seen ordinary people attacking their neighbours and looting their shops in scenes echoing murderous pogroms.

President Jacob Zuma has not covered himself in glory in handling this crisis. He has sometimes seemed more concerned with protecting "brand SA" for foreign investors than protecting foreigners from rampaging mobs. His call for journalists to be "patriotic" in their reporting on the murder of a Mozambican migrant, Emmanuel Sithole, because "this makes us look bad", was shocking. His visit to the migrant shelter in Durban, in which he waved a large R50,000 cheque — in effect "blood money" — was met with the derision it deserved. His comments that African governments should be responsible for keeping their own citizens at home was callous and ahistorical, considering the refuge that South Africans such as Zuma were offered in Zambia, Mozambique, Lesotho and Tanzania during the liberation struggle.

Countless politicians have engaged in dog-whistle politics. Water and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane complained that "almost every second outlet or even former general dealer shops are run by people of Somali or Pakistani origin". When she was deputy trade and industry minister, Deputy Small Business Development Minister Elizabeth Thabethe similarly noted: "You may still find spaza shops with African names, but when you go in to buy you find your Mohammeds and most of them are not even registered." Small Business Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu warned that foreigners were living in SA as a "courtesy" and needed to share their business practices with South Africans.

Tough-talking Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba termed the recent violence as criminality rather than xenophobia, before calling for a battle against the very xenophobia he had just denied.

The government's response to the xenophobic violence has been harsh and insensitive, and it is likely to make a serious problem worse. There has not been any real effort to understand the root causes of this problem and much of the reaction has been knee-jerk. Soldiers have been deployed to SA's borders to stem a swart gevaar (black peril) of scavenging amakwerekwere (foreigners); heavy-handed police and army raids continue against "illegals"; there has been a crackdown on "illegal trading"; and South Africans have been urged to report foreigners committing crimes to the police. As in 2008, securocrats are talking of an invisible "third force" to explain these attacks, irresponsibly seeking to deflect attention and avoid responsibility.

The speaker of Parliament, Baleka Mbete, argued that the violence was "part of an evil programme to discredit SA in the international community".

State Security Minister David Mahlobo's fertile imagination saw the xenophobia and recent defacement of public statues as having been co-ordinated. In another leap of logic, analyst Kuseni Dlamini portrayed the xenophobic attacks as part of global challenges such as African migrants drowning at sea, and drew bizarre parallels between this violence and the expulsion of 700,000 foreign migrants by a Nigerian military regime 30 years ago.

Dog-whistle politics has also been evident in the hostility South African academics have visited on their African colleagues in the country's universities. Two academics from the University of Cape Town, Xolela Mangcu and Sakhela Buhlungu, recently criticised the inclusion of Africans from the continent in statistics on black academics. (Others have less subtly called for curbs on the number of such academics.) Both academics, however, failed to mention the vastly greater number of European and North American citizens at their university, who are also not separated from statistics on white academics.

Not only do these approaches miss the need to transform South African universities into pan-African institutions, but surely the large number of African students at South African universities also need continental role models.

As another traumatised group of Africans leaves SA to embark on yet another season of migration to the north, the popular hashtag "Say No to Xenophobia" has proved about as effective as the bumper sticker "Make Love, Not War" has been in halting the atrocities of truculent warlords. Protests against SA have been seen in Mozambique, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Nigeria, amid calls for a boycott of the ubiquitous South African businesses across the continent.

If this situation is not carefully managed, SA will surely reap the whirlwind of the grim harvest of xenophobic violence that its dangerous dog-whistle politics has unleashed.

Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution.

This article was also published in The Guardian (Nigeria) on 25 May 2015 under the headline "Dangers of Dog-Whistle Politics".

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