Another rise in xenophobic sentiment and violence demands a response now

The video clips are disgusting.

A security camera across the street from the bus stop captures yet another senseless hateful act of xenophobia. An 84-year-old Chinese woman who was sitting, waiting patiently for a bus is knocked to the pavement with a flying kick from a young man. In another incident, a 65-year-old Filipino woman is kicked in the stomach by a passer-by and repeatedly stomped in the head, as she lies defenceless on the pavement.

The videos are identified as recorded somewhere in the United States. There has been a reported upsurge in random unprovoked attacks on Asian-Americans. Indeed, there are many of such clips circulating on social media.

This begs the question, “Why?”

There does not seem to be any easy answers.

Social scientists would point to the increasing anger among jobless communities and a belief that somehow China’s emergence as a global economic giant has created the impression somehow that “these people” are to blame.  This is not an acceptable justification, but it might serve as an insight into the thinking of those who perpetuate such hate. Not only is this reasoning not supported by facts, the reaction to the “problem” cannot add a single job to the American economy so nothing is achieved, except for a rise in fear and conflict and with it, the greater likelihood of more unemployment.

But how could the attackers have reached their irrational conclusions? We do not know for certain, but surely the recklessness of some in the “Make America Great Again” camp, explain the violent nature of the anger?

Donald Trump’s insistence on repeatedly referring to Covid as the ‘China Virus’ and ‘Kung Flu’ was intended to deflect accountability away from his own failure to respond appropriately to the global pandemic and redirect it towards an external “threat”. This is an age-old political trick, ably defined in Anne Appelbaum’s book, “Twilight of democracy”. We are seeing the consequences of his words.

In Appelbaum’s book, she unpacks the rise of right-wing leaders in a range of countries on the back of anti-foreign rhetoric. When these leaders start to fail, the viciousness of the rhetoric rises both in tone and substance. There is only one objective: whip up anger of potential supporters, and turn an opponent into an enemy in order to secure sufficient votes to stay in power, despite the failures of the government under that leader.

In such societies there is an increased resort to caricature, even in less obvious ways. In America, not only have Republicans resorted to Sinophobia, their number one news outlet, Fox News has had the habit of referring to the former President as Barack Hussein Obama. But they never refer to the Republican Senator as Rafael Edward Cruz. Go figure.

Could it happen here?

I doubt that anyone would contest that South Africa is prone to xenophobia. The outbreak of violence in 2008 is clear evidence. The sporadic incidents throughout the years since then indicates that it lies just under the surface and has never gone away.

Like America, there are leaders that have no qualms against using rhetoric to inflame emotions. Regrettably, they achieve notoriety and success because media rewards them with attention and people reward them with votes. But their recklessness is harmful, to say the least. After all, if Mr Malema says, “cut the throat of whiteness” then it cannot be surprising that there is an increase in violent attacks.

Our politicians and their activists are quick to resort to stereotypes that directly or indirectly ridicule opponents on the basis of nationality or ethnicity. When the former Johannesburg Mayor designated one of his deputies, Cllr Michael Sun to receive a memorandum from a crowd assembled outside the Council Chambers, was it really necessary for the leader of that crowd to refer to him as “Fong Kong” because he is of Chinese descent? Certainly not. But the emotive reaction from the crowd in support was sickening and sinister.

More recently, the ANC appointed a South African citizen originally born in China as an MP. Social media was abuzz with disparaging posts. You may take a subjective view and justify satire and parody as legitimate forms of criticism. In this case you can even explain that it was a criticism of the government’s absolute dependence on a foreign communist regime. But if there is a potential for stirring racial hatred, then it is best that you criticise clearly and avoid racial stereotypes.

Make no mistake. The objective is simple. Intimidate your opponents and their supporters into silence. But in the process, if there is risk that the morons in our society will seize the reckless statements as moral permission to commit violence, then the line has been crossed.

It is an indictment on our politics that these are the tools of our trade. Indeed, when one questions such tactics you are told that politics is not for sissies and you must grow a thicker skin. But how does that save us from the risk of violence?

Justification for insults and counter-insults include two primary responses – “I was only joking” or “We have freedom of speech”.  A disparaging joke trivialises the intrinsic prejudice and mistreatment of the target and is destructive. Freedom of speech does not allow one to falsely shout “fire” in a crowded cinema. Both responses cannot justify placing people in harm’s way.  The better options are rationality, not emotion, buttressed by institutions that will fairly and effectively penalise crimen injuria. To an extent we still have those in South Africa. Let’s use those instead of fanning flames.

If ever there was a time for leaders to condemn racial inflammatory statements, surely it is now. If ever there was a time for citizens to reject leaders who capitalise on ethnic and racial tropes, surely it is now. If ever there was a time when our institutions needed to fairly and effectively penalise recklessness, it is now.