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Xenophobia — the gatvol factor

19 May 2008

Xenophobia has been around for a long time in South Africa, but only when it hit Joburg did the media begin to sit up and take notice (see, on my other blog, Notes from underground: Time to rename Gauteng?). Then the moralising began, and the op-ed articles began to appear, and condemnations of those media who dared to report the views of the xenophobes.

Perhaps one of the best comments on the situation Is in Justice Malala’s column, A simple recipe for xenophobia.

What caused the terrible scenes unfolding in our country today: children beaten and displaced, women raped and men left with pieces of flesh hanging from their faces, homeless and hungry and desperate?

What led to a situation where young men were unashamed to stand in front of television cameras and say they will kill foreigners?

And that is not an isolated viewpoint. There are many who feel like that, and they are not afraid to say so, not just in front of TV cameras when the cameras are pointed at them, but they are taking the initiative and phoning in to radio talk shows to air their views. It’s the gatvol factor.[1]

Contrary to the beliefs of Joburg-based journalists, the violence against foreigners did not start in Alexandra last week. It started in Mamelodi a few weeks before, then flared up in Atteridgeville.

The fact that it appears in one place one day, and then in another place on another day, makes one suspect that there is a an organised group of people going around fanning the flames of xenophobia. Perhaps this sounds a bit too much like apartheid-era paranoia, where any discontent with government policies was attributed to “outside agitators”, but the trail of violence does suggest that — Mamelodi, Atteridgeville, Alexandra, Diepsloot. Someone has to actually start it, and it could be the same person, or the same fairly small group of people. But it’s not enough to go from place to place with a box of matches, there has to be fuel for the fire. And the fuel for the fire is the gatvol factor, the widespread dissatisfaction among ordinary prople, which led to Thbo Mbeki’s failure to be reelected as ANC president last December. That, coupled with sharp rises of fuel and food costs could lead to foreigners being made the scapegoat.

Was it just three weeks ago that I wrote about the need to replace xenophobia with xenophilia (Notes from underground: Xenophilia versus xenophobia)? Yet the kind deeds I commented on there could be the very thing that is promoting xenophobia. Wouldn’t it be ironic if the xenophilia of some promotes the xenophobia of others?

Of course South Africa is not alone in experiencing this kind of xenophobia. In Britain it has led to more people voting for the British National Party (BNP), a right-wing neo-Nazi organisation. In America it is one of the issues in this year’s general election, with websites listing the candidates’ attitudes towards illegal immigrants. In Russia it leads to prejudice and sometimes violence against Caucasians and other minority groups. In Greece Albanians are often blamed for the rising crime rate and the increase in violent crime, and in the 1990s neighbouring Albania was a similar basket case to our neighbour Zimbabwe.

But saying that it happens in other places does not solve the problem here, and should not make us so complacent that we don’t do anything about it.

Another feature of the debate is why we call it xenophobia. Some have suggested that it is simply racism. Perhaps that is so, but as some have pointed out, there haven’t been such attachs on Chinese or European foreigners, only on ones from other countries in Africa. That might be so, but it could be a matter of proximity. Let a Chinese or a Pole start operating a spaza shop in an informal settlement and see if it isn’t burnt down like the homes and shops of the rest of the foreigners. The kind of people who feel most threatened by foreigners usually live a long way from Cyrildene, where many Chinese people live.

But race or ethnicity could have something to do with it. How do you distinguish Tswana-speakers from Botswana and the North-West Province? How do you distinguish Tsonga-speakers from Limpopo province and Mocambique? Those who are attacked are usually from father afield, where they speak a different language, or at least (like Ndebele speakers from Zimbabwe) speak with a funny accent. But this kind of thing, if it is allowed to grow and spread, could become simply racism rather than xenophobia, where language and culture and skin colour determine where people can live and work. What if people start saying that people from Limpopo are not welcome in the Eastern Cape, or people from KwaZulu-Natal aren’t welcome in North-West Province, or people from the Northern Cape are not welcome in Mpumalanga? within a short time we could be having “homelands” again.

Dealing with xenophobia is part of the moral regeneration that our society needs, and we need to begin with ourselves. I like to think of myself as a fairly unprejudiced persion, yet when I met a Nigerian a few years ago my first thought was “drug dealer” and my second was “advanced fee scam”, and my third thought was feeling rather shocked at how prejudiced I was.

One of the Christian virtues is hospitality to strangers, and it is one that we all ought to cultivate.


  1. Gatvol – which being interpreted for the benefit of  makwerekwere [2], is Afrikaans, meaning  literally “hole full”, or more idiomatically, “Fed up”, or “had enough”, or “had it up to here”.
  2. Makwerekwere – which, being interpreted for the benefit of foreigners, means foreigners.
4 Comments leave one →
  1. 19 May 2008 6:42 pm

    And which language does makwerekwere come from?

  2. 19 May 2008 7:53 pm


    Sorry, I don’t know the origin. It’s a piece of interlinguistic slang, as far as I am aware.

    It has connotations similar to the US “wetbacks” or the southern English “wogs” (for the northern English, wogs begin south of the Trent, for the southern English, wogs begin at Calais).


  1. Wordcatcher Tales: gatvol, makwerekwere, utari « Far Outliers
  2. More on Amahoro « Khanya

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