Xenophobia in Thembalethu township: INTERVIEW

by Aug 11, 2022Amandla

My name is Siphiwo Mathys. I am a community activist in Thembalethu township in George and I am a member of the Active United Front. 

Siphiwo Mathys: In my community, we have been residing with people from other tribes, other nations for years. They have been working in South Africa starting from years back, those that were working on the mines. It is not like they are staying in camps. They are staying in our houses. Some are our brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law, some are our business partners, some our tenants. We don’t fear them. We don’t hate them.

My only issue is access to resources. The panicking of people from the food chain makes them to start fearing or makes them to start asking questions when it comes to competition. But you look currently in Thembalethu. We don’t have any fights about xenophobia. There are no fights, no people killing each other. But if you look at the situation, it’s bound to happen in future, I don’t want to lie to you.

Amandla!: So, what are people saying about drugs and “foreigners”?

People are starting to panic, because of the outcomes of the drugs, more especially the Tik. Because you see, now the boys have started killing each other, started robbing people, and breaking into houses. And now you can see some of them are getting mad. And all this is the outcome of using drugs.

SM: If you look in Thembalethu where I reside, including some other townships, the business of selling drugs is like buying sweets. You see the guys hustling drugs on the streets, in front of everyone. And at taxi ranks, at the barber shops, at the saloons. And those boys are going in and out buying them. And it’s happening in front of everyone.  And the police will go in their police vans into those places, spend 20 to 30 minutes and go, without any arrest or those guys been harassed. So, it looks like there is no protection from the security forces. It looks as if they are in cahoots.

And you see those guys, Nigerians and all these other guys, selling drugs. I’m not saying you don’t have South Africans that are also selling drugs. I’m just now giving you a vision that is working on people’s minds. If the system that we have doesn’t work well, people will go for the culprit. I’m not saying it’s right. People are supposed to challenge this system to say that it is corrupt. But normally what people will do when they see that the system can’t assist them, they take the law into their hands. People are starting to panic, because of the outcomes of the drugs, more especially the Tik. Because you see, now the boys have started killing each other, started robbing people, and breaking into houses. And now you can see some of them are getting mad. And all this is the outcome of using drugs.

Now, the nearest enemy that people can see is the ones that are selling drugs, who are identified as being foreign. Hence, I’m fearing that there might be an outburst against these people that are selling drugs. My fear, when you have such an outbreak, it will hit innocent people who are seen as coming from the same place as the drug peddlers.

A!: What should be the strategy to deal with this crisis?
SM: I think firstly we need to educate the community about xenophobia and move away from the propaganda that is being spread, that our people hate foreigners. And after we’ve done that, we need to focus on the system, meaning the current government system or the capitalist system that we are living under, and then try to see how to remedy the situation. We do have the immigration department that is based in Mossel Bay, the Border Patrol. They used to come down to George and have their operations to see who’s legal and who’s not. But those operations are no longer happening. Hence, you need to make sure that you challenge the system to say how you deal with this issue.
Then you go also to the issue of unemployment because now, the numbers of unemployed are increasing. And people are competing now for these jobs. And, regardless of being a legal immigrant or being South African citizens, all of us are in one line, competing for the same job. Hence, it’s very easy for a South African to say, “Okay, if you were not here I might have got this job. But now since you are here, you are having the job before me.” And it creates that panic amongst people.

Now we need to understand and say no, it’s the system that is creating high competition. If you look in Thembalethu, during 1995 to 2000, there was a huge panic about people coming from Eastern Cape, from KZN and Mpumalanga. The guys that are speaking Shangaan and Venda, they were taken as foreigners back then. But during the years people got schooled that no, these are South Africans. It’s just a matter of coming from another province. And they don’t need any documentation for moving from province to province.

A!: But there’s also competition within the working class generally. You want to get the job not the other person, regardless of nationality?

SM: True. Hence, I’m saying that during the 90s there was that competition between people coming from other provinces. But people were schooled to understand that these are South Africans coming from another province, and they have the right to move and compete everywhere they want to compete. And it took years, but people understood that, okay, this is a South African. Now you’ve got this situation of illegal immigrants. You have immigrants that went through the system and have a permit to work in South Africa. But you’ve also got people that are flocking in illegally.

But how can you see an illegal immigrant from a legal immigrant by just looking with the naked eye? The answer is you can’t. It’s our department that is supposed to do that. Is the department doing that? No, it’s not. How can we make sure that the department does that?

A!: If Operation Dudula comes into Thembalethu and campaigns for the expulsion of illegal immigrants, does the Active
United Front compete with them and campaign against illegal immigrants? Or do you campaign for basic and essential services which are not being provided, and for decent work which has not been provided? And try and disorganise the ANC government on that basis.

SM: I’ve learned throughout life that if someone comes up with some other ideology or topic or campaign that might disturb what you are doing, or that might have bad results for your community, the first thing that you do, you call them to the table, engage them, understand exactly what is their vision, mission and objective. Most people are following what Operation Dudula is saying because it speaks, for a layperson, it speaks exactly to their challenges. And the propaganda that is being spread is that it’s going to be a quick fix for them.

So you don’t just lambast and fight against such operations. Because the moment you do that, you push people to support such operations. Rather we should engage them, showing them that there are other ways of confronting these challenges. We must open their minds to look more broadly at the situation, showing them what the capitalist system is doing.

I had some engagement with some Dudula movement guys. When you engage them, and you are showing them the broader perspective of their operation, you will see these guys start to listen and say, “oh, okay, but we’ve never looked at the situation that way. And we’ve never sought to understand that the enemy is the capitalist system and the government of the day. But we were looking at the easiest and most immediate target that we can see. So we were raising people being in South Africa unlawfully, competing with us for jobs, these illegal people doing crime, drugs and all that stuff.”

We must show leadership on this issue. We must have guts, even if people won’t like you. But you have to show leadership, and be able to steer people to greener pastures, and not be afraid and not be shaken. Especially as a socialist working in communities, looking at all the social ills. We need to mentor these communities; we need to make sure that these communities are well cared for. We need to educate these communities in all of these aspects that are coming out, especially the political dogmas that are now popping up. We need to make sure that our communities are ready to understand the political jargon that is being raised.

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