Ramaphosa’s xenophobia-apology confirms a break with his predecessors’ no-concession diplomacy, what are the implications?


By: Clyde Ramalaine

South Africa’s foreign diplomacy position on xenophobia through the prisms of presidential leadership

“All politics is local” is a statement commonly used in the politics of the United States made famous by the former Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Tip O’Neill. The truth of this statement rings true in a much wider than assumed US audience. This weekend, South-Africa and its president will assume the leadership of the African Union in a historic and dynamic epoch given the interest in Africa from an emerging China and the unfolding realignment of European trade spaces as spurred by the almost concluded BREXIT episode.

The subject of xenophobia remains a very emotional, exceptionally discursive and yet inconclusive one.  It does not help since South Africa’s vocal elites are too often embarrassed and make easy of subjects like “xenophobia” with what I will call apologies-of-elite-embarrassment. Otherwise understood in the quickness of utterance but tangibly shallow in the true analysis of claims.  The dividing lines on the subject of xenophobia evidence at least three groups premised on developed and assumed convictions.

Propagators of the presence of xenophobia measurable in a South African context of several incidents are fully persuaded that the violence that now periodically erupts fits an undeniable frame of “xenophobia.” On the other hand, the naysayers [of which I am one] locates the violence in essentially criminal origin, yet feeding of and in abuse of legitimate social and economic challenges on the part of specific group South Africans understood in a class context. Therefore, what South Africa was subjected to from 2007 onwards does not fit a xenophobia description if the original definition of the construct is made to stand. The third group agrees with the presence of “xenophobia” although they prefix this type of identity of definition in the manifestation of the phenomenon in descriptions of an Afrophobia.  Afrophobia thus directly identifies the South African version of “xenophobia” as having identified its clientele in a marked aversion of necessarily African foreigners.  The premise for those who share the view of an Afrophobia is the distinction of upper-Africans as the target while Europeans or Asians are not remotely featuring in the debate.

In my 2017 article on the subject of xenophobia as published in the Sunday, May 7, 2017, entitled “Adekeye Adebajo is wrong on Mbeki and SA in xenophobia claims for many reasons- I share my reasons why we have not had xenophobia yet. This was a response to an opinion piece penned by the academic Adekeye Adebajo a week earlier where he accused Mbeki and SA of Xenophobia Denialism. I cautioned that it is incumbent of intellectuals to clarify constructs regardless to how it may be used in public setting with a sense of certainty. Critical thinking warrants less a regurgitating of convoluted constructs but an attempt of an objective analysis of the very constructs so easily bandied in public discourse. It remains my challenge that we are yet to engage the subject in true critical analysis dispassionate of picket fences of elite embarrassment and uncritical easy entitlement claims and emotions. I also advanced that, perhaps more culpable of Adebajo and some in the diaspora’s thinking is a mind that seeks to emotionally blackmail South Africans of the presence of xenophobia when the evidence for such is simply none existing.

We know that the construct of xenophobia, in its original setting and ontology describes the attitude of grave violent intolerance with aim of the eradication of people informed by their ethnicity by others who share not that ethnicity. It’s necessarily informed by prejudice. A cursory relook at what xenophobia means leads us to the historic reality of the usage of this term speaks of violence meted out to the collective experiences of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis, and on another platform as immanent in Europe for example with the Roma (Gypsies). Meaning it was specifically targeted violence meted out to a specifically targeted ethnicity and people in exclusion of all others.

In our quest to understand the manifestation of the flares of periodic violence defined as “xenophobia” we have sought to understand what these claims mean as advanced. When we do so it’s less in mind of denialism but with full conscience that we are about the contestation of space and ideas in a democratic setting that affords these franchisees. We are forced to pause to ask,  have we ever truly engaged the subject of what is meant with xenophobia, or xenophobic violence or as some call it Afrophobia in its periodic manifestations if and when it occurs.

Perhaps the proverbial elephant in the room is a fundamental question,  can we comfortably claim xenophobia or xenophobic violence meted out to people in a South African context of a set of incidents since 2007 until 2019 because they are of a certain description i.e. Somali, etc., as was the case with the Jews? If we raise this question it is to spotlight and engage Ramaphosa’s unreserved and very specific apology to a Nigerian people who suffered xenophobic attacks.  Ramaphosa’s apology becomes the embodiment of his diplomacy on an unnerving subject of “xenophobia” albeit in the claim.

Public discourse as is the case with many other subjects such as social cohesion appears muzzled since it is somehow believed from some quarters when one raises discomfort around the issue a one is labelled as on the side of violence and criminal behaviour. I am deliberately not going to entertain this shady and suspect prism of an either-or, particularly since we have yet to establish by what arrogated powers are we forced into silence with this claim of either-or paradigm.  Why are we as leaders finding ourselves browbeaten to toe a line of condemning only and not engaging in analysing in this season, in which our only relevance is reduced to a march for the victims?
I contend that the debate on xenophobia, or what I shall call ‘xenophobic violence’, remains a shallow one. Is it then surprising that this is repeating itself hardly eleven years later at least for the fourth time now if the current 2019 threats are included?
While the case for xenophobia in particular with foreign Africans as the epicentre may very well predate the 1994 dawn of the democratic era, this musing primarily and consciously focuses on the post-1994 era. It can comfortably be accepted that given the apartheid ideology and policy Africans in locality descriptions made up those against whom prejudice and racism were practised as was policy. Before 1994, immigrants from elsewhere faced discrimination and even violence in South Africa. After the majority rule in 1994, contrary to expectations, the incidence of xenophobia increased.

Between 2000 and March 2008, at least 67 people died in what was identified as “xenophobic attacks.” In May 2008, a series of attacks left 62 people dead; although 21 of those killed were South African citizens. The attacks were motivated by xenophobia. In 2015, another nationwide spike in claimed ”xenophobic” attacks against immigrants, in general, prompted several foreign governments to begin repatriating their citizens. According to a Pew Research poll conducted in 2018 showed that 62% of South Africans viewed immigrants as a burden on society by taking jobs and social benefits and that 61% of South Africans thought that immigrants were more responsible for crime than other groups. We know that between 2010 and 2017 the immigrant community in South Africa increased from 2 million people to 4 million people. The aforementioned incidents of in nature and expression detail a spike of the periodic presence of incidents of violence often uncritically accepted as xenophobia.

The rationale for this musing?

It was important to give the background on the subject while the intention of these musing attempts to understand the South African political leadership for foreign diplomacy on the subject xenophobia as experienced under Thabo Mbeki, Jacob Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa.  This is again important since South Africa will be chairing the AU and in my assessment, a simmering pressure exists that plausibly may again evidence this periodic manifestation of a phenomenon of dubbed ‘xenophobia’. Another paramount reason for engaging the topic is the presence of these incidents as also occurring under the political leadership of ANC-led governments that compels a response in policy and leadership from ANC and SA presidents in their respective and given eras. We must also not be oblivious to the often seldom admitted economy of xenophobia. A critical aspect of the claimed xenophobic violence is that in every recorded incident hitherto a significant number of victims and casualties confirm a South African identity. Those who live in the economy of xenophobia claims confirm a cognitive dissonance attitude towards this important aspect.

It was Friedrich Nietzsche who told us long ago, “Sometimes people don’t want to hear the truth because they do not want their illusions destroyed.”  Is it possible that the propagators of a South African xenophobia claim do not want to hear the truth [of its non-existence] because their illusions [seeing xenophobia where it is not] would be destroyed? Their concomitant economic reasons to force South Africa as xenophobic compel them to continue despite the lack of evidence hitherto.

Presidential leadership in defining a SA’s diplomacy for a claim of xenophobia.

It becomes important to appreciate South Africa’s presidential responses to the claims of xenophobia since it emerged in our discourse as lived experiences. To this extent, we will consider the diplomacy of Mbeki, Zuma and Ramaphosa on the subject which we will argue evidence congruence and divergence if not depicting contradictions.

Mbeki’s philosophical no-concession praxis diplomacy on xenophobia:

Mbeki’s diplomacy on the claims of xenophobia is best summarised in his 2017 APRM keynote address at the 14th anniversary of the AU’s African Peer Review Mechanism, a South Africa-based self-monitoring governance mechanism involving 36 African governments, their civil societies, private sector and other. Mbeki was confronted in that gathering by some that accused him as having failed to act on the 2007 report led by Nigerian economist Adebayo Adebajo. This report was about impending xenophobic violence.

This stance of Mbeki was among others questioned by Nigerian born Academic Adebayo in his /April 30, 2017, Sunday Independent opinion piece. ”Will Thabo Mbeki’s continued “xenophobia denialism” harm his Pan-African credentials, asked Adekeye Adebajo. He went on to assert, His [Mbeki’s] government had denied the warnings of the report,  as “simply not true”. Mbeki was among others accused by Adekeye Adebajo as contained in his claim of an act of infanticide by one of the “founding fathers” of the mechanism which had damaged the institution’s credibility. Needless to say, Adebajo’s criticism of Mbeki was necessarily vitepurative as he sought to accuse the former president of what he termed xenophobia denialism in which he framed SA political leadership.

Adebajo went on to act as spokesperson of fellow African countries when he levelled claims of, “There was a distinct impression that South Africa – in an act of jingoistic “exceptionalism” – felt the APRM had not been devised for an “industrialised” country like itself but for “lesser” African nations. This is despite the poverty among 70% of South Africa’s population, and its status as one of the world’s most unequal societies.”

Mbeki’s response was the claims of xenophobia is simply not true.  In my response to Adebajo, I argued Adebajo’s levelled accusation against Mbeki and South Africa is riddled with entitlement claims that have found South Africa indebted to the whole of Africa from liberation past.

Under Mbeki xenophobia, the claim was treated as a claim that needed unpacking for what the construct in both historical and philosophical meaning depicts. It was engaged and located in a challenge of the criminality of a special type as prevalent in a designated and specific sphere of the economic class definition. Mbeki’s prism and thus diplomacy anchors a social critique to the phenomenon that warrants unpacking. Secondly, it ring-fenced it as acts of criminality that feed off a legitimate context of the struggle for a constituency of South Africa’s population. Mbeki therefore never apologised to any nation but invited a debate that he framed in means to be educated by those who know better to advise him otherwise.

Zuma’s common sense no-concession diplomacy praxis on xenophobia

It must be accepted that the majority of claims of “xenophobia” in the frequency of presence occurred under the Zuma administration. Here we can cite 2008, Under Zuma when incidents of equal violence erupted around 2015, president Zuma in parliament responded with the following words. “We appeal for calm, an end to the violence and restraint. Criminal elements should not be allowed to take advantage of the concerns of citizens to sow mayhem and destruction. Any problems or issues of concern to South African citizens must be resolved peacefully and through dialogue. He went to say, “The police have been directed to work around the clock to protect both foreign nationals and citizens and to arrest looters and those committing acts of violence.”

Zuma further asserted: “We wish to emphasise that while some foreign nationals have been arrested for various crimes, it is misleading and wrong to label or regard all foreign nationals as being involved in crime in the country.”

Crucial among what Zuma shared was the following, “We reiterate our view that South Africans are generally not xenophobic. If they were, we would not have such a high number of foreign nationals who have been successfully integrated into communities all over our country, in towns, cities and villages.”

At a later stage when similar violence manifested Zuma not wilting on his earlier statement on his prism of a claim of xenophobia as advanced appeared to go silent in making any new address on the subject matter. It was in this instance when the Zulu Royalty King Zwelitini delivered a statement on the subject that momentarily appeared the State’s diplomacy was eclipsed if not momentarily hijacked by a Zulu monarchy. Zuma stood accused of being subservient to his king’s utterances and therefore, subjecting South African diplomacy to that of the local monarch.

Zuma’s stance, therefore, defines three cardinal aspects: He categorically identified South Africans as not xenophobic. This is a categorical underscoring of Mbeki’s stance therefore, consistent in diplomacy.  He equally argued that criminal elements are hijacking the legitimate concerns of the people. People for Zuma leadership here is about the SA people.  Zuma went further than Mbeki and assigned the criminal justice ambit of the state to engage the crime and deal with the perpetrators. Thus the task of the police as the first line is to handle the criminality aspect and secure safety for all citizens. Tangibly absent as in the case of Mbeki era there was an apology tendered. May I add the relations between South Africa and its African fellow nations even those who like South Africa lost citizens were not suffering.

“These include complaints about illegal and undocumented immigrants in the country, the increase in the number of shops or small businesses that have been taken over by foreign nationals and also perceptions that foreign nationals commit or perpetrate crime.

Ramaphosa’s in-the-moment, image-driven concession apology diplomacy praxis on xenophobia

Xenophobia the claim visited again SA in 2019. This time the country under the stewardship of Cyril Matamela Ramaphosa had to again respond in state diplomacy sense. While the praxis on a claim for xenophobia as handled by his predecessors confirms more than consistency in what I shall term non-concession to xenophobia, Ramaphosa broke with that tradition and made a statement of an apology. He chose the occasion for such as his address at the funeral of Robert G Mugabe Zimbabwe.  In what appeared to have been a hostile environment, the man from south of the Limpopo may have read the hostility and in the moment opted to make short ends meet.  Let us hear him, “The people of Zimbabwe, almost in unison, expressed their dissatisfaction, unhappiness and anger at us as South Africans. They saw me as representing all of us in SA. Their reaction was against us as the whole stadium full of 4000 people booed me.” This mouthful and very revealing statement lay bare the multi layered challenges of Ramaphosa’s politics, a politics that is high on showmanship, an obsession to be different from what is seen as bad, easy claims of us and even more easily hoodwinked by being booed.

Ramaphosa ought to have known that every politician in the world at some stage gets booed. But South Africa’s image-obsessed president has a very thin skin and he can’t handle being booed, so he will divert from the established praxis of non-concession as modelled by his predecessors and in a moment of silliness commit a grave political error with less thought through repercussions. It can comfortably be argue Ramaphosa’s apology was not pre- planned or part of his prepared speech. The deduction to be made is, those who want Ramaphosa to apologise must just boo him. Is this why he has not yet shown up at Marikana, is he concerned about being booed?

The premise for Ramaphosa’s apology attests diverse departure points and assumptions. On one end it can be argued his apology which did not fit the body of the prepared speech appeared a- in-the-moment decision after he was booed. Always the man dying to be liked he appeared forced to make this apology.

On the other hand, his apology constituted a break with hitherto defined diplomacy and praxis of non-concession of xenophobia but crime led by criminals that abuse the legitimate challenges of South Africans until then the formal stance of his predecessors.

Ramaphosa did two things to actualise an apology. He firstly broke from a prepared speech to insert an apology in his Robert G Mugabe funeral Zimbabwe address. Secondly, he dispatched an envoy to Nigeria to officially extend an apology to President Buhari and the Nigerian people. Former Minister Jeff Radebe led this mission and later articulated the following: ”We met with his Excellency President Buhari to convey our president Ramaphosa’s sincerest apologies about the incidents that have recently transpired in South Africa. Those incidents do not represent what we stand for as a constitutional democracy in South Africa and the president has apologised for these incidents.”

President Ramaphosa, according to Radebe, said the attacks provided a good opportunity for African leaders to tackle unemployment, inequality and poverty on the African continent.

In his explanation for his apology, Ramaphosa in an address delivered at the SA Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union’s (SACTWU) 14th national congress at the International Convention Centre in Durban said the following: “Our image, our standing and our integrity was negatively affected. We will have to work very hard as South Africans to regain our stature, our position and in this regard, it was best to stand up and say we are sorry for what happened.” The critical word that reveals Ramaphosa’s prism is the word ‘our image’ always the image guy, the one to be liked by all.

Another dimension of a South African claim of ‘xenophobia’ is that those who prognosticate the existence of such do so less in appreciation of the context of the lower-class struggle.

Melissa Nobles under a topic, ”Revisiting the ‘Membership Theory of Apologies’: Apology Politics in Australia and Canada, notes in Canada, a Conservative government apologised for historical injustice when it had initially maintained that it would not do so. In Australia, the Labor Party, upon assuming power, immediately apologised for the forced removal of Aboriginal peoples, something the defeated Liberal government of John Howard had long refused to do.
Jennifer Lind in her 2011 Cornell University Press article entitled “Sorry States: Apologies in International politics” observes, “Governments increasingly offer or demand apologies for past human rights abuses, and it is widely believed that such expressions of contrition are necessary to promote reconciliation between former adversaries.  She then cites, the post-World War II experiences of Japan and Germany suggest that international apologies have powerful healing effects when they are offered, and poisonous effects when withheld. West Germany made extensive efforts to atone for wartime crimes-formal apologies, monuments to victims of the Nazis, and candid history textbooks; Bonn successfully reconciled with its wartime enemies. By contrast, Tokyo has made few and unsatisfying apologies and approves school textbooks that whitewash wartime atrocities. Japanese leaders worship at the Yasukuni Shrine, which honours war criminals among Japan’s war dead. Relations between Japan and its neighbours remain tense. Examining the cases of South Korean relations with Japan and of French relations with Germany, Jennifer Lind demonstrates that denials of past atrocities fuel distrust and inhibit international reconciliation.

In ‘Sorry States’, she argues that a country’s acknowledgement of past misdeeds is essential for promoting trust and reconciliation after the war. Those who defend Ramaphosa’s apology may take a leaf out of Lind’s theory and remonstrate a premise of past misdeeds [xenophobic incidents]. However, the counter-argument for the usage of past misdeeds does not take place in a vacuum but must necessarily locate an identification of a perpetrator and a victim. A misdeed naturally imbibes a victim that is deserving of an apology. If Ramaphosa’s prism was Lind’s observation than we must ask how that victim against whom misdeeds were performed fits the paradigm of a Nigerian apology when more South Africans died in this instance? Is an apology than justified on the diaphragm of past misdeeds claim in this instance, if so why and to what end.

However, Lind challenges conventional wisdom by showing that many countries have been able to reconcile without much in the way of apologies or reparations. Is it, therefore, possible that Ramaphosa’s predecessors, Mbeki and Zuma beyond non-concessions on the presence of xenophobia also were acutely aware that reconciliation does not have to be anchored in an apology or reparations?
Correctly, Lind cautions “Contrition can be highly controversial and is likely to cause a domestic backlash that alarms—rather than assuages—outside observers.” It is precisely in this context that Ramaphosa’s image awareness necessitates contrition in controversiality with undeniable domestic backlash particularly if the victims he apologised to remains only conveniently framed in a Nigeria of description.

I furthermore see value in Lind’s assertion that apologies and other such polarizing gestures are thus unlikely to soothe relations after conflict.
For Lind holds other means and remembrance that is less accusatory-conducted bilaterally or in multilateral settings-holds the most promise for international reconciliation. Could Ramaphosa have been advised on this had he taken the time to engage those seasoned in foreign relations?
Interesting dynamics of the periodic SA ‘xenophobia’ outbursts

When observing the manifestation of these periodic violence outbursts and interesting picture of SA ‘xenophobia’ emerges. A seldom seriously engaged yet fundamental aspect is that in each instance more South Africans died in these incidents. In each case, the incidents play out in its usual class definition of “lower class” meaning where the contest for much-needed resources is at its most critical.

I have also highlighted that ‘xenophobia’ interestingly in SA does occur in another stratum [middle and upper class] of society.  These appear insulated against any possible manifestation. We know this because academics in the ilk of Adekeye Adebajo lives and moves freely and is very far from any remote threat of the type of violence that is essentially a lower class reality. Meaning when Adebajo advances what he does it’s from the comfort of the [Sandton] insulated reality of his class disposition.

As we conclude it becomes important to ask some fundamental questions of Ramaphosa’s understanding and actions of an apology for the diplomacy of xenophobia
·         Was Ramaphosa’s apology a knee-jerk reaction that evidence a less thought-through moment of what an apology of this nature in future ramifications hold?

·         Was it a short-cut that now confirms xenophobia as having happened and or could happen?

·         We know his apology as a leader can’t be undone and, therefore, hitherto stands as final. How does Ramaphosa’s apology assist an honest debate on the subject in clarity of its ontology and its historical placing objectivity? Based on what empirical evidence did the president conclude that that happened constituted a legitimate claim of xenophobia?

·         Does his apology render the stances of his predecessors faulty and obsolete if so why? Since Ramaphosa apologised what are the implications for reparation claims? Who stands to claim and why? What is the UN policy on the rights regarding illegal foreigners in a sovereign state?

·         At a more fundamental axis, why the apology to Nigeria when SA citizens died?

·         What is the recourse for South Africans we consistently remained the biggest victims of this type of periodic violence?

With South Africa shortly  assuming the AU chair will we see another moment of criminal element driven violence erupting since the agenda for this type of violence remains blurred less honestly engaged and the President’s open ended apology suggested rightful acknowledgment while it also imply rightful reparation claims.
What is crystal clear is that Ramaphosa’s showmanship apology leaves SA in a political conundrum on its praxis of diplomacy on a claim of xenophobia.

***(This musing is currently being developed into an academic article)

Clyde N. S. Ramalaine
A Lifelong Social Justice Activist Political Commentator & Writer is a SARChi D. Litt.et. Phil candidate in Political Science with the University of Johannesburg. Chairperson of TMoSA Foundation – The Thinking Masses of SA