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Xenophobic rhetoric kills

Elvis Nyathi was a father of four. He lived in Diepsloot, north of Johannesburg. He was Zimbabwean. Last Wednesday, Nyathi was beaten by a mob and set alight. No arrests have been made – and, once again, the human cost of South Africa’s growing xenophobic rhetoric has a name and a face. Nyathi’s death eerily mirrors that of Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamauve, a Mozambican national who was infamously burned to death in 2008.

Anti-immigrant sentiment is rising across South Africa. It’s part of a global trend that has manifested in the presidency of Donald J. Trump and the re-emergence of far-right sentiment in Europe, among other examples.

The anger of impoverished communities often manifests itself as xenophobic violence. While their anger is valid, the way in which it is unleashed is not. 

Yet these sentiments are gaining mainstream acceptance. Movements like Operation Dudula have seen a surge in membership. Recently, newly elected Central Karoo mayor Gayton McKenzie vowed to keep his town “Illegal immigrant free”, echoing similar populist sentiments increasingly from across the political spectrum. 

That’s why it isn’t too shocking to see those who are meant to protect and serve use their power to profile the very people they should be protecting. Police officers in Johannesburg have been asking residents for their IDs or passports. They are allowed to (though President Ramaphosa says he is unhappy with the practice being used to target foreigners). What’s more worrying are reports that police questioned at least one person in Diepsloot based on his Tsonga accent and dialect. That sort of linguistic profiling has been used during previous waves of xenophobic violence. 

Both the South African Human Rights Commission and the United Nations have strongly condemned the ongoing violence. If only they would call out the politicians fanning the flames of xenophobia instead of doing what the Freedom Charter asks of them: creating a better life for all. 

This article appeared as part of The Wrap, 11 April  2022. Sign up to receive our weekly updates.