German Ambassador: I'm angry about xenophobia

19.09.2019 - Article

We should try to understand the reasons for the violence against foreigners, but we must never condone it, let alone sweep them under the carpet. They are and remain ugly expressions of xenophobia, writes Martin Schäfer for News24.com.

Ambassador Schäfer's latest column
Ambassador Schäfer's latest column© News24.com (Screenshot)

I am angry.


I abhor violence. I cannot bear the sight of a human being cruel to another human. That might be due to my upbringing, my personal experience or due to the gruesome lessons that the study of the history of my nation holds.

I am angry, but no misunderstandings: I am not a pacifist.

I believe that there are situations that justify the legitimate and commensurate use of force. In self-defence, as an individual or a nation under attack, that goes without saying. Also, state authorities must be allowed to use force, responsibly and within their democratic mandate, to defend their monopoly on exactly that use of force: to fight crime, to stand up against looting mobs, to uphold the rule of law, in defence of the weakest in our midst ? children, women, the disabled and yes, also foreigners, people from other places that seek and deserve shelter from political persecution and violence, hunger and hopelessness.

I was angry...

when in my home country, in Mölln, Rostock in the 1990s, and just recently in Chemnitz, a mob of mostly young men ganged up against those they claimed to hate and perceived to be different or “foreign” to their own way of life. The mob chased these individuals, beat them up and made them run in fear for their lives. It was appalling. Such horrific xenophobic acts are a disgrace in any country, but even more so in mine, with its indelible history of the Shoah, the war we waged on the world and that spurious ideology of racial superiority that caused death, suffering and annihilation.

I was angry...

in 2008 when I witnessed the horrifying wave of xenophobic attacks that swept through South Africa and left dozens of people dead. I remember the images of the Mozambican who was burned alive. I remember the fear in the eyes of families from all parts of Africa, from the Great Lakes, the Horn of Africa, from neighbouring countries like Zimbabwe who found temporary shelter on the lawn behind Jeppestown police station. I remember vividly the joy and glimpses of hope when they were given food, blankets and clothes by caring South Africans, by passionate members of civil society.

I have been angry ...

in the last few weeks about what we all saw happening in Gauteng – unacceptable violence spreading from neighbourhood to neighbourhoud.

It seems that some circumstances and triggers can bring out the worst in us: a lack of empathy and Ubuntu, hate, cruelty, and a loss of any decent, human and civilised behaviour. It puzzles me, it saddens me.

What particularly angered me in the past weeks, however, were some of the reactions to this outburst of xenophobic violence.

I firmly believe that we must call a spade a spade.

Particularly now, in these troubled times, in times of “fake news” when blatant lies are being spilled all over the media, we owe it to ourselves and to society to be as honest and as truthful as we possibly can.

That some went out to simply deny the cause and nature of the violence, the stand-off between “us and them”. Or even worse: that they denied the nature of the attacks in one sentence, only to blame dark third forces for the outburst of that violence in the next. That left me speechless and angry.

There are certainly a multitude of complex causes to the events of the last weeks. Much work will have to be done to analyse and, more importantly, to tackle them: poverty, inequality, unemployment, unacceptable hardship, a protracted battle for scarce resources amongst the poorest and – amidst that ? a stream of newcomers to many neighbourhoods, coming from within South Africa and abroad. And of course: the lasting trauma and detrimental legacy of segregation and discrimination, deprivation and denigration from apartheid times and before.

We should try to understand the underlying reasons, but we must never condone or justify these terrible acts of violence, let alone sweep them under the carpet. They are and remain ugly expressions of xenophobia.

I firmly believe it is a remarkable expression of honesty, humility and decency to call this spade a spade and to apologise. What we have heard from President Cyril Ramaphosa in Harare and elsewhere in the last few days is an act of courage, self-confidence and strength, not of weakness and despondency. The same holds for the honest words of Naledi Pandor in her interaction with the diplomatic corps and the work of the envoys that the president has sent across the region to engage with South Africa's neighbours.

It takes courage to call a spade a spade. And to stay within the metaphor: it is only when we start calling a spade by its real name that we can use it as a tool, that we can start digging, get to the bottom of things and tackle the root causes of our challenges.

- Martin Schäfer is German ambassador to South Africa.

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