Refugees: The ANC’s xenophobic bigotry revealed

by The Editor

FEATURE: Moral outrage often says more about those outraged than the issue at hand. The hysteria surrounding Helen Zille’s use of the word refugee – particularly from the ANC – makes the case: the meaning of the word is beyond dispute, the prejudice which has fuelled the way it has been perceived, however, has hardly been touched on. And a closer inspection of the ANC’s actual response on the matter suggests it has a lot of answer for – a new target for South Africa’s media to focus its moralising on. Whether or not it does so, however, is different question, the answer to which is revealing.

Refugees: The ANC’s xenophobic bigotry revealed

By: Gareth van Onselen

29 March 2012

“When Oldpseak had been once and for all superseded, the last link with the past would have been severed. History had already been rewritten, but fragments of the literature of the past survived here and there, imperfectly censored, and so long as one retained one’s knowledge of Oldspeak it was possible to read them. In the future such fragments, even if they chanced to survive, would be unintelligible and untranslatable.” [George Orwell; The Principles of Newspeak; 1984]

Helen Zille has been viciously derided as a racist for referring to those people who have fled the Eastern Cape’s poor education system to seek out more opportunity in the Western Cape as refugees.

The reaction to her description typifies the kind of morally outraged hurricane South Africa regularly gets swept up in – an absolute outpouring of mindless hysteria. I have written on this trait before and would recommend reading the following article before continuing. The result of it all is that, fuelled by the media and every moraliser with a public opinion, an objective term has been violently refashioned into a pejorative, offensive, even racist, slur. It is embarrassing. And ridiculous.

Consider this simple test: the word refugee is used and qualified every day, in every country. Take the phrase ‘economic refugee’ for example – used a million times a day, across the world, in a million different ways – it is an entirely objective description of individual choice. But ‘educational refugee’, well, if the current climate is anything to go by, has been rendered akin to tearing someone’s very heart out. Is it not racist to flee an economic crisis, but racist to flee an educational one? No. The word refugee is an absolutely appropriate description for either.

The use of the word is not just literally defensible but figuratively too. For all those pedantic types, who obsess about definition, the word refugee is just a regularly used as a metaphor in public discourse – “a refugee from life”, “a refugee from reason” and so on – its how you give life to communication. There is a reason we don’t form a queue outside the Treasury when Pravin Gordhan says he’s giving out ‘haircuts’.

To say some in the Eastern Cape have abandoned, fled, rejected, refused, shunned, discarded, left, escaped is presumably not problematic. Yet the meaning of refugee is the same: a decision to flee dire circumstance. So, does one take offence at the word, or the meaning? Or some other unsaid and entirely irrational projection?

History will be unkind to many, when it turns its attention to this debate; that is, if it deems it worth documenting at all.

The catalyst for the racism accusation was, inevitably, the ANC. Others followed suit and, predictably, the accusation has been thoroughly indulged by the media at large. One wonders, if a randomly selected word from a Jacob Zuma speech was denounced it as racist, would the same mad moral feeding frenzy ensue? Let us see.

What exactly did the ANC say? It is worth having a look in more detail because, on closer inspection, and as is so often is the case, a case can be made all that moral angst was misdirected – and the real problem lies with the ANC and its attitude to ‘foreigners’.

Here is the key paragraph from Jackson Mthembu’s statement on the matter:

“Hellen Zille`s racist statement underpins the DA`s policy of exclusionism of blacks. She will never say the same thing about whites who relocate from one area of the country to the Western Cape or even those who relocate from other countries to the Western Cape. To reduce South Africans who have free movement in their own country as refugees is tantamount to instigating against them by labeling [sic] them with a tag associated with foreigners.”

Elsewhere, ANC leader of the opposition in the Western Cape legislature, Lynne Brown would say the following:

“She (Zille) attacks anybody and anything perceived to be of the ANC. She should try to build and edify people instead of retorting with put-downs and demeaning terms. It was only weeks ago that she coined the phrase ‘Better Together’. Since then, we have just seen division, destruction and mayhem.”

“Destruction and mayhem”? Lynne Brown is to exaggeration what dynamite is to a Christmas cracker. But her description of the word refugee is telling.

The thing about moral outrage is that its ridiculousness is revealed the moment one takes it seriously.

So let us, for nothing more than the sake of argument, assume the ANC is correct and that the word refugee is indeed racist.

For this to work don’t let yourself think otherwise, simply accept that, for the purpose of what follows, it is widely accepted that the word refugee is a deeply racist and offensive term.

Now, let us look at what the ANC said again, particularly the Mthembu line about the use of the word refugee being “tantamount to instigating against them by labeling [sic] them with a tag associated with foreigners,” and Brown’s description of it as a “put down” and “demeaning”.

And, accepting for the sake of argument the word is racist, let us amalgamate and paraphrase:

“Using a racist description like refugee is the equivalent calling someone a ‘foreigner’ – a term which is insulting and derogatory.”

Now, call me morally outraged, but that strikes me as a deeply and profoundly bigoted position.

Since when was it problematic to call someone a ‘foreigner’? Since when was that insulting? Since when was it “demeaning” to be ‘a foreigner’? Is foreigner too a slur?

It is true, in the hierarchy of things to get morally outraged about in South Africa, xenophobia ranks fairly low down the list – certainly it will never compete with the endless space afforded to moralising about race but make no mistake, the prejudice involved is exactly the same: a set of characteristics ascribed to a group of people based on some perceived fixed commonality (in this case, the fact that they are foreign and somehow ‘less than’).

Now, you might be wondering, why is it necessary to accept the term refugee as racist to understand the point above?

Well, it makes the point:

If, in the ANC’s world, the term refugee is racist – a deeply offensive term – the more racist it is perceived to be, the more bigoted and xenophobic the ANC’s statement becomes.

In other words, the more intense the offence attached to the word refugee – because that word is “equivalent” to foreigner – it follows that the more offensive the word foreigner becomes, at least to the ANC.

Put another away, in the ANC’s world, if the word refugee is not racist, then the word foreigner is not racist in turn, because they are equivalent; however, the more racist and offensive the term refugee, the more racist and offensive the term foreigner.

And given the extent of the ANC’s outrage – and that of anyone else who deems the word as racist as the ANC makes out – they must be truly bigoted indeed.

It’s a disgraceful sentiment.

And so the ANC’s bigotry and xenophobia is revealed.

How much moral outrage followed that statement? Did it set Twitter alight? Did the blogosphere ignite in its united outrage? Did newspapers and radio shows dedicate inordinate space to exploring the prejudice involved? Was Jackson Mthembu put on the spot and asked to explain himself. No. Next to nothing.

But the use of the word refugee, no, that had to be thoroughly explained.

The other thing about moral outrage is that it often says more about the people who are morally outraged than the subject of their vitriol.

If anything, on the evidence, you can sure all that moral outrage has nothing to do with the nature of word at all, and everything to do with the various insecurities and prejudices of the people who perceive it that way. Certainly it says more about ANC, than it does Helen Zille.

And, because the ANC and those who mirrored its prejudiced outrage have effectively set the moral bar one is obliged to asked: if one sort of ostensible prejudice causes you such offense, why are they not similarly offended about other – and in this case, not perceived but actual – examples of prejudice?

Why is no one offended at the ANC’s attitude to foreigners?

The answer to that question is, I believe, a deeply revealing one.

In conclusion, returning briefly to the Orwell quote I opened with, we can be sure the word ‘refugee’ has now been censored by the politically correct. Its true meaning forgotten in South Africa and its new status, as a politically correct litmus test, no doubt the standard by which that word and its use will be measured in future.

It is an indictment of our public discourse and the source, I would say, of some considerable shame.

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