"We got a little concerned about the development in Joburg and are re-evaluating." This is the response of a recent client, following reports of renewed outbreaks of xenophobic violence in certain parts of South Africa.
Since Tourism Update is read by many of our trade partners around the world, let me state this clearly upfront: the xenophobic violence you hear about in South Africa does NOT target tourists and does NOT affect tourist regions!
However, it does affect tourism. Badly. Because around the world, headlines like "Foreigners attacked in South Africa" and "Violence erupts against foreigners" are often misinterpreted by tourists and potential visitors as being directed against anyone from outside South Africa. It's a PR disaster for us, as our country is once again in the news for all the wrong reasons.
As South Africans all know, xenophobic violence is aimed at foreign immigrants, mostly shop owners, who are perceived as a threat by some locals. Unemployed and angry, a few small-minded thugs think that foreign immigrants are taking their opportunities, their jobs and their wives, and decide to chase them back to their own countries by looting and burning shops and attacking the shop owners and their families.
We saw it in 2008 and sporadically since then and, sadly, we are seeing it again now, with violence flaring up in Durban and spreading to other parts of the country, following some ill-considered and inflammatory remarks in a recent speech by King Goodwill Zwelithini. Among some cowardly individuals, it does not take much to stir up the flames of hatred, bigotry, racism and xenophobia. But it is especially shameful that one of our leaders, like King Zwelithini, should be the one to stir up this hatred. So far, we have seen no apology or retraction from him. Only a denial that he said such things, and that his comments were taken out of context.
Xenophobia refers to the fear of foreigners – and that is what this is. Fear. It is a fear bred from narrow-mindedness and lack of education and results in anger, which is exacerbated by conditions of poverty, unemployment and hopelessness.
Unemployed locals see foreign immigrants as a threat. They open up shops and carve out a life for themselves here, and it upsets these locals. They fear the success of others. They are scared that these people will take away their jobs, their wives, their own opportunities. What they fail to realise is that these enterprising immigrants did not take away anybody's opportunities – they created their own. Through sheer hard work and entrepreneurship they started a little shop in order to make a living. Any unemployed local could do the same. But instead of building their own opportunities, they destroy the lives of others.
What our xenophobic locals also fail to realise is that, in most cases, these people fled desperate conditions back home. For them, South Africa represents a beacon of light, a candle of hope, the chance of a better life here on the southern tip of Africa. And let us not forget that many of the African countries where these immigrants come from, have welcomed exiled immigrants who fled South Africa during the dark days of apartheid. Is this how we repay those countries for their hospitality?
At this point, it is imperative that we as an industry stand together to condemn this new wave of xenophobic violence, and also to champion the message that South Africa is open for business and remains safe to visit. The misleading headlines do incredible damage to our reputation as a destination, and even the UK's Foreign Office has added a warning about "localised disturbances and violence in Johannesburg, Durban and other parts of KwaZulu Natal province."
This reminds me of the 2011 London Riots which spread to other parts of England. Amid several days of violence, looting and arson, a total of five people died and over 3 000 people were arrested. But do you recall any travel warnings to avoid London or other parts of England? No, the riots were localised in specific areas, and for the UK's tourist regions it was business as usual. The same holds true for South Africa. Through social media, press releases and our own websites and blog posts, we need to counter the fear caused by misinformation and put a united message out there that our tourist regions and game reserves remain unaffected.
South Africa has weathered many storms, and our tourism industry has overcome the scourge of xenophobic violence before. We will overcome it again. In recent times, we have stood firm against many problems that have threatened our industry. Marikana and the mining sector strikes, the farm workers’ strikes, the Ebola crisis, ongoing load shedding, ongoing service delivery protests, and the ill-considered new immigration regulations imposed by Home Affairs have all hampered our industry in some way. But South Africans are resilient and our tourism entrepreneurs are resolute and tempered by many years of doing business in the face of challenges.
We say NO to xenophobia, and we believe the best way to combat the underlying conditions of poverty, unemployment and inequality is to build bridges, educate people and keep growing the economy. Tourism creates jobs, grows the economy and combats poverty. And travel opens your mind and helps to combat bigotry and xenophobia.
To quote Mark Twain: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”
We call on our friends and trade partners around the world to stand with us in saying NO to racism and xenophobia, and to continue their support of South Africa as a destination.