THE first time I heard about plans to expel foreigners from SA after the World Cup was in December last year. I was conducting research on an African National Congress (ANC) branch in Katlehong at the time, and the person who alerted me to the plans was a branch member. He said residents, including ANC members, were talking openly about a plot to send foreigners packing.
The talk was not limited to any section of the community. It involved both young and old, men and women. The branch executive was informed about the talk and, because it was just talk, members were advised to keep tabs on it, to see who was doing the talking and to find out why.
The anti-immigrant talk seemed to die out in the build-up to the World Cup. I was away from SA from January to May and did not pay the matter any mind, believing it to be under control. Local ANC activists had, after all, helped spare Katlehong the worst excesses of the May 2008 xenophobic pogroms.
However, my complacency was disturbed one weekend shortly after my return in May by a report in the Mail & Guardian saying that SA's security agencies were investigating rumours of plans for anti-immigrant pogroms after the World Cup.
That same weekend, I had a chance encounter with a researcher from Wits University's Southern African Migration Project. She confirmed the Mail & Guardian story and said her outfit was also looking into the rumours. Then followed casual encounters with neighbours and strangers who said, quite openly, that come July 12, foreigners must return to wherever they come from.
Once, while hanging out at a traders' market on the border of Katlehong and Vosloorus, I overheard a group of local women taunting a Mozambican man, telling him to go home.
The women were in good spirits and the man, who seemed to know them, shot back that many local women would starve if Mozambican men were to return to their home country. But there was no escaping the menace buried deep in the exchange.
When I told relatives who acted and sounded as if they were part of the anti- immigrant plots that they risked arrest, they said not to worry. The police were in on the plots. They said the police were just as "fed up" with the Shangaans, which is the omnibus term for a foreigner in Katlehong, regardless of whether a foreigner speaks Shangaan or not. I was not surprised. I had heard policemen express some of the worst xenophobia imaginable.
A couple of weeks ago a friend, the same ANC member who first warned me about the anti-Shangaan plots in December 2009, called to say he and comrades from his branch had just interviewed a group of youths in southern Katlehong who claimed to have been stockpiling weapons for the pogroms.
"This thing is serious," I recall my friend saying. He said the boys seemed determined. My friend, who is also a ward councillor, is connected to the local ANC councillor and the police, and I assume the police and the local political leaders know everything he knows.
Before my friend's call, a Bangladeshi man who runs a spaza shop on our street told a cousin that a stranger had recently visited the shop and told the Bangladeshi man to make sure he was gone by the end of the World Cup. The Bangladeshi approached my cousin because my cousin was a community activist and, like him, Muslim. He was scared.
So far, rumours of anti-immigrant pogroms have been just that, rumours.
However, rumours do not stop being important or dangerous simply because they are rumours. People act on rumours. Individuals base their politics and beliefs on rumours. That is why the media should not shy away from reporting on the rumours.
We should not pretend that people on our streets are not making dangerous noises simply because no one seems to have acted on those noises yet.
It is not to embarrass SA and Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa to say that we are sitting on a time bomb that could be ignited easily by something as "flimsy" as a rumour. SA has already been embarrassed once before and it would not do to circle the wagons, as the ANC seems to be doing, and to pretend that there is no problem.
The ANC branch I studied last year is in panic mode. Activists are worried about young people amassing arms, old people saying things that legitimate xenophobia and a police force that cannot be trusted.
It would be interesting to learn when last Mthethwa attended a meeting of his ANC branch. It is possible that he would not know an ANC branch meeting even if it met in his ministerial house. But it might do him some good to go to a branch meeting to hear what members are hearing and saying about the power of rumours.
What is that slogan favoured by the ANC: Each one teach one?
- Dlamini is author of Native Nostalgia (Jacana 2009).