The upswing of dangerous anti-Chinese xenophobic rhetoric in Namibia….Scapegoating the weakest link “the Other”

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Moses Pakote

The local mainstream media, social media and conversations are rampant with anger infused stereotyped condemnation of the Chinese community either as criminals, crooks, rhino poachers, underhand business people or those dabbling in crooked business ways.

The Villager’s front page of last week depicted a Chinese Dragon swallowing a Namibian flag, captioned, “Feeding Namibia to the Chinese Dragon,” accompanied by an article replete with “half-truths” premised on perception, and displaying the height of the emerging Chinese xenophobic media discourse. This is similar to Nazi-Germany’s discourse, scapegoating the Jews for self-inflicted German economic woes then.

The social media comments including the Facebook page of this week’s Sun newspaper become more chilling: “torture them, Can we just organize the day, and start beating every Chinese we can see and destroy all their shops countrywide…; ….. it is time for them to leave; All Chinese must be deported for good we are tired of them; Castrate all Chinese caught with poached products; All Chinese implicated in poaching , their nose must be cut off; cut off their horns; All Chinese , they must pack their stuff and go back to where they belong. This kind of news has become our daily bread now. We are tired,” etcetera.

The same apartheid residual dynamics besetting the South African media, as described by a study on Xenophobia in South Africa (Southern African: Peace and Security Studies Vol. 2, No. 2) are characterizing our media: e.g. dominantly white owned; though having some black ownership are not more representative of the society; representations of foreigners are negatively biased and extremely unanalytical, and reproduce problematic research and anti-immigrant terminology uncritically.

Some of the local print media are not different from their RSA counterparts in playing a crucial role to wipe up xenophobic sentiments against the Chinese community by consistently highlighting negative news where Chinese nationals are involved, and downplaying or ignoring coverage of positive news on their activities e.g. no prominent or regular articles on Chinese donations to Namibian communities; the training of Namibian students in China, or investments such as Husab Mine. It is as if all positive contributions of the Chinese business community have suddenly evaporated into thin air.

The media has set a negative public agenda, of daily highlighting only the vices of the Chinese business community to cement the image of the Chinese as a perpetually vice-laden race. This technique is reminiscent of the infamous role played in the Rwanda Tutsi massacre by newspapers such as the Kangura (‘Wake him up’) and radio-television Libre des Mille Collines ((RTLM), Radio Rwanda and others.

Here too, it seems some of the local media have no regard for the national and international consequences which could ensue from selective reporting, in case some mindless individuals decide on violence towards the Chinese. One can only speculate that the main motive of this selective reporting (presumably informed by a grand strategy from some collaborators) is to paint the current government administration negatively as collaborators unwilling or ineffective to act against the Chinese community. Or to force its hand harshly and thereby create a wedge with China. In this way, by either presenting a scenario of total breakdown in law and order, or alienation of decades’ long friendship relations, the blame would always fall on the current incumbent and his administration.

It should be the duty of MISA as the media’s self-regulatory watchdog, to remind the media on its task in terms of the 1978 UNESCO Declaration on Fundamental Principles to promote peace, human rights and anti-racism and not xenophobia. It is not the business of the media to encourage xenophobic citizen frenzy of extreme destructive thoughts about citizens of another country.

Equally the State cannot be seen to be mum on this state of affairs which are jeopardizing bilateral relations.

The malaise of xenophobic reasoning
Xenophobia is generally defined as an unreasonable fear, distrust, or hatred of strangers, and foreigners perceived as different. Some include “deep-rooted fear towards foreigners”, and others the “fear of the unfamiliar”. It is based on perceptions of the in-group towards an out-group and also include the fear of losing identity, suspicion of its activities, aggression and desire to eliminate its presence to secure a presumed purity (Guido Bolaffi-2003).

Andreas Wimmer (1997) posits that it is essentially a political struggle, about perception of economic harm which are not based on hard facts and figures neither on any supportive evidence. For example, a local newspaper headline creates the perception that only Chinese are engaged in rhino poaching by stating: “Another two Chinese Men Caught with Rhino Horns.” However, it is a known fact that some Namibians are intrinsically involved in the actual poaching as foot soldiers.

Again, when it is stated that they (Chinese) come here to corrupt Namibians, it by implication creates a perception that Namibians were fundamentally never corrupt, until the inherently corrupt Chinese corrupted them. This too is flawed reasoning. Our neighbour Botswana too have rhinos minus the poaching problem. Also, when it is said that the Chinese should be thoroughly searched, it is implied that the rest e.g. Namibians, Germans, Americans, South Africans and others are exempted because they are devoid of such criminal intent. But we all are aware that criminal intent transcends continent, class, colour or creed, hence singling out all Chinese would be an irrational xenophobic action.

Again considering the ongoing case before the court of two Chinese nationals and one Namibian on the customs goods’ under-invoicing fraud of N$3.5 billion. Interestingly, no German, South African and other European companies are mentioned? Or maybe they desist from this illegal practice, but say that these well- established “holy” companies of which some are in mining use more sophisticated mechanisms such as transfer-pricing unabatedly since independence until now, has this not caused Namibia more serious financial harm in the form of huge illegal capital flights, probably 30 or more times the N$3.5 billion? Yet neither the media nor any other anti-money laundering agency has prioritized this issue?

The naïve acceptance of half-truths premised on xenophobic sentiments which in turn are rooted in the unsubstantiated claim of the Chinese inherent criminality could lead to the government classification of the Chinese community as a national security threat, with dire consequences for Namibia-China bilateral relations. Hardly, and not even the mighty America, Germany or UK can live without Chinese investment in this world, and anyone thinking otherwise is daydreaming. Whenever individual Namibian “gomtjas” posed as legitimate diamond dealers in Thailand or the UK or USA, or engage in some nefarious activities and are caught out as criminals, that can hardly be said to be the proof of the inherently criminality of the entire Namibian race –including our children and their future offspring.

A dangerously false diagnosis and prescription
Finally, the economic assertions in the Villager under the heading, “Feeding Namibia to the Dragon,” are most unfortunate, and should not have seen the light under the watch of a responsible editor. And in terms of Article 10 of the Namibian Constitution on Equality and Freedom from Discrimination; the Racial Discrimination Prohibition Amendment Act (1998), and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1969) to which we are a signatory.

In the first instance, there is no correlation between China Eximbank and the Namibia development and SME banks, to warrant comparison – one is a heavyweight financial global player and ours are two small local start-ups. Additionally, lack of effective ownership of the local construction or retail sectors by Namibian companies has nothing to do with our two banks, or the Eximbank – that’s a revisionist misnomer of historical factual reality. Truth is that the dominance of South African retail and construction companies, and the support they enjoy from the “local banks” (RSA banks) have always excluded effective indigenous ownership of these two sectors, even to this day.

Before the Chinese advent in the construction industry, the newly independent government administration used to pay exorbitant prices to South African companies such as Group Five, Grinaker, Murray and Roberts and others. Well, big Namibian construction companies never existed than as is the case now, but the Chinese competition forcibly deflated the inflated construction costs, affording us enormous savings from RSA corporate greed. Also, most Chinese companies entered into mutually beneficial partnerships with indigenous Namibians and shared the dividends unlike the South African construction behemoths which loathed the idea of partnering with black ‘insignificant’ Namibians, and giving away a single blue cent to them, and rather viewed such overtures as creeping corruption. The same can be said for the Edgars, Truworths, Shoprites, Clicks and the likes, which have no Namibian partnership nor significant community involvement and donations.

As recent, the chairperson of the Construction Industries Federation of Namibia was a South African based in South Africa. Regarding the Namibian SMEs crowding out in the retail industry by the Chinese, most mega shopping malls throughout our 14 regions are South African owned, with 95% occupancy by South African retail shops. These are selling South African manufactured goods e.g. Edgars, Pep stores, Clicks, Mug & Bean, Kentucky, Nandos, and so forth, and these malls generate 90% of Namibia’s retail industry’s profits. This is supported by statistics from the Namibia Statistics Agency, illustrating that Namibia recorded in 2015 its highest trade deficit with South Africa at N$50.7 billion, and only N$4.3 billion with China.

But according to the article the South African companies are the least of our problems, the Chinese are! Talking about serious misdiagnosis, as one of the authors said on xenophobia, it is usually the problem of the limitation of the mind. In reference to the N$20 billion which has since 2012 left the country there is not much to this conjecture, except that maybe we should create capacity and investigate the serious financial losses accruing yearly due to transfer pricing by existing big companies.

Second, the article fallaciously claimed that the Chinese never built any infrastructure in Namibia and that there is no evidence of their investments, ignoring the China Towns in Windhoek and Oshikango and numerous property infrastructure built via Chinese investment in places like Rundu, Ondangwa, Oshakati and others. Also, the “No Wash” small shops so derided and hated by some elites and middle classes, together with the informal traders sourcing from them are serving an existing demand for lower priced basic necessities of life in the rural areas among our Namibian population. They otherwise can never afford the overpriced RSA stock which Namibian SMEs used to source from RSA. Since most Chinese left Oshikango, the local SMEs were to take up the space through creative entrepreneurship ideas, but except for them too decrying the “irreversible death” of Oshikango, this has not happened.

Also, the Husab Mine owned (with a local stake via Epangelo) by the China General Nuclear Power Company (CGNPC) Uranium Resources represents the single biggest investment from any country in Namibia at N$60 billion of which all infrastructure including the access road and bridges were built with Chinese capital. During construction 4000 Namibians were employed on-site, and services procured from Namibian companies. This investment by creating close to 2000 full-time jobs this year, and contributing 5% to our GDP, during the darkest hours in our economy is slated to become Namibia’s economic lifeline.

Finally, regarding the statistics of a 100 000 Chinese population growth in Namibia, I can only agree with Mark Twain or Benjamin Disraeli, that such are “Lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Unless, a comprehensive breakdown on how these were generated and the precise locations hosting this huge Chinese population is presented, I think it a safe bet not to endorse this figure. Many may still remember the famous 51% unemployment rate of Namibia announced some years ago, and how the current President (then Minister of Trade & Industry) singularly invoked the line of “Lies, damned lies and statistics,” since Namibia is not a failed State, and eventually got vindicated against initial widespread critique from the media.

So after all is said and done, it is hoped that those fellow Namibians engaging in unfruitful verbiage and misdiagnosis in pursuance of narrow yet potentially self-destructive political ends will henceforth cease from such; and rather concentrate on how we as Team Namibia in the Namibian House could professionally and effectively tackle the problem of crime whether originating from the Chinese, Namibians, Germans or the South Africans.

In fact, it is wise that we work together with China and other countries to deal with cross-border crimes, and also actively seek more investment to weather these economically challenging times rather than to pull back into an economic wilderness to our hurt due to xenophobia.

(This article is written in my capacity as a private Namibian citizen and hence contain only my personal views.)

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