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Durban has made a bid to host the 2022 Commonwealth Games. However, the city is built on a foundation of race and class inequality, leading to xenophobic attacks and unrest. Before Durban is ready to host any international events, it must become the strong African citizen it has promised to be by treating all of its citizens equally.

The past and the present have drawn us into a future of unfortunate and incalculable depth. How low will our society go?

Durban is a city known as a tourist capital for South Africa’s middle-class and even working-class. It is well-known for its great hosting capacity. Beautiful colonial buildings stretch up the Berea and fine hotels ring the bay stretching from Ballito to the Point.

Durban is also known for its public corruption, private wealth accumulation, elite unaccountability and protests. I have been to many community protests, nearly all because of the lack of basic services in the shack settlements and in townships.

The physical beauty of Durban can be found in the suburbs and beachfront, not in the black communities. There, rubbish is not collected, parks are scarce, public infrastructure is not maintained, landlords milk money from slums and jobs are lacking so residents are too poor to maintain their own properties. And now those areas have become a zone of hatred, bloodshed, ignorance and tribalism, receptive to hate speech from traditional leaders, regularly aflame.

The petrol flung on these hot embers by King Zwelithini during a ‘moral regeneration’ speech just before Easter sounded like this: ‘when you walk in the street you cannot recognise a shop that you used to know because it has been taken over by foreigners, who then mess it up by hanging amanikiniki [rags">’. He implied migrants were criminals and insisted, ‘Pack your bags and leave’.

As for the anti-xenophobia argument that the Frontline States had given hospitality to our own exiles during apartheid, Zwelithini’s arrogance turned it upside down: ‘When you [South African exiles"> were in their countries you helped them to get their freedom. I know that other countries were liberated because of liberation armies from South Africa.’ (Before 1994, Zwelithini was allied with Inkatha and therefore with the apartheid regime running KwaZulu.)

In other words, he said, the migrants are economic parasites, and you South Africans don’t owe the foreigners anything. After this speech, foreigners were killed, chased away from their homes and jobs and suffered looting of their shops. Some politicians denied it was xenophobia, calling it merely ‘looting’, so it would be seen as a minor thing.

But after the president’s son, Edward Zuma, endorsed Zwelithini, no politician could duck the task of scrutinising the murderous phobia. Ignoring that there were Chinese, Bangladeshi, Pakistani and other Asian shop-keeper victims, they renamed xenophobia Afro-phobia. Whites have not been targeted, so if all-inclusive racial categories are still useful from the fight against apartheid, we should call this Black Phobia.

But it is happening mainly in the townships, shack settlements, labour-hostels and inner-city areas where poor people live. So we should first use class analysis to identify what is wrong.

What then becomes clear is that we have an unresolved matter: poor black people feel oppressed, and some of them are taking it out on anyone in sight who is different. This is not the first time we have had such incidents, and it is clear that our government and politicians never learn from the past. They are keeping poor people down, and whether it is in service delivery protests or these recent attacks, the explosions that result are impossible to predict or control.

Even now, with so much publicity and so much at stake, when we had a meeting with Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba last week, he was very honest to say he cannot guarantee that it will not happen again.

The reason is that no matter how much Gigaba and Durban Mayor James Nxumalo apologise for the attacks and lives lost, they don’t have any intention of changing the conditions that cause them.

Gigaba was Minister of Public Enterprises for five years before 2014, and what we witnessed under his rule was a massive increase in electricity prices to poor people but not to companies like BHP Billiton which gets the world’s cheapest electricity. The reason for the painful price increase was to pay for the Medupi and Kusile power plants, which cost more because of corrupt, multi-billion Rand, incompetent tenderpreneurship benefiting the ruling party. We also witnessed Gigaba approving Transnet’s mega-projects like a new coal super-railway and a new port for Durban, which will both cost hundreds of billions of Rands.

Will anything make these leaders and others like them change the course of history? What will persuade them to provide needed resources so that poor people’s lives improve, so that both local residents and foreign nationals feel that our official city vision is not as ridiculous as it sounds this month: ‘By 2020, eThekwini Municipality will be Africa’s most caring and livable city’?

The pressure is rising, on Durban’s and South Africa’s reputation. The brand is being damaged, and this is what our elites worry most about. Across our continent, the backlash is becoming economically serious.

For us, it boils down to the question of whether Durban is ready to host the 2022 Commonwealth Games. In Durban’s bid document, officials claim our city is a ‘responsible African citizen’: ‘We are Africans, we are an African Country, we are part of our multi-national region, we are an essential part of our continent. Being Africans, we are acutely aware of the wider world, deeply in our past and present. These Games will accelerate Africa’s rising and intra-continent integration, particularly in southern Africa.’

My response to this is, if Durban is ‘aware’ and ‘responsible’, then why are people dying and being evicted in such extreme ways? Is being a responsible African citizen listening to local leaders inciting violence and being quiet about it? Is being responsible letting victims suffer in Durban’s refugee camps without even enough tent shelter, sufficient food or essential supplies?

Only once Durban and this country become responsible African citizens can we be serious about hosting the Commonwealth Games or making a 2024 Olympic Games bid.

The Durban Commonwealth proposal also claims that we have ‘public and private security… and other facilities to cater for international tourists from various parts of the world’. Are they referring to the security that keeps failing to halt people being attacked? Or the security that blasted hundreds of anti-xenophobia activists with rubber bullets and blue rain to stop them marching on Durban’s main road last Tuesday? Or are they trying to say they will get new security just for the Commonwealth Games?

Really, if we cannot cater for people being killed in the poor areas of Durban, how can we claim that international tourists will be safe? If dangerous men like Zwelithini and Edward Zuma make incendiary statements without the government intervening, then no one is safe.

I had to be the first young African person to stand up and call the King to order. I was criticised, as a ‘disrespectful’ young woman. But even after threats, I did not stop raising my voice, because I love my country and I have a conscience. Today I am proud that my voice is finally being heard, that these concerns are finally getting attention even in parliament and that more people are filing hate-speech complaints against Zwelethini and Edward Zuma.

I am also glad that the King called for an Imbizo in Durban this week to speak about xenophobia. Many of us have been calling for the King to come to the victims and apologise to them. Even though he may lack the courage to do so, the fact that he is coming to Durban where the victims are is a sign he must listen to the cry of the people. We do hope that his arrival will bring change, even if it is long overdue.

A better South Africa is possible, but until then, it is obvious that international events like the 2022 Commonwealth Games bid need to be put on hold. We cannot allow people to come to an unsafe place like Durban, even if as international tourists with fat wallets they may think they are protected.

Until Durban has resolved its phobias, which are the result of the oppression of poor people and their mistaken targeting of migrant people from our continent and Asia, we must protest. Until the city and national government redirect resources to refugees in the short term and to all our ordinary poor residents, we must object to using public sports tourism subsidies that mainly benefit the city’s elite hotels and restaurants.

We should raise the same concerns so many in Africa are raising, with their protests against our government, against South African businesses and even against our cultural workers. They are crying out for this state to get its act together, and so must we.

We in Durban civil society should consider a boycott campaign: against the Tourism Indaba next month, against other big events at the International Convention Centre in the following weeks and even against any Commonwealth decision (expected on 2 September) to give the 2022 Games to our undeserving city.

We need an assurance not, as Gigaba told us, that xenophobia is likely to keep on coming back. Instead, we want convincing proof that this will never ever happen again, because by treating poor migrants and South Africans with respect and love, both xenophobia and the causes of xenophobia will have been wiped off our map. Only then will our shame lift.

*Bandile Mdlalose is the President of the Community Justice Movement and can be reached at [email protected]

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