South Africa Xenophobia: The shame of popping the Madiba Rainbow Nation Legacy

23 Apr

I had never bothered to know what the word xenophobia meant until violence against foreigners erupted in South African townships in 2008. The definition I got from dear google: “the unreasoned fear of that which is perceived to be strange or foreign”. Back then in 2008, it was sad and at the same disgusting that fellow Africans could carry out such heinous acts on other Africans. But then I asked myself, would it have been different if the acts had been carried out on white people or anyone else. And the answer was a resounding NO. I never imagined the same would recur but as fate would have it, we are back again in 2015, cursing, writing statements, condemning and feeling shame over the killings of fellow Africans, immigrants, foreigners, refugees or whatever South Africans would want to call any other person who in their opinion “carries a passport”.

Well, the question then becomes is it justified or not and what can be done to stem the tide.

There are a number of issues that I find difficult to comprehend: starting from the incitement by those from top political leadership such as the Zulu King Zwelithini, the peculiar nature of youth perpetrating the violence; the war-time apartheid methods used to attack the alleged foreigners and the lack of history on how South Africa benefitted from neighboring countries during the apartheid era. Let’s discuss these:

First of all. What the South Africans have done is despicable and must be condemned outright. There is no excuse for killing any human being because you think that they are taking over your jobs and piling pressure on your own country’s resources. Imagine if the UK, the US or any other country had tried such tactics. It is not useful to impute blame but in this instance unfortunately, I have to say the South African government has failed to come up with solutions of dealing with such a menacing problem in their country by way of legislation and executive authority that proscribes such attacks on foreigners. President Mbeki promised back then in 2008, that this would not happen again and the expectation was that this promise would be carried forward. This has not happened but indeed this can be done; people can be controlled and the killings can be stopped through deterrent punishments and persuasive government policies. Inaction on the part of government and expressing shock that they never expected the attacks to happen is not good enough!

Secondly, what I find difficult to grapple with is the level of incitement at very high political and social leadership. There can be no excuse for what King Zwelithini did and said when he made comments about foreigners causing crime in Durban and the rest of South Africa. He is a political leader and he knows what following he has. This man knows what influence he has even way back after Nelson Mandela’s release and how he contributed to conflict in KwaZulu Natal. If there is no legislation for such kinds of incitement I think it is high time that South Africa came up with a Zwelithini anti xenophobia piece of legislation to deal with the likes of his ilk. Not to be left out, President’s Zuma’s son was hot on the heels of Zwelithini to express the same sentiments arguing that he was not only referring to Africans but also the Russians and other Eastern Europeans who were peddling drugs and engaging in morally decadent activities in South Africa.

Fair and fine! This is noted. Who does not know the levels of crime aided by the sale of drugs on the roads of Yeoville in Johannesburg and Long Street in Cape Town and other parts of South Africa? The fact that the South African government through its police has failed to deal with this phenomenon does not mean that every other foreigner and immigrant is a drug dealer and engages in crime. Based on that very simple notion, the utterances made by these two influential figures must be taken back, they must be made to apologize and if I had my way they would have been prosecuted for inciting murder and violence.

I also have this feeling that the general South African mentality is that they don’t owe any African any apology for their success. The general feeling is that the white man – the Boer built most of what they have today and in any case the resources belong to black South Africans. If anything the ordinary South African feels indebted more to the white man. But what about our countries that looked after the exiled leaders, whose countries were bombed incessantly and pounced by the Boer regime?

A third point to note is that South Africa gained independence recently in 1994 after a protracted struggle against apartheid. The apartheid struggle was not an easy one. There was a lot of violence on South Africans by the Boers, there was too much violence on black South Africans against each other and even on whites at that time by black South Africans. This violent past cannot be easily forgotten or deleted from the history and minds of South Africans but it definitely needs to be managed properly so that it does not get reincarnated here and then when it is convenient for political leaders to mask their failures. This leads to my main point of discussion on ways that can be used to stem this misguided xenophobic mentality gripping South Africa.

There are a number of ways that this can be done. It is very clear that the rhetoric has been that the foreigners are taking away South Africans’ jobs and they are putting a huge strain on resources in South Africa. This is not necessarily true. Report after report shows that the number of jobs taken by these immigrants are low wage jobs which do not necessarily bar South African youth from the job market. The government and private capital need to start working hand in hand to develop new strategies to create new employment and opportunities for young South Africans to earn money and get out of the misery they are currently in. A further probe into the areas where the violence has repeatedly occurred will show that these South Africans have demonstrated before about service delivery, police brutality and other issues without getting too far with the government. Faced with such, the next port of call would obviously be next weakest point which in this case becomes the odd foreigner holding a passport!

Another effective way to deal with this scourge of recurrent xenophobic violence would be for the South African government through its Human Rights Commission, Ministry of Education and other interested stakeholders to recalibrate the nation’s history and school curriculum with regards its apartheid history. I’m quite convinced that if the part of history that South Africans sought refuge in neighboring countries such as Lesotho, Swaziland, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia and so on posing great risk to these countries’ economies and lives of their citizens the countries’ youth and leadership would not respond in the manner they repeatedly do. The South African history of apartheid needs to be retold in primary, secondary and tertiary school so that the ordinary citizen can appreciate how other Africans have come to their rescue before.

The war-time and apartheid type violence methods executed in the xenophobic attacks are reminiscent of the apartheid era. This is no coincidence. It just shows that violent means to dispute and conflict remain a huge part of the DNA of South Africans in dealing with differences. But what should we expect from a country that is so young and emerging from the brutal war? There can be arguments about semantics and scapegoating, but I feel that massive advocacy programs at a national level involving government and civil society need to be taken to demobilize the South African men and woman, boy and girl from the violent mentality that tells them that when all else has failed resort to neck lacing and stabbing. The distinct methods of burning people up, close range shootings and stabbing people to death were there during Winnie’s Mandela’s time, the time of Gathsa Buthelezi and Eugene De Kock. Without a proper demobilization of the South African mindset, the violence cannot just disappear.

A closer look at the people who are carrying reveals clearly that it is young men and women with no hope at all to have a better standard of living in South Africa. Politicians have failed to provide opportunities to these young people who mostly remain uneducated, poor and desperate. It is no excuse for anyone to claim that they are uneducated so they will kill or that they will main someone because they don’t have a job. But it is no excuse as well for the government and whole of society to continue sidelining poor township communities in South Africa in the hope that God will come down to help them. More importantly though, South Africa should not lie to us that this violence is only happening in poor townships. The whole country definitely needs to carry some form of guilt for these murderous acts as I’m quite sure that as most people resign to their homes every evening they always think that “these bloody Zimbabwean, Malawian, Mozambican makwrekwere” should just go back where ever they came from. In a land of such opulence as South Africa, much more is and will be expected to those who have been given much more such as Jacob Zuma!

Lastly, we can condemn all we want. However, the leaderships of the African countries where the ordinary Zimbabwean, Mozambican, Nigerian, Malawian and other nationality will have to face the ultimate question on what they are doing to improve their own economies and countries. The task cannot be for South Africa alone. It cannot be. Mugabe can shout all he wants and express abhorrence, but hey Mr. President, wake up and smell the coffee. Millions of people have run away from the comatose Zimbabwe economy seeking for better opportunities so that they can look after the families. What changes have been brought to Zimbabwe in the past decade to stem the tide of immigrants flocking to South Africa? Why do we continue to have more Nigerians immigrating to South Africa when the country is not at war?

The international trend and phenomenon of recipient countries blocking their borders and shores will not stop. Kenya is pushing for the closure of the Dadaab refugee camp and a halt of Somalis into their country. Europe continues to dither with regards to the tide of Syrians and African refugees flocking the Italian sea-shore. The question that has been asked is, why South Africa should be castigated as if they are the only ones doing the same. More needs to be done with regards teaching the South African men, woman, girl and boy on how to resolve differences using nonviolent means, more history about who helped South Africa during apartheid needs to be taught in schools and generally the South African violent mindset needs to be “demobilized”.

Some issues to ponder about as this debate about xenophobia rages!

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