The bitterness behind xenophobia

The bitterness behind xenophobia

At a house in Lusaka 1967, MK and APLA cadres rest easy and reminisce on the memories of home as comrades forced to leave the land of their forefathers in the spate of the brutal attacks by the apartheid police. It is not an easy life being in a foreign land, but the welcoming smiles and courtesy of their hosts makes them forget for a while that they are away from home, after all, the pan-Africanist spirit of the independence decade across the continent rules the relationships between the various African peoples in the different newly-freed states. The South Africans are treated as fellow African brothers that need to be helped to vanquish the demons of oppression and racial segregation installed by Verwoed and company.

Unsafe from the boots, batons and knuckledusters of the security police that carry systematic early-morning raids on the homes of suspected struggle cadres, many of the young men and old men that include Oliver Tambo, Thabo, Mbeki, Chris Hani, Tito Mboweni and others are forced to flee into exile across the different parts of Africa before the journey to Moscow where they are taught the true tenets of socialism and communist ideology that drives the freedom movements.
For the moment, Mandela, Kathrada and a host of others languish on the famous inescapable Robben Island, South Africa’s own Alcatraz prison facility and penitentiary for suspected freedom movement leaders and iconoclasts.

Fast forward to 1982 and the Maseru massacre leaves more than 40 dead as the security forces of the SANDF carry out a raid on the tenements and homes suspected of harbouring ANC and PAC cadres. The pain is a shared affair, for some of those that have died are local Basotho, but their deaths are not mourned more than those of their fellow brothers from across the border, we are after all the children of one father, coming from the same root and suffering under the same yoke of oppression under the brutal apartheid policy that suppresses the voices of the masses for the benefit of promoting the racial superiority of the minority.

This is the story of South Africa, the youngest democracy in Africa whose freedom came because of the efforts of the other countries and neighbouring African states whose citizens are now being attacked and massacred because ‘they have become a nuisance’.
Though not a shared sentiment for the larger majority of South Africans, it seems the émigré and political/economic refugee living in South Africa has become the target of spiteful xenophobic attacks by locals that claim many an unfound premises as the cause to their unchecked attacks on people of ‘foreign’ origin.

From blaming the ‘foreigner’ for crimes ranging from drug-peddling to human-trafficking the spiteful local with criminal intents is largely an unquestioned entity, free to hack to death anyone that seems foreign in appearance and bold enough to forcefully evict more than a thousand expatriates because of unproven accusations that the scourges of unemployment, crime, prostitution, and drug abuse are exacerbated by the presence of ‘foreigners’ in the different communities.

I have always held the notion that some South Africans seem to suffer from chronic amnesia, having totally forgotten who provided them with needed shelter and safe harbour in the days when the dogs of Verwoed bayed for the blood of those that had any ties with the freedom movements of the day. From Maputo to Dar-es-Salaam, Harare to Lagos, Maseru to Cairo, the South African freedom movements could find safety and comfort enough to enable them to plot their strategies and carry out insurgencies aimed at destabilising the apartheid government and forcing the state to listen to their calls for equality.

The Freedom Charter could not have gone on to live had the masses across different neighbouring African states and the globe joined the protest that saw the final liberation of Mandela in 1990 and the first democratic government of 1994. One therefore wonders what the real problem is with the people when foreign nationals seeking asylum from various human and political issues affecting their different states are brazenly attacked by the very same people they gave shelter to in the days when the night of Apartheid was the darkest for the majority of black, Indian, and other races in a state governed by a white minority.

It is a fact that Africa stood together to save and support the South African freedom fighter in the long years of the struggle for the liberation of its black majority; it is shameful that the very majority seem to be the main culprits in the now common xenophobic attacks on fellow Africans from other war-torn or economically challenged neighbouring states: the reality is that so far, no person of other colour or race from a non-African state has become the target of the attacks. This raises the question why the black African from other African states has become the victim of these xenophobic attacks.

There are many reasons raised as to the causes of this shameful phenomenon, from poverty to unemployment of the locals, to the blaming games on foreign nationals being the perpetrators of crimes that include drug peddling and human trafficking.
I guess it may be true that a certain small section may be criminal in their deeds but the question remains: should the larger majority of asylum seekers and émigrés suffer because of a small cabal of criminals? Are the real issues behind the xenophobic attacks fleshed out in full to find more amicable solutions to the souring relationships between the locals and the foreign nationals?

The authorities do not address the issues from the point of view of the individual, rather, blanket solutions that are proving ineffective form the larger part of the discussion forums focused on abetting the scourge of xenophobic tendencies of the local South African or any other African tempted to fall into the frenzy of hateful habits that culminate in the massacre of fellow Africans on the basis of their being ‘foreign’.
When South Africa became a democracy in 1994, many of us were hopeful that finally, the wealth of the land would be equally shared. Being the hub of economic prosperity for the neighbouring states and holding the position of being the largest economy on the continent, it was therefore natural that those that felt that their home countries were not providing enough in terms of reaching the needed happiness would gravitate towards the bright lights of Johannesburg and the opulence of the ports of Cape Town and Durban in their search of happiness.

The quest for happiness is a primal human need, and wherever one feels in their gut that they shall find it or some semblance of it, there they shall go in search for it. No one needs to be prevented from travelling because it is against the constitutional principle of the right to freedom of movement. If one is willing to work to gather the wealth to gain their happiness, they should be allowed to engage in such activities as will enable them to reach their desired goal as long as such activities do not infringe on the welfare and peace of the host community or its citizens.

Where there are infringements, amicable solutions should be found to address issues that may lead to altercations between the new members of the community and the older citizens/locals.
The advent of South Africa’s freedom came with the promise of a better future for all, but the basic understanding should have been that those who had gone into exile should first be re-instituted into the common society that had stayed behind to face apartheid. What happened instead is that their leadership jumped right into government and the benefits thereof, often adopting the kind of attitude that their comrades and families deserved the best of the rewards.

Cushy jobs, private school education, prejudiced tender distribution, and increased levels of nepotism meant that those who had stayed home when the cadres ran off into the jungle were left out. This is the class that saw their youth languish at home despite the fact that many of them had degrees because there were no jobs.
The idea of ‘no jobs/vacancies’ was not there in Apartheid times, and so it vexed the local that had braved tear gas and rubber bullets, the local who had witnessed neck lacings of askaris/informers/sell-outs and political opponents. The new political class largely made of those that had returned from the jungle (the ‘been to’s’) forgot about the local, and the influx of foreign nationals in the post 1994 era added to the bitterness, playing the sad role of the scapegoat and screen that hid the real causes to the increasing levels of poverty and unemployment. Though the new political class are the cause to the decaying economic conditions, it is the poor foreigner that has taken the brunt of the blame.

Willing to do strenuous tasks for menial pay and largely exploited because of their foreign status, the foreign national gets blamed for stealing jobs the local is often unwilling to do. This means that there is more to the cause behind the violence than the accusation that the foreigner is stealing jobs (and women sometimes). The first is the above proposition that there was an uneven distribution of economic resources after the independence. The ruling class and their affiliates hoarded most of the economic wealth, leaving the larger part of the population poorer than they were in the days of Apartheid.

There should have been more locals that had stayed behind involved in the decision-making processes in the post-Apartheid government. The birth of the welfare policies focused on providing a pension fund for the aged, the disabled and the single mothers merely came as appeasement. Building RDP houses addressed part of the housing problem but failed to address the real issue: people need jobs that pay them to have the freedom to pay their way. Providing welfare funds merely creates a nation of beggars unwilling to engage in activities they consider too low, even if they pay, for they know that the government shall provide.

If the government does not provide, such citizens are likely to turn on the most vulnerable target: the foreign national who is not a local. The talk after the recent attacks seems to deviate from the fact that those attacks were xenophobic, the main argument seems to assert that they are criminally motivated. One would choose to differ largely because of the manner in which the previous attacks were treated. The talks after the fact largely sounded patronising, mainly referring to the contribution of the other countries in helping South Africa gain its independence and not focusing on the real issues at hand: integration, tribalism, racism, and economic realities.

Being from different regions on the continent naturally means we have different customs and traditions, cultures that are different but whose middle ground can be found if we engage in activities that enable the sharing of such differences in cultural tendencies an open affair.
Colonialism meant that a people that once understood each other as neighbours became divided on the basis of tribe and clan, leading to the African always looking on the next African with a sense of distrust unless they live together in similar conditions for extended periods to the point where similarities are found and understood. The idea of foreign nationals living in separate communities actually exacerbates the sense of distrust and bitterness, for there is bound to be jealousy if they thrive as broom-sellers and door to door salesmen selling different wares which the locals cannot get due to prevailing economic conditions of poverty and unemployment.

It is time that the real truth behind the menace of xenophobia was addressed as it should be, dilly-dallying around the issue and being patronising in the declaration of our Africanness will get us nowhere, for the ‘we and them’ mentality shall always carry on. The local must truly understand that the foreigner is a brother, that we are where we are because of the mass migrations of different groups across millennia. Stoning and hacking another black African may at the end of the day only prove to be the catalyst to the demise of the black race on earth, removing an entire race as if that race is a blot on the earth’s escutcheon.

A look at the common history of the black peoples of Africa soon reveals that we all somehow come from a common ancestor, that we all somehow traversed the same routes in the long migratory journeys to the point where we are now before colonialism came along and changed the whole mutual understanding that all should play good host to the lonely traveller and stranger that comes from a somewhere we now do not know but somehow come from if we look deep enough into our past.

Diplomacy and politeness do not go to the core of the matter in discussion and to counter this, people should rather be taught to look deep into themselves; to introspect on what it means to be a good human being. The reality is that Africans are as common as twins are, as brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers are. We are one, and no diplomacy or courtesy is needed to remind us of this fact.

Tsépiso S. Mothibi

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