In the week where the world remembered the mass kidnapping of young girls in Nigeria, as the savagery that is ISIS and the murderous tendencies of US police simmered on in the background, we were hit with a side-blow – xenophobia: South African style. I’m just going to think aloud on this one, as an outsider not privy to, or fully cognisant of the intricacies involved in the evolution of this nation:
We all like to think that when Nelson Mandela was freed in 1994, to declare SA a ‘rainbow nation’, all would surely be well. But in reality nearly 21 years later, South Africans, black, white and every shade in between, are basically just breaching through the perimeter of the misogynistic bubble that is apartheid. As xenophobia again rears its ugly head in SA, the wide-reaching ramifications of this system again come centre-stage; this is just one of many chapters of the story of the rebirth of a broken nation.
When apartheid was ratified by law in the 1940’s, racial segregation was already woven tightly into the fabric of SA’s society. The Dutch had kicked it all off in the 1700s, with the British duly perfecting the regime in the 1800s. Legislation in 1948 was a mere formality for a totally irrational system where Filipinos were classified as black, because whites worked out that they were…well…black. And yet Malays were classified as ‘coloreds’. Television was only introduced in the 1970s, and when it was, it too was segregated. One cannot believe how ‘nuts’ that system was…and is.
Apartheid means literally ‘the state of being apart’ – and the system not only kept the races within SA apart from each other, but also kept South Africans, especially black South Africans apart from the rest of Africa and the rest of the world. The concept of pan-Africanism is foreign to a significant proportion of black South Africans. Apartheid led to the evolution of generations who knew and still know very little of the great continent to which they belong. My own experience is that this ignorance and insularity is not limited to black South Africans alone either. I have a vague recollection of a conversation with some white and ‘colored’ South Africans soon after 1994, during which it became apparent that these seemingly enlightened individuals couldn’t tell you the first thing about any of the countries neighboring theirs – not a thing. You could argue the same about a lot of other people, but at least Americans could tell you that some Canadians speak French, and the English could tell you that the Germans speak German, and Indians could tell you how Pakistan became separated from India. These South Africans were totally blank when it came to anything about neighboring Zimbabwe, Botswana or Mozambique.
I read somewhere that 65% of the black South African population, is between 15-65 years old. Many in this age bracket have grown up in a world no bigger than their townships, physically and mentally. And some of the harshest acts of mass violence against black South Africans was meted out in these same townships, when this group were children or young adults, a time when thought processes and reasoning are heavily influenced by one’s environment. And their parents also grew up in a world of violence and all sorts of other social injustices – substandard education, inadequate health services, broken family life, lack of cultural evolution. This mass chronic dehumanisation would surely have a disastrous psychological impact. And there are lots of studies about the way in which apartheid affected the mental health of black South African children – some of these same children who are now in that 15-65 age bracket. And forty percent (40%) of this group are unemployed, compared to, and get this, 8% of whites, 18% of Indians and 28% of coloureds. And that 40% unemployment rate eerily matches the 42% rate for education to high school level only.
Surely the great Madiba’s release in 1994 was going to relieve some of this misery. But really, can 300 years of brutality against the souls of a people be reversed by one man, in less than another 300 years? Especially when followed on by a government run by individuals, who despite putting on the right appearances, are products of the same system? I’m going to be controversial here, but this is where you can kind of see where the Castros of this world were coming from, in principle; after your country is liberated from oppressive rule and you inherit a glaringly unfair system where the disadvantaged tip the scales upside down, your first priority is to fix that imbalance pronto. Because isn’t that injustice the reason why you took up arms and got your butts exiled in the first place? So how can you now squander the opportunity to fix that which you fought for? The new SA government should have tackled inequality aggressively from the start. This was an opportunity to show us a new kind of African leadership. But I guess that would have come with too much sacrifice…of self-gratification, wealth and power.
So now you have a sizeable sector of the society that is frustrated and angry because there is no sign of any rainbow as far as they can see. Frustration and anger mixed in with all the other social and behavioural pathologies that apartheid created is a ticking time-bomb. Because SA is still so segregated along colour lines, most black immigrants, the majority of whom are from Zimbabwe, live side-by-side with black South Africans. These immigrants have left their homes with the sole purpose of making a better life for themselves and their families. No one leaves their homeland because they have nothing better to do; when they land wherever they land, they will work hard to fulfil that purpose. Right-wing rhetoric may have us believe the opposite – of course some do not abide by the law of the land and spiral into a treacherous underground of devious behaviour, but this is not representative of the majority.
The perpetrators of this current wave of xenophobic violence see these immigrants creating the life that they should have without realising that the ‘foreigners’ are using skills and education and drive that they, these black South Africans just never had the opportunity to develop. These immigrants never had their psyche bound by the chains of apartheid so they are not subject to the same limitations. Yes, they have their own problems in their own countries, but they are not fresh out of something as sinister as that regime was and continues to be. Unfortunately, living side-by-side means that the immigrants are right in the line of fire of all this pent-up resentment – a mild term for this in fact. The privileged, of all races, are too far away to target, because the type of perpetrator dishing out this violence doesn’t really venture out of ‘his’ immediate vicinity. No, their immigrant neighbor is easier to get to, a soft spot; and besides harsh lessons have been taught in the past about lashing out at the real oppressor: when you revolt against that system, what do you get – the Sharpeville massacre and the Soweto uprisings…
Some have termed this brand of xenophobia, ‘afrophobia’ as a result. But you know, whatever we want to call it, it’s purely academic and just about semantics. What we are witnessing is just ugly and frightening and unbelievably tragic. Reactions have been largely based around calling out South Africans for being hypocritical, because many African countries took them in during their hour of need. That is true and we are free to point that out, but we cannot dwell on that because it will not stop the maddening crowd. The great majority of South Africans, black and white, do not support xenophobic crime – some may be racist, yes – but supporting these atrocious acts is another ball game altogether that they wouldn’t want to partake in.
Instead, it should be about calling out the current South African leadership to be aggressive in protecting the victims and anyone at risk, to bring the perpetrators to justice quickly so as to deter others from following suit; to speak responsibly and appropriately to their electorate so that there is no doubt as to where they stand on the issue of violence against ‘foreigners’; and to get pro-actively creative in addressing – no, fixing – the social and economic imbalance that is the root of this current evil. Apartheid and its creators are where all this started – there is no denying that. But we cannot go back and undo history. Progress is about being focused on the now with a view to creating a new future that South Africa deserves…that Africa deserves.