The World Economic Forum on Africa that was recently held in South Africa was dominated by a sideshow: acts of xenophobic violence were spreading from Gauteng into other provinces and across borders. The tense atmosphere was further heightened by the country mourning the gruesome murder of University of Cape Town student, Uyinene Mrwetyana.
The dream of many Pan-Africanist thinkers of a United Africa remains a far but possible dream. But whatever hope remains is going up in smoke unless decisive leadership, that unfortunately seems to be lacking, would bring the violence to an abrupt end. The attack on African foreign nationals in South Africa is a reflection of an Africa that has not yet found its own identity.
In 2008, the country witnessed attacks and killings of foreign nationals in which 62 people, including 23 South Africans, lost their lives. Since then many theories have been given and much research has been conducted in search of not only the reasons, but also solutions for this phenomena. Some of the reasons posited include lack of employment opportunities, alleged illegal activities and selling of fake goods. The South African Reconciliation Barometer (SARB) 2017 survey by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) reveals that 56 percent of South Africans indicated that they do not trust foreign nationals from Africa. On the other hand, SARB 2017 shows that 55 percent of Africans do not trust foreign nationals who are not Africans.
The survey shows that the 56 percent distrust is directed towards Somalians and Nigerians, but when xenophobic violence erupts we have also seen attacks on Zimbabweans, Malawians, Mozambicans, Ethiopians and others. Surprisingly, the waves of violence do not affect European and other East Asia people (India, China, Japan) who are also among foreign nationals living in South Africa. Relying not just on the SARB data detailing the lack of trust, we need to dig deeper and make sense of why South Africans treat foreigner nationals differently while the levels of distrust is similar.
In my opinion, we have not yet found what unites us as Africans and we focus on what makes us different. Part of the problem is that as South Africans we put ourselves on a pedestal based on the idea that South Africa has overcome apartheid, has a functioning democracy and a strong economy that somehow makes us superior. Many South Africans do not identify with the rest of the continent, in particular where there is poverty or political unrest. There is a sense of looking down on other Africans as people who are not entitled to protection and freedom that our constitution affords everyone in South Africa. Our history of colonialism and apartheid conditioned us to think that if a person is black and poor they should not be afforded their full inherent human dignity. Coupled with poverty and unemployment the sense of superiority is heightened by a notion that foreigners are also taking away economic opportunities.
What is surprising is that although there is a 55% level of distrust towards other foreign nationals, who are white and often have money, there is not a corresponding sense of anger and violence. Part of the problem is the internalised oppression that is a legacy of apartheid: there is still a perception that it is permissible to attack people who hold a low socio-economic status and who are foreign.
The majority of the African foreign nationals in South Africa reside in townships with other black South Africans. However, there is lack of integration between local South Africans and African foreign nationals in the townships because they are seen as inferior.
The excuses that are given as justification for the attacks do not hold water. The attacks are driven by something deeper than distrust and can be attributed to an issue of attitude: how do I see the other, and what stereotypes do I hold of them.
My opinion does not dismiss the fact that there are foreign nationals who participate in illegal activities as much as South African citizens do. But how can attacking the whole group of a particular race be justified for the wrongdoings of other people?
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, calls this the danger of a single story. He says, “Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity.” (TEDGlobal 2009)
And our South African story that all fellow African foreign nationals take our jobs and are involved in illegal activities, break their inherent human dignity.
What we all know as black Africans, is that structural poverty and violent systems of colonialism and apartheid were and are still affecting us. As victims of such crimes against humanity we should mobilise and unite towards an Africa that is at peace with itself so that we are able to build an Africa that is inclusive, democratic and fair for future generations.
We need to tell our stories to each other, find our shared identity and start to build an Africa that is one. Kwame Nkrumah rightly states that, “The forces that unite us are intrinsic and greater than the superimposed influences that keep us apart.”
Zusipe Batyi is a Communications Assistant for the Communications and Advocacy Programme at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.