The spirit of Steve Biko save us from the xenophobic attacks

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Picture: Molaole Montsho/African News Agency/ANA

When I enrolled for a degree at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, USA, in 1991, one of  the first persons I met was my former schoolmate at Mbilwi High School in Venda, Limpopo. Joseph Makhari was my senior at the renowned school. The second person I met was Dr Adeyinka Adedeji from Nigeria, who had come to do a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering.

I was styding for a degree in Mechanical Engineering, and Adeyinka was my mentor. He introduced me to all the people in his laboratory. If I wanted African food I visited Adeyinka. If I wanted to listen to Yvonne Chaka Chaka, I visited Adeyinka. I was a “Ph.D. student” at undergraduate because of Adeyinka. One day, we almost got shot by the police while he was accompanying me to buy clothes at a store called “Value City”.  

The shopkeepers, seeing us parked outside waiting for the shop to open, thought we were waiting to rob the shop. When I received my undergraduate degree, Adeyinka was getting his Ph.D. Later on when I went to Cambridge University to do a Ph.D. in Artificial Intelligence, thanks to Adeyinka, I met Dr Adekunle Adeyeye, a Nigerian who was on a postdoctoral fellow in engineering. He too became my mentor.

Now that South Africa is again in the era of xenophobia and all of a sudden we have many people who think the Berlin drawn borders are “Moses and the prophet,” we should pause and reflect. When I think of Nigerians I only think of mentors. Excellent mentors Adeyinka and Adekunle were! Bantu Steve Biko you left us too soon, we need your thoughts and leadership!

Xenophobia is perhaps a wrong word to characterise what is going on in our country. Xenophobia strictly speaking means fear of foreigners. You cannot be violent towards those whom you fear. Despite the manifestation of this phenomenon through violence, one of the enduring narratives is that foreign nationals are taking away our jobs. However, it is not all the foreign nationals that are targets but those who come from Sub-Saharan Africa. So this phenomenon that is happening in South Africa, is more self-hate than xenophobia.

It is important, in dealing with hate crimes against foreign nationals, to look at the underlying factors that, though real, may not be obvious. This violence against African migrants is about the failure of our economy to transform. South Africa’s official unemployment rate, currently at 29%, is among the highest in the world. This number excludes millions of people who are unemployed but have given up looking for work. When people are in economic wilderness, they look for scapegoats, and the people who are different from them nomally become victims.

This difference may manifest itself through nationality, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion or race. In the wake of the great depression of the 1930s, in Germany the victims were Jews, and consequence of that was a particular type of genocide called the holocaust. In today’s South Africa the scapegoats are the African migrants, and at the top of the pyramid are the Nigerians. Just as it was not the Jews who were the sources of the economic problems of the 1930s, it is not the African foreigners that are the sources of South Africa’s economic problems.

As South Africa, we need to be more organised and build a capable state that can manage migration and grow the economy. To economically prosper, South Africa needs to move away from ideological postures and choose policies that work, based on data as evidence. When Deng Xiaoping was modernising China, and he encountered criticism, he said: “it does not matter if the cat is black or white if it catches mice, it is a good cat.” When the Minister of Finance Hon Tito Mboweni produces an economic document to move us from the economic quagmire, instead of us criticising him for actually putting a plan, we have to study the proposals, scientifically evaluate them and correct if necessary, to save South Africa.

This so-called xenophobia is also about the unfinished formation of our national identity. Mzala Nxumalo, one of the foremost thinkers of the 1976s generation, wrote quite extensively about the centrality of the national question in the formation of a democratic society. When Madiba, led us to liberation and united us as one nation, we intended to build a South Africa that is rich and united in its diversity. We reversed that balkanisation of South Africans along the racial and ethnic lines, which was the core soul of apartheid. We dismantled the bantustans which were intended to divide our people along ethnic lines. Apartheid was meant to divide, and Madiba tried to unite us.

However, did Madiba succeed in uniting our nation? Do we as South Africans at the very least understand ourselves, who we are, and where we are going? “Madiba, sold us to white monopoly capital,” says a Themba on my Facebook account. No, Madiba did not sell out, but he initiated the unity project, which is fundamental in building a capable and caring state. The principal responsibility of our generation is to make this united South Africa work. However, united South Africa will succeed when we base it on economic inclusion and prosperity. This united South Africa will succeed if we base it on social cohesion, inclusion and the safety of our communities, including the total elimination of gender-based violence.    

This so-called xenophobia is because of the failure of the modern African state. The failure of African governments has meant that there is a push on Africans towards the nodes of economic success in Europe and South Africa. According to the International Organization for Migration, in 2019, 10308 Africans entered Europe as refugees by the dangerous sea in makeshift boats as compared to 12318 people in 2018. During this same period, 234 people died in 2019 compared to 466 in 2018 while crossing the Mediterranean. Why are Africans risking their lives trying to cross to Europe? The reason for this is because African countries have spectacularly failed to create secure economic, social and political environments for our people to prosper. Postcolonial Africa has collectively failed to industrialise, and consequently, economic development has stagnated.

It is, nevertheless, not all gloom and doom! The African continent today has a total purchasing power parity gross domestic product (GDP) of $6.7 trillion, and a population, largely youth, of 1.2 billion people. As African countries, we should capitalise on this economic progress to resolve the rural versus urban economic divide, to execute sound economic policies, and to eliminate poverty from our society.

Xenophobia is about the failure of our education system. If there is one area that we can do significantly better is in the area of education.  According to the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), Sub-Saharan Africa has a literacy rate of 64% compared to 70% in West and South Asia, 71% in Oceania and 99% in developed nations. We are trailing behind the rest of the world. According to Elizabeth Weybright and her co-researchers, 60% of children who begin school in South Africa never complete high school. Of those students who are sufficiently lucky to complete high school and go to university in South Africa, 40% of them drop out before graduating.

The failures in our school system, then mean that we have a considerable percentage of our population who ultimately are excluded from the formal economy. When well-educated Africans immigrate to South Africa, and they appear to be more successful than the locals, this results in jealousy. Uncontrolled jealousy is dangerous!

Given that xenophobic attacks have happened, what do we do? His Excellency President Cyril Ramaphosa has sent envoys, which included former Minister Jeff Radebe, Dr Khulu Mbata and Ambassador Kingsley Mamabolo, to the rest of the African continent to apologise on our behalf about the xenophobic attacks. The leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters Honourable Julius Malema also apologised to the rest of Africa on this matter. It is essential that in these difficult times, South Africa repairs its relationships with the rest of the African continent.

The decision to send envoys to the rest of the African continent, even though it is not universally accepted in South Africa, was the correct one. In this regard, it is essential to note what Kwame Nkrumah said in 1963 at the founding of the Organisation of African Unity, the forerunner of the African Union, when he advised that as Africans “we must unite now or perish.”  

For the sake of African unity and in recognition of our common humanity, we must stop these pogroms at their wake. It is true that as a nation we have economically, politically and socially underperformed and in many ways we are victims of our failures but we cannot be victims of economic underperformance and perpetrators of violence at the same time. We ought to galvanise our society to reconstruct its fundamentals with due care. As we reconstruct our society, let us remember what Kwame Nkrumah advised us when he said “as never before we want thinkers, thinkers of great thoughts. As never before we want doers, doers of great deeds.”

Tshilidzi Marwala is a professor and the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Johannesburg. He deputises President Cyril Ramaphosa on the South African Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution.