Xenophobia, a bitter eulogy on Ubuntu

The Nigerian election –“ It’s the security Stupid”
April 20, 2015
The dilemma of an African immigrant
April 23, 2015

Xenophobia, a bitter eulogy on Ubuntu

It is a cloudy Thursday afternoon, April 16th 2015, in Johannesburg. I’m on an Uber cab to a nearby Brightwaters Mall in the Randburg Ferndale area. My Uber driver quickly asks me if I have heard the radio alerts about the xenophobic attacks in Durban and how they are spreading like wildfire to Johannesburg’s Central Business District.

We chat a bit and as he adjusts the radio volume, we hear breaking news that President Jacob Zuma is scheduled to address a special session of the National Parliament at 3pm, in Cape Town. This session amongst other things was to give an official statement from the presidency on the bizarre yet callous attacks meted on foreign nationals in Durban, Kwa Zulu Natal Province and parts of Johannesburg, Gauteng Province. The news anchor goes ahead to say that at least six people have lost their lives, several injured and thousands of foreign nationals uprooted from their homesteads and are now camping in football pitches under police protection.

It is not the first time South Africa is faced with this kind of challenge and international shame. In 2008, over 60 people lost their lives with thousands others displaced and repatriated. At a Gathering of Remembrance to honor fellow Africans whose lives were needlessly ended in the May 2008 similar violence, then President Thabo Mbeki, emotionally quipped;

“We have gathered here today to convey to all Africans everywhere, to all African nations, severally and collectively, to our own people, and to the families of the people who were murdered, our sincere condolences, and our heartfelt apologies that Africans in our country committed unpardonable crimes against other Africans.

Gathered here with our heads bowed in shame, we pledge that we will do everything possible and necessary to ensure that we have no need in future to proffer this humble apology, which is inspired by genuine remorse”.

Nearly eight years later, it is undeniable that South Africa is getting back to square one on a matter which is rearing its ugly and gory head in similar fashion – and that President Zuma might as well lift up the above speech and read out afresh like nothing of the sort has ever happened before.

Imperatively, and moving forward, we have to deeply reflect as Africans on the gains and fruits of Freedom, Pan-Africanism, Solidarity, Unity, Brotherhood and the foundational values that our forefathers – Nelson Mandela, Kwame Nkurumah, Jaramogi Oginga, Julius Nyerere, and others gallantly fought for and bequeathed to us. On July 12th 2002, Nelson Mandela, while giving a closing address to the VIX International AIDS Conference in Barcelona, said, “In Africa, we have a concept known as Ubuntu, based upon the recognition that we are only people because of other people.” As Peoples of this great continent, the recent spate of attacks in South Africa only indicate we are on a fast lane to undoing those gains and values that were so painfully fought for and defended by these forefathers.

On a different trajectory, we need to appreciate the broader challenges that face all countries across the continent, which may lead to what is now called competition. These range from immigration and border surveillance challenges, rampant unemployment especially for most African youths, and inadequate provision of basic amenity services by municipal and national authorities across the Nations of the continent. South Africa is battling a high unemployment rate and slow-down of service provision especially in the townships. Yet still, these challenges are not unique to South Africa and as President Zuma said on his address to Parliament on Thursdays, “No amount of frustration or anger can ever justify attacks on foreign nationals – who help us to develop a cosmopolitan atmosphere and also contribute in boosting our economy”.

These challenges are common-place amongst several African nations and must not be allowed by fellow Africans to transcend the sacred values that bond our common humanity. We cannot in this century, turn savage and breed a culture of mass violence. At a rally in Alexandria Stadium, Johannesburg, 19th August 1995, Nelson Mandela said, “We cannot blame other people for our problems. We are not victims of the influx of foreign people into South Africa. It saddens and angers me to see the rising hatred on foreigners”.

All said and done, the State is also presented with every opportunity to do more on intervention fronts so that no more lives are lost and no more folks injured or arbitrarily uprooted from safety of their homesteads. It’s that time for assessing related causal factors and conducting economic self-examination. Long term solutions need to be implemented to ensure that the huge income disparities and economic inequalities need to be nipped in the bud. This may include initiating a National Venture Capital to support growth of small businesses for natives especially in township areas.

Folks should continue honouring the Nelson Mandela vision for Africa by denying racism, afrophobia, and xenophobia – which are calamitous drifts from Madiba’s legacy. The increasingly tarnished image is beginning to alienate the Rainbow Nation from the citizens of other friendly nations yet SA nationals and freedom fighters sought refuge in countries across the continent during the dark days of apartheid.

On Thursday, native Mozambicans at an oil factory chased away their South African colleagues in ‘retaliation’. Zimbabwe has sent a protest note and Malawi sent buses to evacuate over 400 citizens.

With its head currently bowed in shame, are we witnessing an emergence of an Afro-divided Rainbow Nation?

Silas Jakakimba, a Research Fellow – African Democratic Institute;
Full-Time PhD Candidate in Law at the University of the Witwatersrand