Xenophobia: what have we done?

The now iconic image of a refugee from Mozambique being burnt alive on May 18, 2008, in Reiger Park informal settlement east of Johannesburg. The police who came to his assistance were too late to save his life.

During the struggle against apartheid in South Africa the plaintive song Senzeni na (“What have we done?”) was often sung as a protest against the injustice of segregation and oppression. However in the context of the so-called xenophobic attacks during May 2008 the song has taken on a new meaning for South Africans. It is no longer a song of righteous indignation and protest but one of confession and horror at what has become of the ideal of the rainbow nation.

The anti-immigrant attacks, which claimed the lives of over 60 people (among them a number of South Africans) and displaced over 40 000 immigrants from other African nations – many of whom have been living and working in South Africa for decades – has exposed the dark underbelly of ubuntu. The African philosophy of ubuntu, that our identity is rooted in our connection with others, in theory claims to be a universal human value. However in practice time and again it has proved to be limited to those who are of the same race, religion, tribe or nation.

Conflicts between Tutsi and Hutu in Rwanda and Burundi, between Kikuyu, Kalenji and Luo in Kenya, between Muslim and Christian, Northerners and Southerners, in Sudan and Nigeria, and now between South African citizens and African immigrants, show that tribal, religious and national identities run deeper than the superficial allegiances of the much vaunted African Renaissance. Of course in these conflicts the triggers have been competition over political and economic control and patronage but in each case the fault lines have been drawn along tribal and religious lines. Even in Zimbabwe where the opposition to Mugabe is supported by both Shona and Ndebele, it is far stronger among the Ndebele in the South who suffered under Mugabe’s feared 5th Brigade in the 1980s (a period of ethnic cleansing called Gukurahundi which has still never been acknowledged by the Zanu PF government).

In South Africa there can be no simplified or essentialist explanation of the recent mob violence against immigrants. It is true that the immediate context of the violence is the rocketing price of food and fuel against a backdrop of chronic unemployment and poverty in the townships surrounding the major cities. A lack of service delivery and under-performing government departments (especially the Home Affairs department that deals with immigration issues) have exacerbated frustrations. Some voices from government and the media have even been murmuring about a shadowy ‘third force’ that planned and orchestrated the violence (highly unlikely indeed!). But none of these factors sufficiently explain why African immigrants have been the sole target of mob frustrations and violence (and members of minority South African tribes mistaken for foreigners).

The complex roots of the problem go back much further. Sporadic attacks against African immigrants have been taking place in South Africa since the late 1990s. A group representing Somali immigrants claims that since 1998 400 Somalies have been killed in anti-immigrant attacks. Almost every black Zimbabwean in South Africa (and estimates are that there are over 2 million Zimbabweans in the country) has a story of being mugged, beaten, or harassed by locals and even law enforcement officials. This shows that a vengeful hatred of African immigrants has existed almost as long as the new South Africa has been in existence, despite the fact that countries like Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique gave tremendous support to the ANC exiles during the struggle years.

Locals I have spoken to in the townships of Cape Town say the reasons for this xenophobia are that foreigners – specifically black, working class Africans – take their jobs and women. It is sometimes true that African immigrants manage to find employment, but that is generally because they have higher levels of education and training than their South African counterparts (who are disadvantaged by the history of a very poor Bantu education system under the apartheid regime and a still failing system under the present government) or because of an entrepreneurial spirit that is lacking among locals. Immigrants allege that locals have an apathetic sense of entitlement, expecting the government to provide housing and jobs. And sometimes local women do chose to move in with immigrants who have a stable income: in a poor and patriarchal community love and necessity often merge! However most immigrants struggle and suffer alongside their South African neighbours, subject to the same economic and social challenges.

All of these factors and perceptions are relevant to explaining the recent proliferation of anti-immigrant attacks. However none seem to address the root causes: the deep seated prejudices that underlie so many conflicts on the African continent and the even deeper feelings of insecurity and identity confusion.

There are three levels at which one would expect Africans to be sensitive to prejudice, oppression and injustice.

First, there is the traditional understanding of what it is to be human in African thought; the notion of ubuntu. This is a fundamentally relational and communal concept of the self. Indeed, there is no such thing as an individual self. Self-identity is rooted in the network of relationships which one is born into – relations with nature, the spirit world, the ancestors, family, clan and tribe – all understood as an integrated whole. Hence the harmony of the whole is paramount – if one part of the relational system suffers or is disturbed, the whole system becomes unbalanced. Widows, orphans and the poor must therefore be cared for by the rest of the community and those who disturb the harmony of the community are severely punished or banished. To some extent this is still how rural communities in Africa function and the ideal remains, but on a larger scale the system is irretrievably damaged, as Chinua Achebe so powerfully illustrated in his novel Things Fall Apart.

Second, there is the legacy of colonialism and slavery, and in South Africa apartheid. With colonialism a reductionist and imperialist understanding of worldview, culture and religion led to a denigration of African cultures as vicious, simple-minded and superstitious. Coupled with simplistic understandings of Darwinian natural selection, Africans were seen as genetically inferior and sometimes therefore less than fully human. Christian missionaries may have had more benevolent attitudes and motives, but in practice their actions were often just as disastrous for social cohesion and self-esteem in traditional African communities.

Third, the phenomenal spread of Christianity which occurred mostly in the post-colonial era when African Christians started taking over leadership roles in the church from Western missionaries and inculturating the gospel in an African idiom. Sub-Saharan Africa is now in the region of 75% Christian and it is in the church that many have found a sense of communal identity that had been lost with the collapse of traditional social structures. A recent World Values Survey in South Africa found that the church is the most trusted institution in the public sphere.

One would therefore think that the combination of the traditional African value of ubuntu, a sensitization to prejudice and oppression from the colonial and apartheid era, and the Christian ethic of loving one’s neighbour (the ‘other’), would mitigate against the kind of horror we have witnessed in conflicts all over the continent and so recently in South Africa.

The hard reality is that although many do quietly live by these virtuous values of compassion, reconciliation and peace-making, many more are overwhelmed by a memory of bitterness and a present reality of competition and frustration.

The shadow side of ubuntu, postcolonialism and contemporary Christianity in Africa is that a healthy sense of self-in-community as liberated, African followers of Christ still largely escapes us.

A truly pan-African solidarity and identity has been marred by a narrow living out of ubuntu which only stretches as far as my language group, my colour, my tribe or my national borders – or for that matter, my species. Postcolonial thought has too often not been able to move beyond an inferiority complex towards the West where escape to North America or Europe – geographically or mentally – is the dream (and I do not just refer to the dream of Western wealth). And African Christianity is too often seen only as a spiritual reality; a passport to heaven through righteous living and a battle with the spiritual forces of sickness and calamity. The growing influence of prosperity teaching and the abuse of power by Church leaders is another sign that the gospel being lived out is neither biblical nor truly African.

Generally speaking, Africans are still struggling to form an authentic and integrated identity that incorporates the lessons of history. An identity that has moved beyond a romantic vision of the pre-colonial past; that has incorporated the ideals of ubuntu as universal human rights and responsibilities; that has freed itself from the mental slavery of Western superiority; and that is rooted in an holistic and contextual theology founded on the biblical gospel of reconciliation and transformation in all spheres of life. Only then will we be whole and secure enough to deal with the serious challenges that face us.

This is the renaissance and re-formation we yearn for, a truly African reformation.

One thought on “Xenophobia: what have we done?

  1. Great article Marius, I think that you can still develop it further. I like your title it reminds me of the days of struggle. I am sure you will recall the popular song senzeni na -“what have we done.” It used to be sang by comrades during the marches and funerals of the victims of violence. I think you could use the Xhosa version and your english translation in your footnotes to attract your readers. Zolile Rashe

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