Xenophobia is fear of strangers. Afrikans cannot be strangers or “foreigners” in Afrika. What is happening in South Africa is an extreme form of an element we can trace in all Black societies across the world: self-hatred expressed as rage against our own. White Supremacy has disempowered the Afrikan being to such levels that it only reacts with violence: Us killing us.
To Afrikans outside the country, I’m sure you are asking yourself: What is happening in South Afrika right now? You probably hear/see reports about violent clashes, burning of houses and attacks on innocent people. Black South Afrikans attacking Afrikans from other countries. Our family and close friends have not been directly affected, but attacks are literally taking place just few blocks down from our house. And in certain areas this increases and decreases in intensity all around the year. Media is not doing us justice. They decide when (and when not) to make this "trend". Actually, this nightmare is with us every single day (in different ways), and then it escalates to higher levels at times, like now. This is a devastating time. And it’s a long and complicated story.
There are no excuses or valid explanations for this. This type of violence often starts as an explosion of justified frustration as community members react to deep flaws in government services and injust practices destabilizing already impoverished communities. But the escalation of violence has a lot to do with South Afrika's unresolved past, the extreme inequalities that exist and the boiling anger that is under the skin of many South Afrikans. South Afrika is often portrayed internationally as a success-story where the ghosts of the past have been put to rest and where most people now have a more stable income and can enjoy a relatively functional democracy. WRONG!
The basic scenario is as follows: For the majority of South Afrikans, life is a constant fight against impossibilities, having VERY little to sustain life. And, having been promised for 25 years that everything will change, without actually seeing much change at all. The exploited masses have been underpaid and over-enslaved for such a long time that it has become "normal". The government has promised major improvements in regards to employment, housing and public services. Some progress has been made, but many communities are still in desperate need. The disparities between haves and have-nots are huge. The psyche of many South Afrikans has been corrupted and lack the necessary entrepreneurial vision and energy to create a functional "sub-economy" of self determination. There is a high level of violence in the communities - as part of daily life.
Many people are moving to South Afrika from other countries (attracted by the notion that in SA everyone can make a living), and mostly the big cities – Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town and Durban - are seen to be places to find a source of income and send money back home. Due to the cultural legacy of Apartheid, most South Afrikans have an inborn scepticism to other Black "intruders". The Apartheid-regime separated Black people by language and set one group up against the other. Through this practice, over generations, antipathy towards “people who don’t belong here” has been internalized. This scepticism is also closely associated with race, as hatred is rarely expressed against people of European or Asian descent.
People who come from other Afrikan countries with little finance can only find a place to live in communities that are already impoverished. And, here, the battle for survival is HARSH. As people who do not speak a South Afrikan language and mostly rely on linking up with their own nationality/language group when they arrive, become "foreigners" - i.e. seen as a threat and a danger.
People who come with the intention of living in South Afrika for a few years (to raise finance) have a completely different motivation and entrepreneurial energy than South Afrikans who have been at the bottom of society for generations. So, when poor South Afrikans see "foreigners" who are getting richer, are able to buy houses, drive cars and sustain businesses, they come to see them as even MORE of a threat.
Now, in addition to all of this, there are also criminal elements. As we know, crime lives comfortably in already impoverished and "lawless" communities. We also know that crime is big business and is orchestrated by people on higher levels using people on the ground, so that they will never be caught themselves. The people on higher levels, obviously, are looking for street-soldiers who are brave, fearless and innovative in how to maximize profit from drugs, prostitution and other criminal activities. And when crime pays we know that many of our people will be "attracted" to it, as it actually offers big money - which again gives access to big lifestyles (although nowhere near the riches extracted by those who are actually pulling the strings). Some people from other Afrikan countries (mixed with some SAs) will take the risk and create a career from crime.
If you don’t know the bigger story, you can then go through certain sections of town and observe "many Nigerians" or "many Zimbabweans" (and other nationalities) involved in drugs and prostitution. Naturally, Nigerians employ other Nigerians and Zimbabweans employ other Zimbabweans. This makes it look solely like a Nigerian problem or as if Zimbabweans are the worst criminals. Of course, the truth is that only few in the Nigerian community, the Zimbabwean community, and any nationality, are actually involved in crime.
Since many non-South Afrikans feel unsafe (due to violent attacks mounted against “foreigners”), they set up shops next to people of their own nationality, stay close to each other and operate support networks with each other. This is the background to South Afrikans claiming that "these foreigners are taking our jobs" etc. Of course, it is not true. If anything, Afrikans from other nations have broadened the economy (formal and informal) in quite innovative ways and also offer employment to many South Afrikans. Also, the allegations that "all these foreigners are here illegally" has another side. First of all, the notion that “millions of people are flooding into the country” is a hugely exaggerated lie (but works perfectly to build up fear and anxiety). Secondly, getting papers in South Afrika is an absolute nightmare. Systems are incredibly slow and people queue for years, as regulations change and the service stations are messed up. This means that many people do not have official papers, due to slow systems, not because they enjoy being “illegal”.
Back to the point that to some non-South Afrikans, crime becomes the only option. Now, many "regular South Afrikans" who do not take into account what I have explained here face living conditions where they (on top of struggling with housing, water, sanitation etc) now also see their own children and youth being lured into criminal lifestyles that seem to be run by "foreigners". Remember what I said about the SA psyche being marked by an extremely violent past. With these scenarios merging, rage starts to build up due to the powerlessness experienced. And, often, when people are powerless, they need a scapegoat. And an outlet. Being upset at government doesn’t really work (although there are many protest rallies against non-existing government services, too). Being upset with other people who are equally powerless appears to work. So hysteria develops and what has started as legitimate concerns develop to devastating thirst for blood. Reason is erased and marches take the form of hooliganism. People agitate and a spirit of craziness erupts where outcries like "kill them" and "get them out" become choruses.
This is how some shops of "foreigners" are burnt (some may have been used for criminal activities, but many innocent people are harmed in such raids too). In addition to what may have been started by incensed South Afrikan community residents, there are also South Afrikan criminals and "lose elements" who join these marches and escalate the levels of disgruntlement and anger to insane proportions. Such rallies end up being unbelievably violent and meaningless. It is actually scary.
I insist to call this AFRIPHOBIC violence, not Xenophobia. Xenophobia is fear of those that are actual “strangers”. Afrikans cannot be strangers or “foreigners” in Afrika. What we see here is an extreme form of an element we can trace in all Black societies across the world; variations of self-hatred expressed as rage against our own. This is the same Black-on-Black violence we can see in many places across the Afrikan world. White Supremacy has disempowered the Afrikan being to such levels that it only reacts with violence. And instead of directing this violence towards those who actually represent an enemy (in South Afrika it would “make sense” if such rage was expressed against whites who own most of the land, the economy and the production), it is meted out against representations of “The Black Other”.
It is a twisted and dark psychology that expresses itself in many sick ways. In this instance, it ties in with the generations of pain, silence, denial, oppression, looting and dehumanization that Black South Afrikans have accumulated and never resolved. I repeat, this is NOT an excuse or an explanation that justifies what is going on. It just gives a rationale. Without us resolving these issues, we will continue to have outbreaks of this – and even worse – scenarios.
I believe - in addition to everything mentioned above - there are outside instigations, white interests working in the shadows and corruption with state organs involved in this, too. The only relief is that this is NOT the mentality of the majority of South Afrikans. Most South Afrikans are against such violence (although I charge that too few South Afrikans are voicing their disgust strongly enough). The devastating part is that not enough is being done to prevent and stop such violent outbreaks, from the side of state organs and government. This paralyzes society. And the institutions that could help to stop this seem part bewildered, part ignorant and part wanting this to happen. It is devastating.
There are human rights groups and community organizations involved in creating dialogue, calm the tensions and trying to resolve conflicts. But issues of this nature need a STRONG involvement from state organs; a clear and resolute intervention to put a complete stop to this ridiculous violence. Secondly, poverty MUST be addressed. At the root of all this are issues of grave inequality and inhuman living conditions. Thirdly, once this is addressed, dialogues and entrepreneurial exchange/collaboration must be infused into every community. Not just talks, but practical experiences of co-existence. Our company has several modules that we have infused in a number of communities on such issues. But, we are helpless when insane flames of violence are towering above us.
I hope this gives a bit of a picture of what is happening to those who are outside the country.
The struggle continues!
* Baba Buntu is a Pan-Afrikan activist-scholar and community-teacher hailing from Anguilla. He went to Azania/South Afrika first in 1993 and repatriated permanently in 2000 - now living and operating the company eBukhosini Solutions in Johannesburg. [email protected]
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