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South Africa’s xenophobic hysteria

By Is’haq Modibbo Kawu

Last Sunday, April 19, the alliance of the African National Congress, ANC, South African Communist Party, SACP, and the Congress of South African Trace Unions, COSATU, issued an “Alliance Statement to the African Continent and the International Community”. The statement was in response to the tragic outbreak of xenophobic attacks in several areas of South Africa against African immigrants who were wrongly targeted as taking the jobs of South Africans.

Many people have been killed, including the burning alive on the streets of a Zimbabwean immigrant. Anti-foreigner violence has become a major expression of the social tensions underlining contemporary, post-apartheid South Africa. But the latest killings and rampages had been directly blamed on the Zulu King, Goodwill Zwelithini, who was quoted as having blamed foreigners for the high rate of crimes in South Africa.

A local resident holds a stone and a traditonal Zulu weapon after a skirmish with foreigners as thousands of people take part in the "peace march" against xenophobia in Durban, South Africa, on April 16, 2015. South African President Jacob Zuma on April 16 appealed for the end of attacks on immigrants as a wave of violence that has left at least six people dead threatened to spread across the country. In the past two weeks, shops and homes owned by Somalis, Ethiopians, Malawians and other immigrants in Durban and surrounding townships have been targeted, forcing families to flee to camps protected by armed guards. AFP PHOTO
A local resident holds a stone and a traditonal Zulu weapon after a skirmish with foreigners as thousands of people take part in the “peace march” against xenophobia in Durban, South Africa, on April 16, 2015. South African President Jacob Zuma on April 16 appealed for the end of attacks on immigrants as a wave of violence that has left at least six people dead threatened to spread across the country. In the past two weeks, shops and homes owned by Somalis, Ethiopians, Malawians and other immigrants in Durban and surrounding townships have been targeted, forcing families to flee to camps protected by armed guards. AFP PHOTO

King Zwelithini then publicly suggested that foreigners in the country must “take their bags and go”. It was in response to that suggestion (which was later denied and the King protested that he was misquoted), the South African mob, especially in Kwazulu/Natal, hearkened to the call! By last weekend, reports had emerged that 50 Nigerians had suffered attacks, while our compatriots suffered millions of naira in losses. In different parts of South Africa, foreigners have been uprooted from their homes and businesses and many have sought refuge from the mobs.

Refuge from the mob

Early this week, Nigerians picketed the South African High Commission, while a movement emerged urging the boycott of South African companies such as MTN, SHOPRITE and MULTICHOICE. On Tuesday evening, I was informed that an office of the South African pay TV outfit MULTICHOICE was attacked at a location, leading to a hurried closure of some of their outlets in Abuja.

The outbreak of xenophobic hysteria has only deepened simmering anger against South Africa, especially in Nigeria, where there are many South African businesses making very good profit; however, Nigerians have always resented their business practices which they perceive as being unfair.

Even a well-known human rights group, SERAP, also urged the Nigerian government to take South Africa to the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights to seek effective redress and compensation for Nigerian victims of the xenophobic attacks.

Nigerians have also been angry that South Africans have not sufficiently appreciated the contributions made by Africans in general, and Nigerians in particular, to the struggle for liberation against apartheid. During the 1970s, the Southern African Relief Fund, SARF, helped to raise huge sums of money that went into the education and upkeep of hundreds of victims of apartheid, especially after the Soweto Uprising of 1976. In 2010, I was visiting South Africa, and I went out to a number of nightclubs in Pretoria.

I deliberately interviewed groups of university students to seek how much they knew about the Nigerian role in their struggle. Not a single one knew anything about Nigeria’s place as one of the “Frontline States”; an honorary position which came about as a result of Nigeria’s active support, especially material and financial, for the liberation struggle.

It was a matter of historical fact, that the government of Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa, had been one of the first to give the ANC a million pounds in the 1960s to fight against apartheid! South Africans did not know any of these facts. They recognised the roles of the former Soviet Union and Cuba, as well as the sacrifices of countries like Tanzania, Mozambique and Zambia. But Nigeria? No way!

In truth, one of the central strategies of the apartheid system was to separate South African Black peoples from their brothers and sisters on the African continent. They were systematically brainwashed to believe they are not part of the African continent and that background of deliberate ignorance has conditioned the xenophobic hysteria that breaks out in the country regularly in the past few years.

There is also the related fact that while apartheid has been defeated, the economic inequalities have persisted, despite the remarkable strides made by the post-apartheid governments of the ANC. Unemployment, alienation and despair are still very much part of daily existence for millions of African and Black people in South Africa.

This is in spite of the creation of a few African multi-millionaires. And I think the liberation movement and government have not done enough to systematically educate the people about their joint destiny with the African continent. In truth, the neo-liberal capitalist choice made after apartheid has not helped to eliminate the serious inequalities sown under apartheid capitalism.

In fairness, the joint statement, that I mentioned above, addressed these issues to a very reasonable extent. It stated that it was “saddened by the xenophobic attacks directed at African foreign nationals”.

Crucible of struggle

It went further thus: “We recognise the strong relationship that exists between the National Liberation Movement, led by the ANC, and countries of Africa; which was forged in the crucible of struggle during the dark days of apartheid.

We cherish the unselfish and steadfast contribution made by all African countries and its people to our liberation and our emerging democracy. Many of our fellow Africans spoke in support of our struggle, provided us with material support and fought side by side with us, sharing the trenches and actual combat against our oppressor. Many of them lost their lives in the process…. We will never, for a single moment, forget this support. It is a living evidence of what a united African people can achieve to defeat their common enemy. We unequivocally condemn, in the strongest possible terms, all forms of violence meted against all people, in particular violence against people who are foreign nationals in our country. As the ANC-led alliance, we note the deep-seated socio-economic problems that confront the majority of South Africans and Africans.

The continent as a whole is confronted by underdevelopment and the challenges of unemployment, poverty and inequality…Whatever the challenges confront [SIC] South Africa, they must never be used to justify violence against one another. These attacks are perpetrated against people who have similar backgrounds and are all a product of a painful colonial past which ravaged and looted African economies, leaving our people under conditions of abject poverty.

As a continent we should acknowledge the devastating effects of centuries of colonial exploitation. All of us, without exception, seek to ensure sustainable livelihoods. We call on all our people to be tolerant during this challenging time and to work together to find solutions as South Africans and Africans, in a manner that builds our continent instead of destroying it. We need each other as we build the future of our continent.

The solution to our problems will not be found through killing each other!” These are very lofty thoughts indeed; unfortunately, on the streets of Kwazulu/Natal and other scenes of xenophobic attacks, they are deaf to the wise words of the leading South African political movements.

And that is where lessons of our collective African brotherhood must be taught by the ANC, SACP and COSATU. These xenophobic outbreaks and killings have diminished South Africa on the African continent.

Mutual recriminations, history and a wedding

LAst Thursday morning, I received one of those annoying messages trending about issues arising from the recent elections. It was a quotation from a certain John B. Macintosh, which was patently anti-Igbo and was supposedly an account of what transpired between Nigeria’s Independence Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and his killers, on the morning of the January, 1966 coup.

I was shocked that such a material could be passed around at a time when what Nigeria needed was to begin the process of healing and unity after a divisive and bruising campaign and elections.

I questioned the relevance of such a material in 2015, and wondered why quotations would be extracted outside of the context of those times to try to fight battles of a different epoch. I argued with my friend, also a well-known columnist, that we have a country to build and we should promote materials that help to make Nigeria work for all its peoples.

It worried me further, that later that day, I would be in the midst of middle-aged Nigerian professionals who were positing the same chauvinistic perspectives, especially against the background of the controversy around the alleged curse and threats issued by Oba Akiolu of Lagos against the Igbo in that state if they refused to vote for his preferred candidate in the gubernatorial elections.

Teaching of history

I think one of the greatest disservices done to our country in the past three decades, is the way that the teaching of history has gradually vacated the educational space in our country.

Just like the pay-as-you-go services of phone companies, history has become a terrain of dilettantes, with each one positing versions of historical accounts that cannot stand the scrutiny of scholarship, but are often able to whip up hysteria and hatred in society.

If we do not re-visit the devaluation of history, then we are likely to continue to harvest crises arising from ignorance that comes masked in the most irresponsible framing of our different peoples and our individual and collective historical encounters, in enemy modes that make it difficult to build an inclusive country.

But there are also green shoots of growth that can make us happy, and none moreso, than marriages across the dividing lines of ethnicity and other barriers in our country. Last Friday, I attended the wedding ceremony of Sir Lucky Omoluwa’s daughter, Evelyn in Abuja.

The ceremony showcased Urhobo culture to the fullest with many of Omoluwa’s friends from all over Nigeria, decked in the traditional gears of the Urhobo people. The young lady was getting married to Samson Kato from the Southern part of Kaduna State.

I think ceremonies across these cultural distances help to bind us together away from the bellicose threats that elite groups and denizens of the social media hurl at each other, especially within a political context of struggle for power. Nigerians are living with each other, are building relations of a personal nature or are engaged in business, social, economic, sporting and other relationships, which bind us together firmly, as citizens of the same country where we share the different shades of our humanity.

Those who hurl hysterical threats at each other, or remove historical writings and statements outside of the context within which they emerged do a lot of damage to the peaceful cohabitation of our peoples but in the long run, they won’t determine the present and future of our country.

The small and big gestures of human relationships, such as the marriages across our chasms, as we saw between Evelyn Omoluwa and Samson Kato, last week will triumphantly vindicate the nationalist potentials of the Nigerian society.

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