Today, as a South African, I hang my head in shame. This is not who we are

The false and dangerous stereotypes we hold about other Africans make us no different from our apartheid oppressors.

TODAY, as a  South African witnessing the sheer cruelty that my fellow countrymen - and indeed women -are subjecting our African brothers and sisters to, I hang my head in shame. 

It is a struggle to wrap my head around how a human being could possibly set another  - someone who didn’t lift a finger against them - alight. I am at a loss for words.

Sadly, what we have seen in the last week with the xenophobic is not the first time that these kinds of atrocities are being carried out by Africans against fellow Africans.

In 2004, my daughter, then aged three, and myself visited the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), my husband’s country of birth, to meet my in-laws. This was shortly after the war there that had claimed more than a million lives, ended.

Naturally my family was anxious about my visit, worried that there still remained political unrest.  On arrival however, I received nothing but the warmest of welcomes from his family, and from the other people that I had met during my visit.

What struck me about the Congolese people was just how happy they were for me to be in their country. On one occasion at a bank, the lady helping me, aware that I was not Congolese, became very curious about my origins, and we had a brief but very pleasant chat. At no point did she make me feel a foreigner.

An American “spy”

Later, while still in the country, I visited a place called Kinsuka, unaware that there were soldiers nearby. While on the phone one spotted me, and rushing towards my daughter and I, accused me of being a spy for the Americans. He ordered us to stay put and dashed back to where he had come from.

I cannot explain the fear that came over me: I had heard many horror stories and seen terrifying images of the Congolese war from the media, and immediately felt our lives were in danger.  

Not far off were some workers crushing rock. One had been watching the episode, and remarked just how much my daughter resembled her father. Ordering the driver of the truck carrying the crushed rock to momentarily block the road, he urged me to quickly run away. We fortunately escaped to a family property nearby.

Less than five minutes later as we cowered behind a wall, a truck full of soldiers passed by, looking for us. It was most frightening to realise that we had escaped an unknown fate, and that we owed it due a caring stranger. Knowing the type of the atrocities that female victims of war suffered in the country, I remain deeply grateful to that man for helping us—foreigners in his land—escape.

The “Lekwerekwere”

Back home in South Africa, my husband was at times humiliated and assaulted by the police because he is not South African—they would refer to him by the derogatory term for foreign nationals - “Lekwerekwere”.  There were times that I feared for his life.
Now I fear for my children, and insist that they learn my language so that if ever they were confronted by xenophobes, they can use language to hide the fact their father is not a South African 

It is saddening.

How do I explain the current heartless and inhumane acts of violence to my in-laws, and what do I say to my children? Whatever the reasons, nothing justifies violence and the taking of innocent lives.

Yes, people have genuine frustrations due to socio-economic strife in South Africa, and these are matters that the government must face head on. For those that believe that African foreign nationals are a source of poverty and strife, and I hasten to add that most South Africans strongly reject xenophobia, perhaps the following questions need to be considered.

Will the violence against foreign nationals rid the country of existing social ills and economic strife? Will placing “foreigners” in refugee camps ensure the government delivers services efficiently? Will the dehumanising of fellow human beings, fellow Africans, create jobs or rid the country of crime?

Criminals are both locals and foreign nationals. They do not choose their victims according to nationality; they strike where they see opportunity. But to address this major concern, law enforcement agencies must tackle crime with urgency and seriousness. Part of it is influx control and the documentation of refugees and migrants, as done in any other country on entry.

Forgetting the pain

Anger and frustration at poverty and the lack of efficient service delivery should therefore be directed at the government constructively, not at fellow Africans regardless of whether they are in the country legally or illegally.

The right to all human life and dignity is one of the pillars that our constitution enshrined, and this does not exclude African foreign nationals. We were once treated as foreigners in own country, and it is deeply disturbing that we have forgotten the pain and suffering that we went through, and today feel entitled to treat other human beings the same way. 

The false and dangerous stereotypes we hold about people from other African countries make us no different from our oppressors - our forefathers must be hiding their faces in shame. Where is our sense of Ubuntu? We all come from somewhere and want to just be accepted as human beings.

It is time our leaders took a firm stand and spoke in one voice against xenophobia and prejudicial perceptions and attitudes. 

South Africa is part of the global village and we need to think how these incidents affect foreign investment, the economy, and ultimately the creation of the jobs we desperately seek.

We cannot alienate ourselves and hope to produce a thriving economy without foreign partnerships. We also need to consider that many South Africans travel, work and live in other parts of Africa and overseas, are we not making things difficult for them?

Are we not planting seeds of shock in the minds of other Africans, many whose countries came to our aid in the time of our need?

Why not instead make the effort to educate ourselves about other African countries, instead of perpetuating unfounded Afrophobic prejudices? Africa is for all who live in it.

Let us take the time to know one another, reconnect ourselves with the rest of Africa and realise that we are not enemies. Let us denounce all forms of xenophobia. NOT in our name. We are a peace loving nation, let our actions speak for us.

“Motho ke motho ka batho” my mother tongue for “You are, and therefore I am” (we are human beings because of other human beings). Think about it.

—The writer is an avid traveller and commentator on social issues in Africa. She lives in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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