by +Buti Tlhagale o.m.i.
Nelson Mandela’s oath
When South Africans hurl insults and inflict violence on migrants, when they strip migrants of their belongings and set alight their businesses, they recklessly go against the solemn oath of Nelson Mandela, the revered father of the post-apartheid South Africa. Nelson Mandela made an oath that never again shall a human being be oppressed by another human being. This oath was proclaimed by Mandela on behalf of the New South African nation. He and many other leaders paid dearly. They sacrificed their lives so that South Africans might embrace freedom and walk tall among the nations. Mandela is an iconic symbol of peace. This symbol is inextricably associated with the nation of South Africa. He was the incarnation of the hope that South Africans would triumph against all the odds. Inflicting pain on migrants and refugees is a tragic betrayal of the sacred oath he made on behalf of the people of South Africa. He bequeathed South Africans the values of human dignity, reconciliation, peace, freedom and hospitality. It is hardly 25 years since his death, yet South Africans already trample his legacy underfoot and make a spectacle of themselves. The on-looking nations are no longer impressed.
Atrophobia and memory loss
If the unwarranted violent attacks on migrants and refugees are not brought to a halt, South Africans run the risk of becoming like the oppressors of the apartheid era. The apartheid system brutalised people. It stripped them of their dignity, humiliated them and inculcated a sense of self-hate. Indigenous people were physically segregated and declared foreigners in their own country of birth. This treatment entrenched feelings of revengefulness and bitterness amongst the oppressed. At the launching of the 70’s Group (April 2019) the former President of South Africa, Kgalema Motlanthe recalled a visit of Ali Mazuri immediately after the celebration of Democracy (1994). He said Mazuri prophetically warned that now that South Africa is free, South Africans should be careful not to become villains themselves. Hardly 25 years have passed, some of us South Africans do to our African fellow migrants what our former oppressors used to do to us. South Africans considered their former oppressors as monsters. Today we have become those very monsters. In meting out violence against African migrants we show open hatred. Such hatred against others impairs the dignity of the other and unfortunately reveals the brokenness of the South Africans themselves. The shameless physical attacks on migrants and refugees on spurious allegations that they have robbed South Africans of their jobs is simply disgraceful.
South Africans are put to shame by the migrants who simply show a superior quality of self-restraint in the face of such blatant provocation. A conclusion could be drawn that South Africans who indulge in xenophobia have simply not healed from the wounds of the apartheid era. They are still hurting and are now taking out their anger on their fellow Africans. The apartheid ghosts are ubiquitous. The pillaging and looting of the belongings of the migrants are unashamedly done by the youth while the adults stand by gloating. They received the stolen goods unashamedly into their homes with a misguided sense of triumphant satisfaction. The absence of a consciousness of guilt will continue to undermine the moral fabric of the South African society.
The hardening of attitudes
The skirmishes between migrants and locals happen intermittently at various places. They are unplanned. At times they happen on the back of a service delivery protest over the lack of clean water, electricity, housing, pit-toilets, schools etc. On such occasions the anger and frustration of the local people at government’s empty promises have tended to engulf migrants who live in the same neighbourhood as the protestors. These sporadic confrontations if they go on unchecked, are likely to set up a bad precedent. They hurt people who are involved in them, deeply. They are likely to lead to the hardening of attitudes between locals and migrants. Migrants who are currently the victims will one day seek to retaliate. It is not as if they have taken out an insurance for personal injury or for the loss of their belongings. Whatever they suffer or loose in the unplanned attacks is lost for good. Because these are mob attacks, very few people get arrested, if at all. The victims do not get to see justice being done. They then carry on with their lives burdened with the memory that they have been unjustifiably attacked. They now also have to entertain the fear that such attacks may erupt again in the future.
The anti-foreigner sentiment
The xenophobic attacks reached a point where members of the diplomatic corps felt it necessary to request an explanation from the Minister of Foreign Affairs. As representatives of the African countries in South Africa they could no longer stand by while their compatriots are being attached by local people for no apparent reason. The attacks on migrants cannot just be reduced to hooliganism. These attacks are patently fuelled by anti-foreigner sentiment. Hooliganism under these circumstances is an expression of the anti-foreigner sentiment. If these attacks continue unabated, tension between South Africa and other African countries will begin to show. Foreign governments expect the South African government to quell and diffuse the inchoate tensions brought about by the xenophobic attacks. They expect the government to protect all foreign nationals who live in South Africa. The migrants themselves expect to be treated with dignity, respect and equality. They do not need to be reminded time and again that they are outsiders.
The contribution of migrants
Migrants from Lesotho, Malawi and Mozambique have been involved in the mining sector for decades even though they do not have much to show for it. Migrants bring skills into the economy. Those who run businesses provide employment even to the local people. Many are involved in the informal sector of the economy. The contribution of migrants to the economy is significant. But they also contribute in other ways. Migrants bring along with them the passion to succeed, industriousness, cultural diversity, and sense of openness to the world as opposed to a narrow inward-looking nationalism and isolationism. Migrants display a rich cultural diversity in a form of customs, traditions, fashion, music and the arts. They are the bearers of the new religious movements which have swept South Africans off their feet. Finally, they demonstrate a strong virtue of courage to cross borders and to explore new possibilities in order to enhance their lives.
Migrants and asylum seekers demand that their dignity as human beings be recognized and that they be accorded the respect given to all persons. They frown upon being considered as foreigners or outsiders who deserve to be harassed, intimidated, punished and even threatened with deportation. Their desire is to be given a chance to find new opportunities and to live peacefully with their neighbours. If confrontations continue to dominate the relationships of migrants and the local people, South Africa should not be surprised one day when South Africans who live in different African countries are singled out, attacked or victimised because of the intolerance and resentment shown to migrants in South Africa. A fall out between South Africa and other African countries can only have disastrous consequences, hence the urgent need to dissipate tensions whenever they appear in the different communities.
An appeal to youth
Young people have invariably been always in the forefront of the struggle for justice. The youth of 1976 hastened the advent of democracy in South Africa. The Economic Freedom Fighters, a political party of young people, is a thorn in the flesh of the African National Congress. The Fees Must Fall movement of university students twisted the arm of President Zuma to authorise free university education for certain categories of students. The unplanned intermittent attacks on migrants and refugees are reprehensible acts of injustice. Such attacks are aimed at excluding and stigmatising migrants. Where then are the charismatic young people who would take the side of the oppressed migrants. Their silence is deafening. Their prophetic voices appear to have been muted at a time when their support and solidarity would have made a significant difference. The virtue of hospitality amongst South Africans is at present a scarce resource. They do not take kindly to Africans who share their skin-colour. The ruling party has a maxim: Bathʹo pele (people first). Migrants are also human beings (bathʹo).