The images and stories of violence against foreigners in South Africa remain stark. Xenophobia and its violent manifestation have taken centre stage yet again.
Some Africans living in South Africa have had to re-evaluate their continued presence in the country as news of the violence against their kith and kin spread. People, myself included, can attest to receiving calls from panicking relatives back home concerned about their safety. The violence was largely in the townships and city centres with those living and working in higher income areas still able to go about their business without much fear. A lot of finger pointing and theorising about the reason for the outbursts of violence continues and a lot of emotional debates were had.
I believe the orgy of black on black violence that has, at times, characterised the South African political and social landscape can be traced back to an education system (formal and informal) that was aimed at ensuring that black South Africans regarded their fellow black South Africans and more so fellow Africans, as inferior to other races. A system that was entrenched in the years of the Bantu Education Act and its draconian racism. Hence you will find stories of black apartheid era policemen and sellouts who derived much pleasure in the suffering of their black brothers and sisters. Sadly, this disdain for fellow blacks seeped into a small but lethal group of South Africans and now manifests itself in xenophobia against fellow Africans, or as some prefer to call it, ‘Afrophobia’, a fear of ‘Africans’ or more aptly, a fear of the self. Indeed, despite the dawn of democracy and attempts to revamp the education system, it still has not adapted to eliminate the hate of the black “other”.
The disregard for the concept of “umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu“, that is, “a person is a person through other persons”, in our formal and informal education systems is one of the main reasons we find ourselves where we are today. As an individual you are taught or are supposed to be taught about your position and role in the family, greater society, your country and hopefully your continent. Your outlook as an individual affects (or should affect) your family’s place and role in society, your society’s role in your nation and your country’s role in the wider global community.
If children don’t know they are African, teach them…
As a young boy attending primary school, my place in our small farming town was clearly defined. I was everyone’s child and I had a duty to my community to be respectful to my elders and to coexist well with my peers. The lessons we were taught, particularly in the general knowledge subject commonly called “Content,” were geared at teaching us more about our world. One of the things that was drummed into us was our supposed oneness as Africans and our country’s role in Africa. Most who went to primary school in Zimbabwe will remember textbooks that had all the SADC (if not all African) countries at the back and each one had a special role listed against it. Zimbabwe was the breadbasket, South Africa was known for gold mining, Zambia for copper mining, Botswana for diamond mining and cattle and so on.
Zimbabwean musicians such as Oliver Mtukudzi, Thomas Mapfumo and Cde Chinx Chingaira sang songs about the African struggle for independence. It was through the version of “Senzeni’na” sung by Albert Nyathi that I got to know of African heroes such as Dedan Kimathi, Solomon Mahlangu, Lillian Ngoyi and Chris Hani.
You could ask any primary school child about the liberation wartime leaders of the African countries and they would tell you the leaders of all the African Countries and their liberation wartime heroes.
African unity and a brighter prosperous future for Africa seemed at the forefront for our governments. I do not quite know where we lost the plot; all I know is pan-Africanism is now a hollow slogan.
It is as a result of our awareness of our and our country’s role in the greater African project that I believe we did not have mass scale xenophobic or “Afrophobic” attacks in other African countries that were sheltering South Africans fighting the Apartheid government in exile or the Mozambicans, Angolans and Congolese escaping civil war in their countries. I remember reading an article on Xenophobia by Isaac Nkama in which he discussed how Zambia prevented xenophobic violence and I could relate.
After the dawn of democracy in South Africa, nothing much was done to make the South African youth aware of their place and their country’s place in the African community. Former President Thabo Mbeki tried with NEPAD but the real work has to be done in schools and communities.
It is disheartening to hear South Africans talk about “Africa” as if it’s some faraway place which they are not part of. Recently I had the misfortune of listening to a clip of South African students being asked about the likes of Kwame Nkrumah, Kenneth Kaunda, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere and Ahmed Ben Bella. None of the students – aged somewhere between 16 and 19 – had a clue who these luminaries of African liberation are or where they are from. How then do you expect our youth to appreciate that we are one continent with a common future regardless of whether you are a South African in Angola, a Zimbabwean in South Africa or a Nigerian in Zimbabwe? South Africa remains the only African country that does not celebrate Africa Day (25 May). This sends the message that there is South Africa and then there is “Africa” of which South Africa is not really a part except when it comes to such things as the Africa Cup of Nations, the All Africa Games and the like.
Until South Africa teaches its people of the country’s place and role in Africa and acts like it is a part of Africa, I fear we will continue to witness the attacks against other Africans.