25 May, 2013

Xenophobia in Contemporary South Africa

by Hussein Solomon

I write this on the 25th May – Africa Day. It is a day meant to celebrate African continental unity and its achievements since the establishment of the Organization of African Unity – the predecessor of the African Union- exactly 50 years ago today.

Unfortunately, local South Africans chose to celebrate this day with attacks on foreigners – especially African foreigners – in their midst in the townships. These were physically assaulted and their shops looted. Worse, were reports that the South African police largely stood by and watched these atrocities being committed. It was in 2008 when violent xenophobia in South Africa made it to the international stage as the world televisions cameras zoomed in on the torching of a Mozambican immigrant whilst the jeering crowds laughed at his agonizing cries as he burnt to death.

If truth be told, however, xenophobia in this flawed “Rainbow Nation” long predated 2008. As early as 1990, huts of Mozambicans were set alight by local South Africans. As South Africans, drew closer together overcoming its apartheid past, it seems that another “otherness” came into being – “we South Africans against other “other” barbaric foreigner”. Survey after survey taken of South Africans has demonstrated that this virulent ethno-centric nationalism is on the rise. What make xenophobia in South Africa unique from other countries though is that as educational qualifications increase, xenophobia against the proverbial other also increases. In almost all other countries surveyed, xenophobia decreases as educational qualifications increase on the part of the host community.

What all this points to is that South African – across races and cultures – continue to live against Africa as opposed to with Africa. More South Africans are overwhelmingly ignorant of Africa. I recall showing some photos of African and Western leaders to my undergraduate students. Few could correctly identify the African leaders but almost all knew who the Western leaders were. This is unconscionable.

If South Africa’s leaders wish to turn this around we need to re-examine our school and university curriculum and re-educate future citizens on this continent’s rich heritage. The media need to cover Africa more and television and radio executives need to focus more on the African continent.

It is ironic too that in the midst of the nightmare of apartheid, the continent joined hands to liberate South Africa. They bore a terrible price for their commitments to all South Africans freedom. With the dawn of a new democratic dispensation, we have opted to turn our backs on the continent.

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