13 May, 2015

‘Xenophobia’ and Being a ‘Proud’ Citizen in Post-Apartheid South Africa

by Sayaka Kono

Again, massive ‘xenophobic’ attacks threatened foreign nationals in South Africa. The saddest thing is the fact that both the victims and the assailants are the ones who suffer from poverty. South Africa is economically highly developed compared to its neighbour countries. That is the very pull factor for the migrants, but at the same time, this development has become possible because of the economic oppression of the majority. At first, it was the oppression of the South Africans who were excluded from the South African state and the Africans in the neighbor countries. After 1994, however, the structure of the oppression was continued. The matter is not the colour anymore, but the oppressed are still oppressed except for a few.

I stayed in one of the poor areas in a township for oral history research. The area I normally stay is full of shacks and mud houses. Many of the residents are unemployed. HIV/AIDS affects a lot of households. I could see that people were not satisfied with the current government. Interestingly, however, I found that many people were so proud of talking about their own country, even though they felt they had not been treated properly by the ANC government. The common reason they mentioned is South Africa’s development. I heard many people showed a pity to the migrants from other African countries, saying that their countries are poor or ‘uncivilized’. That is why, they said, the migrants had to come to South Africa. The similar perceptions can often be seen not only among the poor South Africans but also among other stratus, even the emerging African middle class who gain benefit from the new government.

The aftermath of attacks in Botshabelo, 2012

Being proud of one’s own country is not a bad thing, but it can be a dangerous thing as well, since it might let people be blind to where they are in the world. And I believe that this is exactly what is happening to many of the people who have grown up in South Africa. During the apartheid era, people were isolated from information. Media was monitored by the government. Education was also controlled by the government. Thus people were forcefully kept ‘ignorant’ by the apartheid government. A similar situation continued in the poorer areas even after 1994. Education is corrupted, and the access to information is very limited there. The little change is that all the people know that ‘ANC ended the apartheid and we have freedom’. The structure of the oppression has not changed yet as I mentioned above. However, since they still live in a very narrow world which is arbitrary limited, many people easily believe that the migrants from the neighbor countries come to South Africa because South Africa is ‘nice and rich’, without seriously thinking about how these migrants perceive their life there.

Allow me to use the example of the Zimbabweans I met in South Africa. Some of them are educational elites at university. Others are street venders and factory workers. Very few among them told me that they were comfortable living in South Africa. Although many of them want to stay in South Africa for economic or political reasons, they miss their country. Mealie meal which is not GMO, kitchen gardens which you can hardly see in South Africa, daily conversation which is not always materialistic. They could list up so many things they miss in their country. From this list, I had the impression that the major difference they mentioned are caused by the neoliberal culture in the post-apartheid era. I became more confident with this impression of mine when I visited Harare. Most of the people with small informal business on the streets had experienced staying in South Africa, or have close relatives there. Although they admit political and economic hardship in Zimbabwe, they prefer to stay in their country at the time of my interviews, not only because of their family and friends but also the difference of the sense of value, life style and so on.

A kitchen garden in Harare

Here I am not saying which country is better, but pointing out that there are different values which many Zimbabweans cherish, and many South Africans do not know. Furthermore, these differences might be what South Africa has lost by their adoption of neoliberalism. This might be what the ‘proud’ South African poor do not understand. They would not understand what the migrants sacrifice to come to South Africa. They are left behind in the competition, but they are not even allowed to realize what they have lost.

My point is the feeling of despair which has been strengthened through their ‘ignorance’. They are suffering from poverty. But they know their country is developed and ‘rich’, and they are proud of it. They can even see their ex-fellow comrades owing huge houses and driving very expensive cars. The ANC says that this is a free country and that apartheid is over. Many migrants from ‘poor’ countries are working here and there. So they should also be able to get benefit from it. They should also be able to improve their lives, but the reality expressed by many is, “South Africa should be the best country, and I am a citizen of that best country. But why are we struggling to get a job?”

I would not apply this perception to all the South African people. Nonetheless, I cannot help but be left with the impression that many South Africans are locked up in a very small world bound hand and feet by the complex apartheid legacy. There are various grass-roots movements protesting the structure of the oppression. The South African government, however, does not have time to waste. Yes, it has been only twenty years since the abolishment of the apartheid laws. Yet, people’s dissatisfaction is growing faster than the country is changing. The explosion of the hopelessness and anger expressed through the attacks towards foreign nationals will not stop until the fundamental issues are seriously acknowledged and addressed.

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