FEATURE ARTICLE

Ibibia Lucky WorikaTuesday, May 27, 2008
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Port Harcourt, Nigeria

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THE PARADOX OF SOUTH AFRICA'S AFRO-PHOBIA

hose conversant with South Africa's politics could easily attest to the fact that, the end of apartheid signalled a new hope for a country that had long been embroiled in racial bigotry and political exclusion, twin evils that led to the death of countless South Africans, including the 27-year imprisonment of Nelson Mandela, who in a twist of fate, became the first President of a new multi-racial South Africa. South Africa held great hope and promise, because in the prosaic world of actual reality, it demonstrated an experimentation of one of humanity's most noble concepts - tolerance!


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The word, "Tolerance" is often used, but with little regard to its deep connotations as well as practical implications. Depending on one's reference, tolerance may be defined as 'a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, etc., differ from one's own; freedom from bigotry.' Its synonyms - broad-mindedness; open-mindedness; lenience, forbearance and charity all capture its essence. Without intending to sound hyperbolic, it may be said that the earth itself embodies tolerance. To both creationists and evolutionists, the practical utility of tolerance cannot be overemphasized. Its absence is, perhaps, the root cause of most of humanity's woes including civil wars, strife and genocide.

It is against this backdrop that, the recent violence against foreigners, especially migrant workers must be condemned by all right-thinking persons. The ferocious attacks which began in Alexandra on May 11th gradually spread to townships and settlements around Johannesburg reaching parts of the city; going forward through a squatter camp near Cape Town and eventually to Cape Town and Durban. Prime targets of these mob attacks have been Zimbabweans, Somalis, Mozambicans, Zambians, Tanzanians and Nigerians. In the process, other ethnic minorities in South Africa such as Vendas and Shangaans have had their homes and businesses looted by those allegedly preventing increased wave of crime in South Africa. These indiscriminate attacks have led to the raping, maiming and killing of black immigrants of various nationalities. It is reported that at least 42 people have been killed and more than 25,000 driven from their homes in 12 days of attacks by mobs that accuse other African migrants of taking their jobs and fuelling crime.

Reflecting on this parody, Andile Mngxitama in City Press, a South African newspaper reasoned that, "Negrophobia or the hatred of blacks, has reached fever pitch in South Africa with the recent attacks on black Africans in Pretoria, Alexandra and Diepsloot…The rise of Negrophobia is the logical conclusion of our failure to decolonize our minds and also socioeconomic realities…The root cause of these attacks rests deep in our colonial and apartheid history."

Another writer, Justice Malala in Times another South African daily blamed the South African government's refusal to even acknowledge the crisis in Zimbabwe, which has resulted in as many as three million Zimbabweans walking the streets of South Africa as responsible for the current crisis. He maintained that, "If President Mbeki and his deputy president Zuma, had acted decisively on Zimbabwe nine years ago these Zimbabweans would not be here today. His refusal to address the crisis in Zimbabwe - and his friendship with President Mugabe - has brought them here. His block-headedness is directly responsible for the eruption of xenophobia." This opinion is shared by Peter Fabricius in Cape Times, who views the eruption of xenophobia as taking place within a wider context of national and foreign policy - "…the inadequate response to the refugee or illegal immigrant problem further aggravated by a foreign policy shortcoming, namely, Pretoria's failure to acknowledge, fully, that there is a crisis in Zimbabwe and that it had repercussions beyond its own borders."

Even if one were to accept the argument, which though having no empirical basis sounds plausible that, immigrants from Zimbabwe and other African countries take over South African jobs and fuel crimes, it is still demonstrable of South Africa's failure to articulate and effectively implement a coherent immigration, economic as well as security policy. President Thabo Mbeki, while not admitting any of these shortcomings, called the wave of deadly attacks on migrants an "absolute disgrace" and said his government would take all measures to bring those responsible to justice. As reassuring as this may sound, the South African government should do much more. Admittedly, nothing, absolutely nothing can bring back the dead. But, it can begin to take positive measures including compensation to heal the wounds that have been inflicted on thousands of Zimbabweans, Malawians, Mozambicans, Somalis or even Nigerians that have lost relations, homes and businesses to South Africa's street urchins. While not all attackers can easily be identified, there is an urgent need to identify as many of them as possible and punish them to the fullest extent permissible under the law.

Beyond these, South Africa needs to overhaul its immigration policy. An immigration policy that refuses entry to Nigeria's Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka until the intervention of the wife of Nelson Mandela sometime in 2005, while allowing millions of illegal immigrants' entry is certainly not coherent at all. This policy which is typical of the U.S. and other European countries, wherein those with legitimate businesses willing to subject themselves to official immigration procedures and formalities are harassed and subjected to all kinds of indignities, while literally millions of illegal immigrants gain unrestricted access to these countries predisposes one to silence. It is obvious that South Africa has no structures in place to either check or contain illegal immigrants.

The Economist (May 24th 2008), quoting the South African Institute for Race Relations reckons that illegal immigrants make up roughly 10% of South Africa's population of 48 million. That's certainly a huge number by any stretch of imagination, yet illegal immigrants live on the fringes of the economy in South Africa. The irony is that otherwise skilled workers like teachers or doctors work as gardeners or other menial labourers. A new policy thrust that legalizes foreigners' status could move them into mainstream economy where their contributions could better boost South Africa's economy.

One cannot agree more with Rich Mkhondo writing in the Pretoria News that, "Xenophobia (Negrophobia or Afro-phobia) is not going to go away until society itself confronts its history of bigotry, intolerance, and hatred against people from other countries, particularly African countries." South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission was certainly targeted at both the perpetrators and victims of apartheid. Absent evidence of a history of bigotry or intolerance by neighbouring Africans against their brother and sister South Africans, it is difficult to imagine how Negrophobia or Afro-phobia can be confronted. To think that those who contributed in no small measure towards the freedom that black South Africans are enjoying today, not least the front-line States (Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Nigeria, Mozambique, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and, from 1980, Zimbabwe.) should now become the brunt of targeted xenophobic violent attacks is not only disgraceful, but a shameless idiocy.

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