In 1994 after years of struggling against the divisive and oppressive policies of apartheid, a new era arrived in South Africa whereby all South Africans, regardless of race, creed, colour or any other social grouping attained independence.
In the words of Madiba, South Africa with its myriad of people of diverse ethnic and national backgrounds, became a rainbow nation. The nation which had been isolated from the rest of the world became part of the world and embraced all that comes with being part of a wider community. Indeed South Africa for a while became the shining star of Africa.
Throughout their struggle against apartheid, South Africans were in one way or another helped by their fellow Africans from Zimbabwe to Ethiopia and beyond, as well as other nations abroad. In fact there are some African nationals who were maimed or even lost their lives in pursuit of the liberation of South Africa from apartheid. For those who are not fully familiar with the struggle, I urge you to read Nelson Mandela’s book “Long walk to freedom”.
Today we look at the xenophobic attacks taking place in South Africa and many of us find it incomprehensible that our own brothers, with whom we shared so much historical suffering, can have the callousness to persecute us even to the point of killing some of our brothers and sisters. In this article, which admittedly is not based on extensive research but on my rudimentary understanding of African history, personal experience and secondary information, I try to explain how as an African nation we find ourselves in this embarrassing situation.
During the middle ages, in order to avoid conflicts via the Red Sea and Suez Canal, some European nations vying for the spice trade with India found an alternative route via the tip of Africa which became known as the Cape of Good Hope (now Cape Town). The favourable climate there allowed for economic activities designed to support sailors along this route. It was not long before South Africa as we know it today became a trading zone in its own right, especially after the discovery of many a precious metal further inland, which led to the rapid industrialisation of the country.
With rapid industrialisation, towns grew as workers flocked not only from within South Africa but also other parts of Africa and beyond. Today trying to trace the origins of most South Africans to the era of the first historically recorded Zulu King, Mnguni is akin to looking for a needle in a haystack.
South African tribes have always been proud of their traditions and customs, none more so than the Zulu. This, taken in the context of preservation of moral values and kindred duty, is commendable. However the fact that during mfecane (the period of tribal warfare), the Zulu tribe led by Shaka kaSenzangakhona conquered all those across whom he came, reinforced within the Zulu psyche their invincibility and ultimately perceived superiority over other African tribes.
Furthermore, fast forwarding to the industrialisation era and post-apartheid era, the fact that many Africans left their countries to live and work in South Africa psychologically cemented this notion in some of the Zulu nation, creating a superiority complex over other black nations.
On the contrary, the apartheid system created within the same group the illusion that the white man was superior to them thus engendering an inferiority complex, especially amongst those with little or no education.
Education as a tool
It is well known that almost the whole of Africa at some point or another got involved in some struggle against colonialism, South Africa included. Without delving into the nitty gritty, as a form of protest against apartheid, many South Africans boycotted the educational system and started attacking and ransacking white establishments as a form of protest. To some this culture got ingrained, leading to rampant criminality which continued even after independence.
By contrast many Africans outside South African borders viewed education as a tool not only in the fight against oppression but a gateway to a better livelihood. In these nations parents do whatever it takes to give their children a good education.
Another difference between South Africa and other nations such as Zimbabwe and Zambia is the fact that after independence those governments pursued a policy of educating every child inculcating within their culture the importance of education.
The most unfortunate thing in all this is the failure of many African nations who gained independence prior to South African to ultimately run their countries efficiently. Their failure is epitomised by crumbling economies and mass migration. Whilst this was taking place, South Africa in the meantime, gained independence at which point quite a few whites left leaving a skills vacuum within industry.
In addition some affluent and educated black South Africans emigrated to work abroad or sent their children to universities abroad. These children graduated and found work in the countries of their graduation. Over and above this, the South African government actively encouraged the establishment of black business and skills transfer. This status quo made South Africa a very attractive destination to many.
Consequently many Africans flocked to South Africa, the new found Eldorado. Of these some became highly paid corporate executives, entrepreneurs, small scale traders as well as informal traders. As can be expected there are also some who got themselves involved in criminal activities and as such every African who got arrested increased the belief that foreigners in South Africa were responsible for the high crime rate.
Whilst it must be borne in mind that it is only a small proportion of South Africans who are engaged in xenophobic attacks, the chances are that the majority of the xenophobes are not very well educated, are probably unemployed, believe they are superior to other Africans, fail to comprehend the complexities of a diverse community and fail to understand why the supposedly inferior African is driving the nice car, living in the nice house and dating the beautiful South African girl.
To add salt to injury, a revered Zulu King, a descendent of one of Shaka’s brothers at a time like this then seems to echo sentiments which lay the blame for the xenophobes' failure on the very Africans who are perceived to be enjoying the fruits of a liberated South Africa. Whilst they aspire to the lifestyle of the white man which psychologically would elevate them to his “level” they feel threatened by the “inferior” African who for some reason unknown seems to be faring better than them in their own background. This was always the loaded gun; the king’s speech was the trigger that set it off.
Whilst the South African government has a duty to educate and enlighten its citizens, I do believe that as a human species, we also have a duty to care for each other. We helped our brothers to fight apartheid, now let us help them fight the demon in our midst….ignorance, by showing them we care and involving them in our enterprises and where possible helping them with education and understanding. United we stand, divided we fall.Post published in: Africa News