Chaos or Community? Xenophobia in South Africa
Chaos or community? This is the question that looms over the beautiful skies of South Africa. A nation once revered for its perseverance in its fight to break free from the chains of apartheid has found itself caught in the eye of regression, a storm of hate and vitriol that it can only hope to recover from. The recent violence in South Africa is a result of long-held xenophobic feelings against the people of Nigeria who saw South Africa as a beacon of hope and a land of opportunity. Buildings are destroyed, cars are set aflame, shops are pillaged, lives are lost, and dreams are removed from reality. Anti-immigrant hatred has brought South Africa to a road of no return.
The hatred begins not with what the Nigerian people have, but in what the South African people lack. Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) made history by ending the era of apartheid in 1994. The end of apartheid was meant to be a new beginning for the people of South Africa. The ANC began a push for social equality and newfound opportunity to amend for decades of racial segregation and discrimination. This was meant to be a new beginning for the country, but this is a nation where Black South Africans, at nearly 80 percent of the country’s population, are constrained by holding little to no power or wealth. White South Africans are ten percent of the country’s population and yet hold more than 90 percent of the national wealth. Black South Africans see that opportunity exists in the country, but realize that it is rarely ever extended to them.
This is the ultimate failure of the South African liberation movement. The people of South Africa may be free on the surface, but economically they are still entrapped in the hands of apartheid. The people are still segregated by the creation of townships by the ANC. Land is equivalent to power, and Black South Africans do not own the land that they live on. Commutes to jobs often take most of their paychecks, leaving little for basic needs. The structural components of apartheid have morphed to fit the function of post-apartheid discrimination. Black South Africans have no hope and no choice but to grow in hate. This is the continuation of the colonial-apartheid mindset that permeated the country before. Historian Kenneth Stampp in 1956 wrote about the psychological indoctrination of a slave in his book The Peculiar Institution. The final step was “to impress Negroes with their helplessness: to create in them a habit of perfect dependence upon their masters.” This mindset of helplessness is what rules the country today.
Nigerian immigrants are seen as an enemy to the South African people, threatening to take their land, their jobs, and their educational opportunities. It is a hysteria seen across the globe these days, from the United States to the United Kingdom, and now South Africa. The people of other African nations stood up to this hatred. Celebrities boycotted the nation. Flights to Johannesburg have been suspended. Countries pulled out of economic forms with South Africa including Nigeria. The message is clear that hate will not stand its legs upon the African people. But the question still remains, where does South Africa go from here?
The various African liberation movements across the continent not only focused on bringing freedom to their perspective regions, but also encouraged a new sense of African unity. A continent plagued by centuries of colonial exploitation will, of course, face immense challenges to reach this goal, but it is a goal, nonetheless. No matter the country affiliation - Nigerian, South African, Ghanaian, etc.- people from countries across the continent are connected on this issue. To engage in xenophobic violence only works to destroy that connection. It is still too early to predict the future of this conflict, though it is clear that unity is the end goal. The rest of Africa has already united against this newfound hate. South Africa, once a beacon of hope, has become the star of criticism. The country and its people need to respond. As the former president of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, once said, “The forces that unite us are intrinsic and greater than the superimposed influences that keep us apart.”