Xenophobia: Africa reserves right to hit back

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I have been living in South Africa for seven years now and for the greater part of this time I have been made to feel like a burden, a parasite, a nuisance they have to live with by some South African brothers and sisters.

Tatenda Mukwedeya

But there are many who have treated me with respect as a teacher, brother and friend. My balance sheet probably has more of the latter, but this probably has something to do with my profession and the circles I interact with.

However, like everyone else, I have had to interact with bank tellers, law enforcement officers, taxi drivers, etc. Unfortunately on several occasions just because I don’t have that famous green bar-coded ID book or my language or accent is different, I have been made to feel as if I am being done a favour or I have to do something such as a little begging or pay the occasional bribe for the proverbial “cold drink”.

I believe that this perception of migrants has been informing xenophobia especially when the supposed parasite flourishes, but it’s about time we addressed these ignorant perceptions.

The xenophobic milieu we find ourselves in is a complicated one which the following words cannot begin to comprehend. However, I want to address the South African psyche regarding foreign nationals especially the generalised belief that they are sucking the country dry and they are not contributing anything.

Let me begin by illustrating this perception and move away from my personal experiences. At President Jacob Zuma’s address during the 22nd commemoration of Chris Hani’s death in Ekurhuleni, I am sure he felt the need to use the gathering to weigh in on the recent xenophobic attacks.

Among other things he said “it is true that there is a high number of foreign nationals who have entered the country and are living in South Africa illegally, and government is attending to that problem and will ensure that nobody lives in the country illegally or is undocumented”. The crowd then clapped reassuring the President that he is striking the right chord.

He then adds that, “however, many foreign nationals live in South Africa legally and contribute to the life and success of the country. Many are recruited to bring much-needed skills that are scarce in our country that we need to develop our country”.

Of all the positive statements he makes about migrants including this one, the gathering is silent as if it does not agree with Zuma or it is indifferent to the contribution migrants from across the borders have come with. This apparent denial or ignorance over the contributions migrants are making feeds into their perception as parasites.

Perhaps King Goodwill Zwelithini would not see immigrants as lice if he knew how his country’s prosperity is tied to the rest of Africa and its people. There are thousands of teachers in South African schools contributing towards the improvement of the education system. Thousands more farm workers engage in hard labour to contribute to the food security of South Africa. Hundreds more populate the corridors of all South African university departments as professors, lecturers and tutors. Doctors and other medical professionals from many parts of the world, including Africa, are contributing towards the improvement of health and wellness in the country. No wonder the first black trade unionist in South Africa was the Malawian Clements Kadalie.

We must also acknowledge that movement has not been one way towards South Africa.

South African businesses have made great strides into the African continent especially the Sadc countries. Shoprite, MTN, Pick n Pay, Woolworths, First Rand, Sanlam, Nandos, Multichoice, Tongaat Hulett and Standard Bank are some companies yielding significant revenue from their satellite subsidiaries across Africa that channel money to the parent companies on the vibrant Joburg Stock Exchange

Billions in taxable profit are therefore finding their way back into South Africa to build roads, schools, hospitals and into people’s pockets as social grants.

As some leaders agitate for the banishment of foreigners and other locals including government officials and “intellectuals” ululate and legitimise the dastardly xenophobic attacks, they should also think of the possible costs of their actions on the South African economy, reactions of the victims and their countries of origin which are certainly far from passive ones.

If Africa decides to respond to the ongoing crimes against humanity like what they did during apartheid by boycotting the “proudly South African” products, the triple problems of poverty, unemployment and inequality will most likely multiply as economic giants like China and the West are more than ready to supply Africa’s growing markets.

To sum up, the real issues facing South Africa and many post-colonial states are poverty, inequality, illiteracy, racism, unfair global trade practices and unemployment.

So, South Africa should not shy away from facing the deeply structural and historical challenges it faces and we are more than happy to assist as equal African brothers.