Maverick Citizen

Maverick Citizen Op-Ed

Xenophobic attacks: ‘We expect it at least once a year’ – like Christmas

An un-named Mozambican women carries her belongings to a truck at a refugee camp, in Johannesburg in September 2019, set up for those affected by violence against foreign nationals. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Kim Ludbrook)

Xenophobic or Afro-phobic attacks are as regular as Christmas for refugees in South Africa. We have to expect it to happen at least once a year.

According to an article in New Frame, residents of areas in Thokoza, South Johannesburg, cited frustration about their own mass unemployment to justify evicting migrant neighbours and burning their property in the streets. It was reported that 124 spaza shops, stalls and other businesses in the area were either damaged or looted. Some community members go door to door chanting “we are sanitising” as if being a migrant is a virus now.

I believe the virus in South Africa is not an immigrant. The virus is corruption. It is a shame and disgrace to hear these words from our community members. This is a seriously deadly slogan that can even destroy the nation.

There are lots of misunderstood issues, perceptions and misguided judgments: like when you see any Asian anywhere in the country, he/she is a foreigner, when you see a Muslim, he/she is a foreigner, when you see drug dealer, he is a foreigner.

This is a threat which actually may lead to loss of many innocent lives and properties. On top of that, these wrongful sayings and words prevent us from integrating, from trusting and from unifying with each other.

The other, most dangerous thing that needs to be addressed immediately is false alarm memes. Recently, somebody sent me a Whatsapp message that said: “#Put South Africans First: Remove immigrants from our CBDs, stop immigrants from operating small businesses, stop immigrants from getting social grants, stop immigrants from operating churches.”  

Most people take memes as a joke, but this kind of meme can destroy an individual or many lives. Memes like these might be created by any single individual and circulated for millions on the internet. When any vulnerable, desperate, unemployed, unaware South African youths read these messages, what do we think they feel? How do they react? How do they relate to their day-to-day life of hardship?

Because of these memes, how many lives and assets can be lost? How far or how much will it contribute to or encourage violence in our community.

Most memes have no obvious facts, like who created them and for what purpose. The memes I am talking about are systems that we accept as our culture or norms and are hidden tools – it’s difficult to know where and how it starts, sometimes they are purposely hidden to a specific group circulated to blackmail, scapegoat or attack other groups for their own benefit.

And it spreads like wildfire and sometimes as quickly as a virus. They are actually the most dangerous, yet-to-be-uncovered virus in our community.

Too many people have nothing to survive for and don’t know where to go, but we hear in the news frequently that funds have been taken everywhere in the country. But we do not hear justice being served frequently.

I believe the reason why many South Africans distance themselves from fellow African refugee brothers and sisters is linked to these false memes. They contribute to the xenophobic attacks on refugees, the hatred and discrimination. These memes are circulating in society and are poisoning specifically the youth (because youths are vulnerable powerhouses), so that he/she will be easy to victimise. These memes are purposely used as propaganda with hidden agendas by those who are benefiting from it.

The real question that needs to be asked is every time there is a xenophobic/Afro-phobic attack in South Africa, it starts either in a township or in a small town, not in Sandton or Rosebank or Sunninghill or Cape Town or Constantia… Why is that? Why is it always in Soweto or Jeppestown or Alexandra?

The naked truth is South Africa is the most unequal country in the world and its poverty is the “enduring legacy of apartheid”. Inequality in the country has increased since the end of apartheid with black South Africans at the highest risk of poverty.

Mainly in townships and across the main xenophobic hot-spot sites in the country, community members raise burning issues like basic electricity supply, basic water, households, education, healthcare, job opportunities, social justice like drugs, crimes and the horrifying abuse against women and children, infrastructure development like schools, health centres, youth centres, roads and transport, poor governance, and the main virus, which is corruption. 

How can we imagine billions of budget rands, including Covid-19 funds being stolen by a few corrupt officials through shamelessly dodgy tenders while many of our beloved ones continue to die in the pandemic, and many thousands are in bed?

What kind of humanity is that? Where has our mentality and dignity gone?

Those who stole public funds may enjoy themselves for some time or can even take their children to the best school or buy the latest car or luxurious house. But what they do not even try to realise is that they did not steal only money, they stole many lives that are supposed to be lived, and many resources that can ease the lives and suffering of the poor.

The money that they steal is supposed to be used to build roads for the cars they drive, hospitals so that many lives can be saved, schools for the new generation to come and homes for the needy.

Since the corruption in South Africa is highly connected and poisoned from top to bottom, the government could not do more than the usual barking for some time and soon this will be replaced and we will hear of another scandal.

When it comes to our case, the government and other sectors are covering up for big snakes and are always targeting the poor. That is why we have this big gap and unbalanced life between our societies. That is why now and in the past, there were service delivery strikes almost everywhere in the country.

Too many people have nothing to survive for and don’t know where to go, but we hear in the news frequently that funds have been taken everywhere in the country. But we do not hear justice being served frequently.

Let’s ask ourselves this: How and where do our children spend most of their time? Library or clubs? Gym or smoking weed or drinking? The tavern and clubs are countless everywhere in the country, but not youth centres. What do we expect from this generation then?

I think the government should focus on the youth, investing more in civic education – we should teach our children at home about their stories, about African history. Everything starts at home. And at school, teachers must be a role model for the kids who grow to look up to them. Investing in schools, investing more in creative skills development programmes and entrepreneurs – these are the investments that can shape the country’s future.

Even though we live in a globalised world in the 21st century, where the world is getting closer to one another to become one, where human brains are so powerful to reason before action, and super creative to unify the world, we still live in a society that hasn’t recovered from the previous era – unsettled, uninformed, frustrated, untrusting with unbalanced economies and lifestyles, and poor integration across society.

A youth without a reading habit, a place where he/she has to practice skills and no hope becomes a lawless citizen. But who should be blamed?

This is how the birth of violence starts and to apply the violence, you need to find the weakest link because you need government attention. This is where xenophobia is born and the most vulnerable targets in this country are refugees because they are not protected by the law or government. They have been victims of attack for many years which are still continuing.

People have issues with the government, but we don’t see banks or private or public companies getting robbed or burned. Why is it always refugees who get killed or spaza shops that get looted?

If any community has a complaint or issues, asylum seekers or refugees also have their own representative, so why can we not sit and discuss together with the government as a civilised society? Why do we have to be hated or be accused and attacked unreasonably for something which we do not know about it?

It is not fair at all.

We refugees are the weakest and we are victims because people now believe that by attacking the migrants, you will actually get the ear of the government. But this is nothing about service delivery. This is pure hatred of refugees and a crime against humanity.

That is why I said xenophobic or Afro-phobic attacks are as regular as Christmas for refugees in South Africa. We have to expect it to happen at least once a year. But what most people miss and do not understand is that you cannot justify your point or victimise the minority or needy ones who actually need to be protected from these unjustifiable attacks by lawless people.

Our demands cannot be fulfilled by innocent blood.

I believe a single individual can affect change for the whole nation, both in a positive or very harmful way. When I heard the words “we are sanitising”, it took me back to what happened back in the Rwandan genocide. In 1992, Leon Mugesera, a senior politician in Rwanda’s then-ruling Hutu party, told a crowd of supporters at a rally in the town of Kabaya that members of the country’s minority Tutsi population were “cockroaches” who should go back to the birthplace of the East African ethnic group.

Mugesera said: “Anyone whose neck you do not cut is the one who will cut your neck.” Two years later, some 800,000 Rwandans — mainly Tutsis — were brutally slaughtered and hacked to death in a genocide that lasted 100 days.  

In 2016, he was convicted of incitement to genocide and sentenced to life in prison.

Even though we live in a globalised world in the 21st century, where the world is getting closer to one another to become one, where human brains are so powerful to reason before action, and super creative to unify the world, we still live in a society that hasn’t recovered from the previous era – unsettled, uninformed, frustrated, untrusting with unbalanced economies and lifestyles, and poor integration across society.

We all have our own flows, faith and beliefs. I think we should start to love and be kind to one another before the tables turn, and swallow us all.

This ugly saga has to stop now – or sooner rather than later. We should all pray for the end of this xenophobic pattern and work together, and invest in our personal perception to ensure there are reasons for every single one of our actions. DM/MC

Eyasu Mengistu is a refugee living in South Africa. This is not his real name. Maverick Citizen is aware of his identity and the circumstances that require writing under a pseudonym to protect him and his family from further victimisation.

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