OPEN LETTER TO PRESIDENT RAMAPHOSA
We must defuse South Africa’s xenophobia time bomb – now
Human rights, social solidarity and justice were the DNA of our past. Let’s resurrect that. Then hopefully we can breathe the life of humanity back into our desperate South African nation.
Dear President Ramaphosa,
Tinotenda (blessing in Shona), is a beautiful bright-eyed one-year-old, who lives with her mother, a Zimbabwean refugee, in the safety of the Tsietsi Mashinini Centre, which is known to the community as the Soweto Community Centre.
Famously named after Tsietsi Mashinini, one of the 1976 Soweto Uprising leaders, it has always served as a place of refuge.
Owned by the Methodist Church, this mission house has also been the home of the “selfless people’s priest”, Bishop Paul Verryn, since 1987. Hundreds of people across decades have sought safety here from persecution in their own countries. And many South Africans are among the community living there, seeking refuge from terrors they also face.
The Soweto Community Centre is more than a refuge for the people there and the residents around it. It’s a place of blessing, of trust and hope. And Verryn is there to offer the protective cover of faith to them and serve them, which he does with passion and humility. That is why Tinotenda went there with her mother. To be safe. To find hope. A life.
Yet, on 6 February this sacred place was attacked by a mob of hundreds masquerading under the flag of Operation Dudula, who claimed perversely: “Enough is enough. Put South Africans first.” Adding oil to the fire, members of the SA Police Service have accompanied this vigilante group and legitimised them, as they did in our struggle for freedom in the 1980s.
And what about the beautiful breath of fresh air of life, Tinotenda? Baptised in hope by Verryn, she clutched her mother in terror as she witnessed a mob wanting to kill them both.
Where has our humanity gone?
The sad reality is those political leaders manipulating this humanitarian crisis know that even if we expelled every single refugee who has no papers and South Africa decided to become some lunatic version of North Korea by sealing its borders we would still have an untenable level of criminal violence, rocketing joblessness, hunger and corruption scandals.
It’s not foreigners behind our failures. All fingers point to the real culprits – all South African, who hold power in the citadels of authority across the country. When a government is silent and its agencies, already implicated in the violence that struck us last July, remain silent or, even worse, accuse foreigners of orchestrating criminal violence, what does that say about us?
The only answer is, we have lost our humanity. And we are looking for convenient scapegoats for our failures.
So Mr President, as you make your Sona speech to Parliament, remember that your ascent to the most powerful office in the land is based on the courageous struggles of workers slaving at the coalface kilometres underground. And tens of thousands of those migrant workers are from neighbouring countries like Lesotho, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi who gave their lives not just to build South Africa but also to free us from the poisonous shackles of apartheid.
It is not the time to stab that memory of sacrifice and now their children in the back. Nor to lose our humanity because of the political convenience of an election campaign to decide who is relevant for the 2024 elections.
Let us not become some Fanonian wretched-of-the-Earth country of dehumanised human beings who, having liberated ourselves from our white masters, become the oppressors of other Africans who have reached out to us in their moment of need as we did to them in our desperate times.
The twisted psyche of our society needs healing.
I imagine a defiant Chris Hani, still the popular martyr of our liberation war, leading the Luthuli Detachment of Umkhonto weSizwe alongside Zapu freedom fighters in the Wankie campaign across the mighty Zambezi through the treacherous terrain of Ian Smith’s murderous regime in 1967.
What would this most famous son of struggle think about the political louts fanning the flames of xenophobia in Operation Dudula attacking defenceless women and children? So-called leaders who don’t understand the history of our freedom struggle and the sacrifices made by our African brothers and sisters who stood side by side with us when we needed them.
I venture, having known Hani intimately, that he would be as disgusted as I am by the spinelessness of the political class in South Africa. We are an integral part of Africa – not some displaced oasis of African supremacy connected to the poisonous politics of our feral colonising masters of the past. We are African. Our present is connected to Africa. And so is our future.
This is why we belong to the African Union. Why we are part of the Southern African Development Community. We are in one boat of humanity, not crossing the Mediterranean in some desperate search for hope. We are on the ship of Africa together, working with our fellow political leaders, activists, academics, intellectuals and business leaders across Africa.
To isolate ourselves and antagonise nearly a billion and a half of our brothers and sisters who hold our shared future prosperity is not just insane, but downright stupid.
The African Union has adopted a convention on building a free trade zone across our continent that allows for the unhindered movement of goods, services and people. We need to embrace this principle and shape the protocols that build an African vision that we embraced as integral to our post-colonial dreams.
The continent asks us consistently not to bunker down some mine shaft in apocalyptic neo-colonial fear and paranoia of all things African.
Fanon argues that national consciousness is not in fact nationalism. Rather, national consciousness “enriched and deepened into humanism… is the only thing that will give us an international dimension.”
For him, the building of a nation has to be “accompanied by the discovery and encouragement of universalising values”.
But it is the cowardice and apathy of the “elite” and their “incapacity” to “rationalise popular practice” and “attribute it any reason” that leads to the post-colonial tragedy.
The struggle of the fittest and usually the most rabidly corrupt is what has landed humanity in this crisis. It’s not just African migrant workers that have built South Africa in the past. The country’s intellectuals, doctors, engineers, nurses, teachers and doctors do so even today.
President Ramaphosa, we learn from each other. We should get to know each other. To see each other. And maybe we will go from being faceless mobs of fearful South Africans to understanding our African brothers and sisters, opening our hearts to each other and deepening a shared vision of a safe, prosperous country at peace with itself, with our continent and the global village.
The “new society”, the liberated “new person” – collectively, socially, and individually – has to be consciously and intentionally developed, says Fanon.
The major recommendation and also conclusion towards the community and government on xenophobia is simply to become familiar with a particular culture instead of shunning it.
“By promoting unity and a human rights culture that puts law and human dignity first, and by challenging perceptions, attitudes and behaviours around prejudice and discrimination, we can contribute to ridding the country of both xenophobia and exclusion to stop anything like the May 2008 attacks ever happening again,” says Hans-Petter Boe, the International Organisation for Migration’s regional representative for southern Africa.
Mr President, human rights, social solidarity and justice were the DNA of our past. Let’s resurrect that. Then hopefully we can breathe the life of humanity back into our desperate South African nation. DM
Jay Naidoo is founding General Secretary of Cosatu, a former minister in the Nelson Mandela government and is a board member of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.
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