2010! The world is coming to South Africa’s shores! Let’s have some music, or even better something cheerful to get us dancing. Put the guns and knives away, you crazy kids, bring out the flowers and bake some cinnamon cookies with their welcoming aroma. Everybody smile! It’s time to “show house” to the millions of eyes upon us.
Songs have been penned (some shouldn’t have been), slogans have been coined (some really shouldn’t have been) and fake T-shirts have been ordered. Airport officials have been taught to greet visitors in all languages of the world. It’s the improved South Africa, a liberal multinational country literally falling over itself to welcome foreigners.
But scratch through the veneer and it’s a different reality.
Flash-back to May 2008. For 11 days South Africa looked like a dreadful re-enactment of the Old Testament scene in that “colourful” city of Sodom where men went around hunting for foreigners to violate brutally. Just two years ago enraged South Africans went from door to door, with clear intent – kill and butcher all things foreign. News headlines screamed horror as the locals stood in the streets brandishing all manner of weapons, baying for the blood of those from across the borders on the other side of the street. Sirens rang out, shots were fired and burning corpses were mocked and laughed at in the streets.
It was a time of fear, disbelief and mistrust. But the mind is kind and over time these feelings waned, forgotten maybe. Until now. The country may be welcoming foreigners from Europe and further afield, but those from neighbouring countries have been warned. As soon as that last plane departs and the festivities have died down, the hands that hugged me when teams scored could very well be the same hands to hold me down, pour petrol on me and watch me burn. The South Africa of 2008 is coiled ready to attack. Xenophobia is about to hit again. But this time I will look at it through different eyes.
After the last spate of horror, as a foreigner, my righteous indignation was palpable. My outcry was deafening and only sanity, restrictive law and the chill stopped me short of tearing my clothes off and pouring ash on my head. But time has made me stop and think. Xenophobia has nothing to do with borders or nationality and everything to do with economic policies, policies that have let the people down, from the hogging white supremacists of old, to the underhanded dealings of BEE tenderpreneurs today. Policies that have meagre resources being shared, most times unfairly, among too large an audience. Sort of like feeding the 5,000 with five loaves and two fishes – just without the Jesus factor.
With more than 11 million of the poorest households going without any government aid every year, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu rightly warned that “too many of our people live in gruelling, demeaning, dehumanising poverty. We are sitting on a powder keg.” The flight of Zimbabweans and others into SA put a spark to the powder keg and highlighted severe inequalities. The department of home affairs states a total of 300 people cross the border from Zimbabwe daily seeking asylum. With no job prospects they ultimately end up on the handout list with millions of other South Africans who have been waiting even longer.
At moments such as these I compare my living standards with those of my South African helper who has to wake up at an inhumane hour to travel in the bitter cold on public transport from her shack in Alex so she can work in a foreigner’s house, with all its running water, electricity and underfloor heating. In those quiet moments I get it. I understand that were I a citizen of South Africa, yet enjoying nothing of what the country offers, how hard it would be to act magnanimously and not feel hard done by or overlooked. I understand how easy it would be to resent me every time her shack floods or she has to fend off rats so they don’t bite her little boy’s toes when he is sleeping. I understand how her hopelessness and frustration at her abject poverty could turn violent. I understand how she wouldn’t appreciate why I have it better and she probably never will.
Were the solution up to me it wouldn’t be too different from what the headlines were screaming back in 2008. Force governments to encourage and provide incentives for their nationals, the displaced and likely targets of future xenophobia, to hop on that bus and mosey on back to their homelands. For, regardless of how many pan-African concerts are held, mindsets are not likely to be changed as long as the poor in this country remain so pitifully deprived. Economic policies are not going to change anytime soon and neither will the state of the disadvantaged. This will forever be a sticking point.
While I cannot condemn the violence against my people, I know the part we have played to bring your country to this place, and would like to apologise. Apologise for lumping you with what was our problem to solve, for stretching your country’s resources beyond capacity causing you to sometimes go without because of us. But, having said that, I also want you to remember that as Africans none of us, not one, has had it easy. And I pray that should there ever be a time when you raise your hand to strike me, you could see the pain behind the journey that forced me to leave my home and brought me to your land. Maybe an understanding of that pain will cause you to lower your fist and offer your hand.