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Haitian migrant crisis: History has shown that our struggles are interconnected

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Zukiswa Pikoli is a journalist and columnist at Daily Maverick and is part of the founding team of Maverick Citizen. Prior to Daily Maverick she worked as a communications and advocacy officer at Public Interest Law Centre SECTION27.

It is also not enough for us as South Africans to simply shrug our shoulders and breathe a sigh of relief because we don’t have a direct hand in the Haitian crisis because if there is one thing that history has proven, it is that our struggles are interconnected and have a domino effect.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

On 20 September, our news feeds and TV screens were awash with video footage of scores of Haitian asylum seekers trying to get into the United States, fleeing the devastation of a recent earthquake that had left many desperately destitute and in need of urgent humanitarian aid.

But what the earthquake did was to further exacerbate an already desperate situation of food insecurity, broken-down infrastructure, crisis-level gang violence and the assassination of Haitian president Jovenel Moïse in July, leaving a political leadership vacuum that is not new in the nation.

However, when we look a little deeper into the background of Haiti before its current crisis, we see that the suffering of the Haitians has a long history, caused by the destabilisation of the country by various factors, including a number of natural disasters and colonial conquest.

While I have been aware of the poverty and political turmoil of Haiti, this latest incident prompted me to dig a little deeper to try to gain a better understanding of the country that former US president Donald Trump infamously referred to as a “sh*t-hole” country, along with African nations.

Haiti has a history of colonisation that began with an invasion and colonisation by Spain and then by France, which exterminated much of the indigenous population and imported slaves from West Africa. The US also occupied Haiti from 1915 until 1934, leaving behind a history of social and political instability as well as “debt”.

The imagery of white American officers on horseback whipping black people that we saw on our screens was absolutely horrendous and not only tested but breached the boundaries of humaneness. It was a violation of human rights and evoked dark historical imagery of slaves being whipped by their masters that the US is infamous for, especially remembering that Haiti was used as a slave reserve.

All this while the US homeland security secretary replied simply that the officers were trying to “manage the migrants crossing the river”.

Haiti is ranked the poorest country in South America and the Caribbean, prompting Human Rights Watch to declare that “protracted political instability and gang violence in 2020 – often with state ties – contributed to the Haitian government’s inability to meet the basic needs of its people, resolve long-standing human rights problems, and address humanitarian crises”.

It cannot be right for people in their thousands to be squatting beneath a bridge in a foreign country for fear of returning to inhumane conditions in their own countries – conditions that are not even of their making. How do you further traumatise people, including children, who are already vulnerable and traumatised?

It is not a show of power to reduce people to inhuman status by corralling them like livestock. What would be a show of power and strength, though, is a recognition by countries like the US of the mess they have made of Haiti as a result of their colonial conquest and a commitment towards reparations so that Haitians would not have to flee their own country for survival.

So what is to be done about the long-lasting effects of colonialism that are now coming home to roost at their colonial masters’ doorsteps, to a violent response? Who now must take on the responsibility of caring for the people who are suffering as a result? The US cannot claim to have never had a hand in the misery of the Haitians.

It is also not enough for us as South Africans to simply shrug our shoulders and breathe a sigh of relief because we don’t have a direct hand in the Haitian crisis, because if there is one thing that history has proven, it is that our struggles are interconnected and have a domino effect.

It is also wise to remember that we too face similar conditions in South Africa, with a dismal education system that has produced literacy rates so low that only 30% of learners can read for understanding, a public health system riddled with corruption and incompetence, increasing unemployment that is now at a staggering 44% (expanded definition), gender-based violence that has been labelled as the “second pandemic” by the president, 11.8 million people facing acute hunger and, of course, not forgetting the unrest and looting that occurred in July.

Where will we go? Who will we look to for help when it all bubbles over?

In South Africa, we live side by side with people who are the beneficiaries of colonial conquest and as a result have created one of the most unequal societies in the world. So, should it all bubble over, it is likely to be an implosion that sees the poorest flooding into the backyards of the wealthiest because they can no longer watch them unduly benefitting from their poverty.

Haiti is not an isolated incident, Haiti is us. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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  • Charles Kieck says:

    She does not mention Pappa Doc Duvalier and his son to perhaps have anything to do with Haitis dire state.
    Much more convenient to blame some one else

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