All this ‘simunye Africanness’ is not helping

2015-04-26 17:00

Two critical things have been sorely lacking from attempts to analyse the prevailing xenophobic violence.

The first is an honest discussion about how the making of the “rainbow nation” is a contributing factor to xenophobia. The second is the inability to articulate condemnation of xenophobia on the basis of human rights violations alone.

Many responses are premised on everything but the violation of human rights. Witness the “We are all Africans” and the similar “We are one” themes. Much like the rainbow nation, “simunye Africanness” is a Band-Aid that pretends to confront xenophobia but actually avoids it. Saying we are all Africans does little more than state a geographical fact.

It also means nothing when being African doesn’t and hasn’t protected those who are currently violated, dead and displaced.

It is the same kind of derailing as responding to racism with “we are all humans”. In a world defined by unequal power dynamics and hierarchies (which means all humans are not treated equally), this means little.

It is also hugely problematic to use the rainbow nation, which is a largely bogus concept of unity fraught with layers of violence, as the basis for “Africanness”.

For a start, the rainbow nation is an articulation of South Africa’s own exceptionalism. Like America’s “land of the free”, it’s what makes “us special”.

But it becomes nearly impossible to be part of a state (and decide who does and doesn’t belong in it), while claiming oneness with those deemed foreign.

It would be more honest to say that, as South Africans, we recognise and uphold the humanity and dignity of all those living here, rather than pretending there is some sort of common identity.

Statehood is why xenophobia is not a problem unique to South Africa. The particular manifestation of xenophobia might be different here, but like many other states, the created national “us” and its feelings of entitlement and belonging to the state are fundamental drivers of anti-immigrant sentiment.

And saying we should not harm foreign nationals because they are African like us or helped us during apartheid is not a recognition of the human rights of those violated by xenophobia. It merely splits hairs about why they are entitled to what should be an inalienable right to life.

Even if African countries had done absolutely nothing for South Africa, the Constitution is prescriptive on the right to life and dignity for all.

It is dangerous when we begin to create special criteria and supposed reasons to respect the rights of others.

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