Bizos: I know what it means to be a foreigner

2015-04-23 15:41

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It is unbelievable that a country like South Africa, which had fought against inequality and hatred, can show such cruelty, says human rights advocate George Bizos.

“The xenophobic attacks... have shocked many South Africans, me included,” he said during his keynote address on a discussion on ethics at the University of SA in Pretoria.

“It is unfathomable to me how in a country that worked so hard to overcome hatred and indignity of the past... can show such cruelty to our brothers and sisters [from other countries].”

This follows a spate of attacks on foreign nationals over the last few weeks in KwaZulu-Natal and parts of Johannesburg.

The 87-year-old Bizos said there was no need to be afraid of foreigners.

“We are actually committing crimes. It is true that only a few of us in South Africa who commit crimes against foreigners.”

He praised universities, human rights organisations and citizens for standing up and saying no to xenophobia.

Bizos himself is a foreigner in South Africa. He came to the country in 1941 from Greece.

“I know all too well what it means to be a foreigner... speaking a language which is not your own far away from your friends and loved ones.

“I came to this country as a refugee... but fortunately for us we were welcomed in this country... South Africa became home for us,” he said.

Bizos, who was a human rights lawyer during apartheid, said many African countries had supported the struggle and good relationships had been maintained with those countries as South Africa entered democracy.

However, that had now been put in jeopardy since the “atrocious acts” against foreigners.

Bizos said former president Nelson Mandela would have been ashamed if he was here today and saw what was happening in the country.

“[But] we see glimpses of hope. We see people giving shelter and food... [people going to] marches, vigils and social media to say no to the violence.”

“The people are standing up and speaking out against the violence... at possible risk to their own safety. They do so because that is what their ethical barometer tells them to do so,” he said referring to the locals in Alexandra who said they would protect the foreigners.

Looking back Bizos said the struggle during apartheid was in some ways easier.

“The aim was clear, the struggle was simpler and centralised. We knew in our hearts that we were doing what was right.

“However, having achieved the fundamental aim... the struggle has become much more nuanced, taking up different shapes in various sectors of society.”

There were still millions of people living in poverty, there were high levels of unemployment and inadequate social security and high levels of corruption, said Bizos.

The country needed strong leadership to steer the country out of this. It was unconscionable that levels of corruption remained so high.

“We are waiting for our leaders to say they will not stand for corruption and tolerate irresponsible actions. We are waiting for our leaders to give us these reassurances,” he said.

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