Facing up to the xenophobia problem

2015-04-19 07:48

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Over the past week I have listened to colleagues and students trying to make sense of the attacks on African migrants and refugees. Many have expanded on what we should call the attacks (i.e. xenophobia, Afro-phobia, criminality) and proffered various underlying reasons (i.e. evasion of South African policies by companies who prefer to hire migrants, the success of migrants in the face of deteriorating conditions for South Africans, ‘woundedness’ from apartheid, crime etc.). Below I try to add some points to the public discussions.

I have heard South African students (from all ‘racial’ groups and socio-economic status’) expressing feelings of frustration and shame because they have been socialised to look at fellow Africans with suspicion and disdain. Fixing the many problems we have in this country may go a long way into relieving the situation, but the country has to really deal with the ‘anti-African migrant sentiment’ that has taken root. It cannot be ignored any longer. This means each of us must be conscious of the language we use in everyday life to talk about those we consider outsiders.

While addressing the ‘anti-African migrant sentiment’ we must be cognisant of the fact that the fear and the hatred is not only out there in the rural areas and townships. Whether we think about higher education institutions (which are supposedly more cosmopolitan), be it Home Affairs officials, international students and African students specifically are treated with the highest levels prejudice. Over the years I have heard horrific stories from Zimbabwean and Nigerian students who have felt powerless to confront discrimination in everyday relations with South Africans.

We have to create safe spaces for young people to confront the fear and hatred of the ‘other’ that they have internalised. (These can include class discussions, church meetings, family dinners etc.) I played Savuka’s Scatterlings of Africa (led by Jonny Clegg) for my second year students before we had a reflection on the attacks and their impact on households and families. Some were puzzled by my choice of song. I told them it is not enough for South Africans to only refer to political solidarity from the broader continent during apartheid. We need to learn about our common ancestry in this continent. We are one people.

Vangile Bingma is with the Sociology Department at the University of Pretoria.

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