Friends & Friction – Xenophobia: The only solution is ubuntu

2015-04-19 15:00

The solution to the xenophobic problem that has engulfed South Africa is simple, and so it is very easy to miss.

The violence keeps recurring like an incurable disease because we prefer to control it with another show of force, often justified with meaningless phrases like “people have to uphold the law”.

Let’s get this right – South Africa has a firm tradition of defying the law, and that is not going to change soon.

Like the rest of our continent, we also have a talent for violence. We must accept that this experiment in democracy will forever be tenuous, rough and teetering on the brink of failure.

As time zigzags through history, like an impartial river flowing through warring states, good people sometimes find themselves unintentionally arguing on the side of fascism.

The peacemakers find themselves accused of being irrational apologists, while some cadres quietly take revenge for the suffering they experienced while in exile, if not in physical action, then at least in muted voices in the corridors of influence.

I asked a former Umkhonto weSizwe operative who was in exile in various African countries if he ever suffered from xenophobia while he was away.

The question unsettled him. His eyes, the windows to his heart, told me he looked for the answer in two places: his mind and in his soul.

The answer was very different to what Gwede Mantashe suggested, which is building refugee camps, a measure that is Stalinist and short-sighted. That the host countries did it to South Africans does not make it humane.

“Yes,” replied the former MK operative. “We experienced severe forms of xenophobia.”

Like a true African, he still found a reason to laugh at his pain.

“The locals accused us of taking their women. We were in exile and South African men sought comfort with local women. Were there moments of excess? What would you expect from men who earned a stipend in an impoverished country?” he asked rhetorically.

“One day, an army general of one of our host countries ordered that we be removed from Gaborone. They came to our houses and threw many people on the trucks and moved them 700km away from the city.”

The Swazis were known to be particularly harsh. When the apartheid government put pressure on King Mswati to get rid of the liberation movement, he put his national interests first and complied.

An old Pan Africanist Congress man was ordered to leave the country in 72 hours or face being arrested and probably handed over to the South African government. When he asked for compensation for his house, he was told very politely, as only Swazis can, to take his house with him but to leave Swazi ground intact.

“In Lesotho, they called us matlola-trata, or the fence jumpers,” a woman who lived in exile once told me. Her voice was neither condemning nor condoning. She was just telling her story, her face contorted in pain.

“The solution is a simple one,” the ANC cadre told me. “There needs to be an urgent dialogue between the ‘foreigners’ and the locals. There is no rational answer except to appeal to ubuntu, and the old philosophy of ‘help thy neighbour’.

“Let the grievances of the locals be heard, and the fear of the foreigner be addressed.”

This solution might sound too simplistic, but it is necessary to protect this country from its own citizens.

Today, the problem may be what the xenophobes call amakwerekwere, but tomorrow it will be izilwane or animals, which is the Zulu word for non-Zulus (I read that definition in an isiZulu textbook).

Be careful South Africa, the leaves that we walk on today were once high above us. Indeed, someday the “foreigners” will leave, but not because you drove them away, but because the vultures will be so fat they’ll be unable to fly.

The corpses of Zulus, Xhosas and everyone in between will be rotting on the streets of Johannesburg and Durban.

It happened in Rwanda, Biafra and Kenya, to name a few regions. Don’t you dare think you are different – you have already proven that you can be as territorial as pigs.

Kuzwayo is the founder of Ignitive,

an advertising agency

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