Today, I was ashamed to be South African

2015-04-19 15:00

The other day I cried. No, I wept. Not the wail of a child, but the groaning of a grown man – at the sight of the horrendous multiple murder of fellow Africans in a xenophobic attack.

I was alone in my bedroom. My ageing face was contorted with pain and anger as I asked nobody, with tears streaming down my face: “Why? Why this? Is this what I fought for? Did my comrades die for this? Or did they die so as to be spared this horror?”

The horrific image of human beings cornered, captured, bound and doused with petrol by a self- appointed executioner urged on by a frenzied crowd who shouted “burn, burn” was trapped in my mind’s eye.

The bound little boy who was to be among the public executioner’s victims gazed about through his innocent-looking eyes. Were they hopeful, I wondered. Were they resigned? Were they accusatory? Were they incredulous? I could not tell. But he seemed so young and perplexed in his tiny shifting frame.

Another victim lay supine close by with a bloodied, tortured face, now and then raising himself to ogle at the executioner putting the final touches to his incinerator. The little boy looked more at the crowd than the executioner, as if in plea.

Where were the police? Why is it that in that crowd of so many, none had called them? Why did no one in the crowd stand up and plead for mercy for those souls?

I shouldn’t have cried. I had witnessed images of people being necklaced before. I did not like the practice but had never flinched before. I witnessed the massacre in Matola, Mozambique; the deaths of many comrades; the death of my brother at the hands of the apartheid death squads; the killing of our beloved Chris Hani.

I never cried. We were at war then and they were all casualties in the bitter struggle we were waging against the demon of apartheid.

I shouldn’t have broken down. I had been prepared for it, somewhat. A youngster had called me from Durban that morning. Her tone seemed troubled: “Hawu bhuti! Sebeyabulawa lababantu? Sebeyashiswa?” (Are these people now being killed and burnt?) “Obani?” (Who?) I asked. “Amakwerekwere,” she replied.

“It is inevitable if you call them that,” I admonished her. “Words like that are derogatory. They are Africans like us. Such terms only add to the Afro-phobia sweeping the country.” She quickly apologised. I went about my business until that evening.

I should therefore have been prepared, but nothing could have prepared me for what I saw in those recorded images: the purposeful, unhurried, premeditated burning of innocent human beings in the name of nationalism.

I was ashamed to be a South African.

I do not know the nationality of those who were so cruelly burnt to death and killed in the orgies of death that visited Durban, but I have no doubt it will diminish the respect our country enjoys in the world and harm our relations with many African countries, whose citizens’ lives were lost in the carnage.

How do we respond to such dastardly criminal acts? Our government is correct to condemn them in the strongest possible terms.

The leadership of the country and the ANC in particular must admonish those whose language – whether intended or not – can be construed to fan the flames of intolerance against our African brethren.

Our actions need to be swift and decisive; otherwise the crisis will spread and become uncontainable.

All peace- and freedom-loving South Africans must unite to fight the scourge of xenophobia.

I am haunted by the eyes of the little boy whose hands were bound behind his back and in a devilish knot to his fellow victims before all of them were set alight.

Those pleading eyes have urged me to commit to a new activism: to fight against those reactionaries who preach and spread intolerance and hatred against their fellow human beings.

The cowards who now undermine and negate the ideals we fought and died for must be given no quarter.

Nyanda is a retired army general and former communications minister

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