We need an SA identity rethink

2015-02-02 06:00

Astory doing the rounds last week was of Somali immigrants in the areas affected by the recent xenophobic violence reciting a clause of the Freedom Charter.

“South Africa belongs to all who live in it,” they were apparently heard chanting, signifying to locals that they were also deserving of the charter’s promise to “live in brotherhood, enjoying equal rights and opportunities”.

Whether this story is true, or an urban legend is immaterial. What is true is that it represents the sentiments of not only the Somalis, but most foreign nationals living in South Africa.

It represents a reality South Africans are battling to accept: that the Somalis are going nowhere, that those from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Pakistan are going nowhere, that the Nigerians are here to stay, the Zimbabweans will always be with us and that there are thousands more immigrants on their way here.

Some will be rich, some will be educated, some will be poor and desperate. Others will be fleeing from poverty and strife. There will be the do-gooders and there will be the shysters. Once here, they will send messages home about life in South Africa. More will stream in and the authorities will try desperately to stem the tide, but to no avail.

The bottom line is that South Africans must accept that they cannot reverse the clock and become the country this was in 1990 when foreigners began arriving here in waves.

This is no longer the country where Greek and Portuguese were the most “unusual” languages to be spoken here.

The arrival of immigrants from the DRC in the early 1990s was a shock. Fleeing conflict in what was then Zaire, they made their way south.

Amused by the strange tongue they were speaking, South Africans labelled them magrigamba and makwerekwere. They were objects of curiosity then and there was very little overt or covert hostility towards them.

The attitude of many locals was that they were sojourners and would soon leave. This was not to be. Instead, the trickle turned into a river and by the time democracy arrived in 1994, foreigners of many nationalities were a common feature in South Africa’s major cities.

The floodgates opened after South Africa returned to the international community.

It was only when South Africans began to realise the presence of foreigners in their midst was permanent that they began to show signs of discomfort.

Newly free, they began to treat the new arrivals like unwelcome visitors. The feeling was that it was unfair for strangers to waltz in as they were beginning to enjoy the fruits of freedom.

Then the talk of “these people” taking from South Africans began. What was being taken ranged from “our jobs” to “our houses” to “our women”. Even trading spaces on pavements became “ours”. It was inevitable that – unmanaged – the us and them syndrome would blow up. The situation was not managed and our early warning systems failed us.

So when the explosion did happen in 2008, everybody was caught off guard.

While one might forgive South African society for being caught napping then, there was no excuse for it happening again this year. The socioeconomic conditions that prevailed in 2008 have not changed – in some instances, they have worsened. The attitudes towards foreigners have not changed. In fact, in many areas they have hardened. The authorities seem to have little clue as to what to do and will most likely be reactive when the next flare-up comes along.

Some politicians have made utterances with undertones of helplessness and populism. The problem has been allowed to become so big and sensitive that an easy solution is not feasible.

This is where the apocryphal story of the Somalis chanting the Freedom Charter clause becomes relevant and potentially useful.

We need a big rethink on the South African identity. Our concept of a South African is still stuck in the era before the country became the hugely diverse place it is today. This perpetuates the us and them syndrome that results in the hatred that produces the flare-ups of violence.

If we are to overcome the hostility against foreigners, the authorities will have to accept that, having failed to manage our borders properly, they have unwittingly created one of the world’s most diverse populations.

It will have to dawn on them, and it has to be communicated to the public that the vast numbers of foreigners who have made it through the borders and have settled here have no intention of going back to where they came from. They see themselves as belonging to this country and raising South African families.

The conversation has to shift to making immigrants useful and productive South Africans, and sensitising communities to the fact that the country belongs to more than just those of us who can trace our domestic roots beyond 1990.

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