Xenophobia: There is hope that we can all call South Africa home

2015-05-06 15:51
Zimbabwean-born Sure Kamhunga moved to SA 10 years ago, and today considers it home

Zimbabwean-born Sure Kamhunga moved to SA 10 years ago, and today considers it home (Leon Sadiki)

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Since leaving the land of his birth, Sure Kamhunga has learnt to like – and love – this country and its people

Relocating to a new country is daunting enough, let alone to a country such as South Africa, where swaths of media space is devoted each year to stories about violent armed robberies and senseless murders.

It was therefore with a mixture of trepidation and anticipation that I relocated in 2005, aware that I was embarking on a new and probably uncertain life.

Such was my paranoia about crime that, during the first months in South Africa, I would be suspicious of any person staring at me for longer than I thought was necessary. I was seeing “robber” on their faces.

That, unfortunately, is the perception some have before they even set foot in South Africa. It is an unfortunate branding that will continue to haunt this beautiful nation of contrasts.

My first major hurdle, which still remains to this day, although not as much as before, was language. Other than my English, I had a working understanding of isiZulu, mainly because of the isiNdebele dialect that I was used to listening to back in Zimbabwe. Not that I spoke it well, but I can understand what you are talking about.

So it has been a test of endurance for me and, I would imagine, for the other black South Africans I have interacted with in the past decade.

You face it daily – at your local shopping centre, at the petrol station and at work.

What has been my saving grace has been my own decision to learn as much as I can about the culture of various racial groupings in South Africa.

Not necessarily to immerse myself in each of the cultures of the ethnic groups, but to have some idea of what is important to each and to understand why. Along the way, I have tried to learn how to speak isiZulu, with limited but useful success.

Over the years, in addition to embracing a new way of life, I have also come to understand the unique challenges facing South Africa, from the much-maligned education system, crime and poverty to inequality and the impressive freedom the press has – as well as the admirable independence of the judiciary.

The political space is also a breath of fresh air when compared with other African countries, where a career as an opposition politician is a career-limiting choice.

I have learnt to like – and love – the country and its people, notwithstanding some serious misgivings about xenophobic tendencies, crime and, of course, the apparent moral decay evidenced by corruption in the public sector.

I get incredulous looks from relatives and friends alike when I tell them my home is South Africa, not the land of my birth.

To me, Zimbabwe remains home, but I have established a life here, which I have embraced, like and love. I am not straddling two emotions – one wishing I were back there and the other wanting to enjoy the best that South Africa has to offer.

It’s a personal decision, made to make the best of my professional and personal life in South Africa.

Of course, it is not all rosy. For a start, official treatment of foreign nationals, legal or illegal, leaves a lot to be desired.

There seems to be an inherent suspicion of foreign nationals, particularly at the department of home affairs and by the police.

Arriving at OR Tambo International Airport or at the Beitbridge border post can be either a pleasurable or trying experience, depending on the mood and efficiency of the immigration official serving you.

I believe home affairs can do the country a huge branding favour if it continues to train its staff in dealing with the public, especially in such simple issues as friendliness and politeness.

US and UK immigration officials are not angels, especially when handling a black client, but at least their disdain – if it’s there – is restrained by the need to be efficient and serve their government’s interests well. The same can be done in South Africa.

Not every foreign national has evil intentions. Many are here legally to either visit, work or run a business, thereby contributing to the fiscal budget via taxes and other payments. The process of applying for a visa, work or permanent residence permit is a mission and an exercise in patience.

Countries such as the UK, Canada and New Zealand have deliberately and selfishly made it a relatively smooth process to allow skilled people to obtain residency or work permits. It’s not a walk in the park, but nor is it the mountain of official inefficiency that you sometimes experience in South Africa.

Why a person who has worked in South Africa for more than five years and has a legitimate job or business should go through a mass of papers and inconvenience just to secure a permanent residency permit is a mystery to me.

A relative of mine in the UK was actually invited by the home office to apply for his permanent residence permit because, according to their system, he was eligible.

These are some minor improvements that South Africa can make to its immigration policy while continuing to strike a balance between allowing a free-for-all and attracting the key skills this country desperately needs.

South Africa is a beautiful place with great people, but its underlying economic and social problems are a ticking time bomb the ANC-led government must urgently solve or it risks further unrest, more damage to its image, waning investor confidence and losses in the tourism sector.

One hopes the recent xenophobic attacks have given government – and the wider business, political and civic community – an urgent wake-up call to unite against the problems of poverty, unemployment and inequality that are as evident now as they were 21 years ago when Nelson Mandela became the first democratically elected black president of the country.

There is hope. I have hope, and so do many people who love this country, including its foreign nationals.

Kamhunga is a public and media relations practitioner

Read more on:    xenophobia

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