Racial profiling of fellow Africans shames us all

2015-04-19 15:00

Hate speech, labelling, stereotyping and dehumanising of people are typically some of the mechanics of political, social, economic and cultural oppression.

Many South Africans have experienced one or all of these.

After all, we had some of the best teachers. The apartheid curriculum and teaching methods, designed to diminish us as people, were calculated, ruthless and very effective. Were we not, for example, also classified and treated as aliens and guests in our own land, from which many of us were forcibly removed and displaced?

In the old and new South Africa, many African migrants have suffered the brunt of xenophobic violence because of their political, racial, economic and social identities.

Our well-developed skill for recognising “foreigners” by stripping them of all other identities and focusing only on the shades of their pigmentation has further complicated the way some of us relate to one another and those we see as “outsiders”. Of those killed in the 2008 xenophobic outbreak, 21 of the 62 victims were South Africans who were mistaken for “foreigners” because their skins were identified as “blacker” than most South Africans.

It is this type of stereotyping or racial profiling that ideologies of racism and other forms of oppression thrive on from one generation to the next – the teaspoonful of truth represented by the “one” offender and generalised to the “all”. One Nigerian immigrant sells drugs; therefore all Nigerians are perceived as drug dealers.

The scapegoating of “these people” – these African non-citizens, whether documented or undocumented migrants, refugees or other foreign nationals – who largely live peacefully in our diverse communities, has shamed us all. Blaming them, like the exiled biblical goat, for the sins of our society – poverty, unemployment, deprivation and hopelessness – is far from unusual, but nevertheless deeply offensive.

The impunity with which acts of violent “punishment” are being meted out to our African brothers and sisters, while some of our law enforcement agencies look on, dramatically exposes the mythical nature of the “rainbow nation” and South African “exceptionalism”.

At the same time, do these actions reveal the extent to which the government’s earlier commitment to the ideals of an “African renaissance” have given way to a much more inward- looking focus on narrow South African nationalism?

Opportunistic politics, a lack of leadership and moral authority, the erosion of the ethics of many of our local, provincial and national institutions, as well as a limited knowledge of our Bill of Rights and the history of the role of the African Union in the struggle for freedom, are all glaringly obvious.

The non-observance and violation of international human rights laws that our government so diligently signed, ratified and domesticated after the demise of apartheid is an indictment of our leaders, our public and private institutions, and our society.

In this 50th year of the adoption of the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination by UN member states – who were outraged by the massacre of 69 black South Africans in Sharpeville – it is my hope that when we celebrate our freedom on April 27, we will do so in a peaceful environment, understanding that it is the very freedom, democracy, Bill of Rights and successful development of South Africa that have, in many ways, attracted our African compatriots to this country.

No human being deserves to be dehumanised and killed for taking responsibility for their own lives.

South Africa does not deserve the reputational damage that we will suffer on the continent and globally as a result of these gratuitous acts of cruelty, injustice and inhumanity.

January-Bardill is a South African member of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination

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