‘We got to come together as one’

2015-04-19 15:00

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We failed to build on the mobilisation against prior xenophobic violence, but we still have a chance to address the problem once and for all

“You South Africans, how can you kill Lucky Dube?” I stared at the young Ugandan who had aggressively posed this question.

Shaken and confused by this mantle of collective guilt unexpectedly thrust on to my shoulders, I was momentarily stunned into silence. “Do you know how much he was loved all over the continent?” my accuser went on, before I collected my thoughts and responded: “Since when is a whole nation responsible for the actions of a few criminals? We loved Lucky Dube as much as you did.”

Bruised by the unfairness of the accusation, I recalled the emotional memorial service of the slain singer in October 2007. More than a thousand mourners crammed into the Bassline in the Newtown precinct, while 500 more stood outside patiently during the three-hour service.

A ripple of shock went through the room as one musician, after condemning the murderers, suddenly went into a rant about “the criminal foreigners who are responsible for all the crime in South Africa”.

I will be eternally grateful for the leadership of Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse who warned against unsubstantiated accusations. Feelings were running high, he said, so it was dangerous to level accusations at particular groups of people.

It is one of the sad ironies of life that the fatal shots that killed Dube turned out to be fired by a South African, who said he thought the musician was a Nigerian. So the toxic cocktail of criminality and xenophobia robbed us of a fine human being, a supremely gifted, gentle and peace-loving artist, loved and revered throughout the African continent.

Six months after the tragic murder of Dube, South Africa was convulsed in a paroxysm of violent attacks on migrants, mostly African, that took the lives of more than 60 people. We will forever be haunted by the image of Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave, the Mozambican burnt to death in the informal settlement of Ramaphosa Park, east of Johannesburg.

South Africans and Africans reacted with horror and outrage. There were marches, the mobilisation of resources for the displaced, calls to government to end the violence and lengthy debates about whether it constituted xenophobia, Afro-phobia or criminality – as if that really mattered to those killed.

A recent anti-xenophobic march at the Curries Fountain stadium in Durban, following a spate of attacks in the city. Picture: Khaya Ngwenya

For those South Africans who travelled regularly to other parts of the continent, it was a time of cringing and shame. Just as our communities make sweeping generalisations about migrants as drug-dealers, criminals and stealers of jobs and women, so many Africans throughout the continent cast all South Africans as violent, racist xenophobes.

The nightmare has recurred and we again cringe in shame as fellow Africans are slaughtered and their property is looted. We cringe in shame, and so we should, because we failed to learn the lessons of 2008 and act on the many sound recommendations that were made then.

We have failed to heed the warnings of migrant communities under threat; hostility is mounting and sporadic attacks are taking place. The coals of xenophobic hatred have continued to smoulder, ready to be fanned and set alight by the smallest incident, by the careless utterances of leaders who should know better.

We failed to build on the mobilisation against xenophobia after the 2008 violence and the 2010 threats. In the run-up to the 2010 World Cup, rumours of imminent attacks were rife.

Those shadowy forces who issued the threats warned migrants that they should be out of South Africa by the end of the Fifa World Cup, or face death.

I was part of a network of civil society organisations and activists who approached Eddie Makue, the then general secretary of the SA Council of Churches (SACC), to convene a series of consultations on how to respond to those threats.

Representations were made to government, which was responsive, and I believe the concerted action of state and civil society prevented a massive outbreak of xenophobic attacks in 2010. The consultations highlighted the need for a sustained and ongoing programme to combat xenophobia. A number of concrete suggestions were made, one of which was a call for an early warning system.

It was agreed that an anti-xenophobic violence initiative, aXa, should be established. In view of the SACC’s moral authority, credibility and national outreach, it was agreed that aXaSA should be located in the office of its general secretary.

The aXaSA desk was established to focus on violence prevention and issues of justice and impunity and to be a focal point for proactive action rather than only reacting during periods of heightened conflict. The aXaSA team and the SACC have worked tirelessly, across the length and breadth of the country, to address tensions within communities.

It is impossible to go into the detail of aXaSA’s successes and failures within the scope of this article. Suffice to say, the programme has been constrained by a lack of resources, as has been the case with other initiatives to combat the scourge of xenophobia.

The nightmare has recurred, and again we react with horror and outrage. I am deeply aggrieved that we have not built on past initiatives and implemented a plan of concerted action.

Condemnation of the violence, protest marches, social-media action and other expressions of solidarity are important, but not enough. This violence does not come as a surprise. There has been a long build-up and ample warning. If our security establishment cannot prevent attacks it knows are imminent, how will it be able to respond to attacks that come without any warning?

The most urgent issue now is for the perpetrators to be apprehended, tried and convicted. The 24-hour courts set up during the 2010 soccer World Cup proved highly effective. We need them to be set up again.

Finally, we need to appeal to South African businesses operating throughout the continent to commit some of their not inconsiderable profits to contribute to existing anti-xenophobia programmes so that they do not have to be asked by the communities within which they operate: “Why do you South Africans kill our people?”

In the words of the late, great Lucky Dube: “We got to come together as one.”

Sisulu is an activist and author

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