Georgina Guedes

We’re losing our humanity

2015-04-18 08:48

Georgina Guedes

I have put fingers to keyboard a number of times to write this without knowing how to start. It’s been a long, hard week for South Africa, and it’s difficult to express how I feel about the xenophobic attacks.

This is especially true since I know that everything that I see and am horrified by is filtered through distance and privilege.

I can shudder at man’s inhumanity to man, and rail against the government for not doing enough and the perpetrators for having lost their ubuntu – which doesn’t stop at the South African border and shouldn’t be divided along lines of nationality.

But for now, I am safe enough in my home and I am not witnessing firsthand the atrocities being committed in the name of South African nationalism. However, I have seen enough and read enough to make me think, and I’ve been thinking hard.

Defining me

More than anything, this has got me thinking a lot about what it means to be human, and where I draw the lines of my cultural and personal identity and how those lines inform how I act.

I am a woman, and I feel affiliation with my gender. I am South African, and I love this country and feel an affinity with all the people who live here.

When I was travelling in Cambodia, after a couple of months on the trail, we met our first other South African, and I flew into his arms with excitement. I was surprised by my own enthusiasm for an encounter with someone I didn’t know, and I stored the moment away as a small example of my own nationalism.

I have a British passport and I like the Brits, but I don’t support their teams in world sporting events unless South Africa has been knocked out.

I also have Portuguese heritage, and some of my family live in Portugal, and I’m proud to be able to roll my Rs, and have an opinion on where in Lisbon serves the best pasteis de nata.

I’m not going to beat around the bush by not mentioning race, so I will say that I am white (duh!), and while the majority of my friends (but not all) share my complexion, I have black friends and family members. So I believe I can say that my sense of identity and association certainly crosses racial lines.

Which brings me to my point. This may sound trite or sentimental, but I truly believe that what binds us together as human beings is stronger than what divides us.

So yes, while I might joyously embrace a complete stranger because he shares my home country, there is nothing in me that would bring me to do harm to those who do not, simply because they do not.

Immigrants are human too

I understand that there are greater pressures and complexities to this wave of hatred and terror and selfishness and cruelty than I, as a white, suburban girl will ever understand.

However I do know that when King Goodwill Zwelethini says that foreign immigrants “must pack their bags and go,” and when our president’s son Edward Zuma says “We do not accept foreign nationals that shoot our mothers and our sisters,” that these powerful community figures are drawing lines in the sand, and putting “good” South Africans on the one side, and “bad” foreigners on the other.

The irony is that the upsurge of violence in the wake of these comments flips those definitions. Murdering and looting to rid our country of crime (and, as far as I can make out from some of King Zwelethini’s comments, mess), seems a little ridiculous.

 Taking a machete to someone’s head or setting fire to someone’s shop is not a great way to combat crime.

And as far as I can see, all these foreigners are actually being deterred from is running convenience stores or vending handbags on the streets.

Be human first

So, yes, I am South African, but right now, I am ashamedly so. Because while I am proud to be from this country, I will never put my nationality before my humanity.

I am a human first, and contained within that is a moral code to be good to other humans, wherever they were born, whatever colour they came out as, and wherever they live now.

And in a country where so many of our people were oppressed because they happened to be born the “wrong” colour, I am astonished at how quickly our people want to create new definitions of “otherness” or “outsideness”, and remove the rights of those who happened to be born in the “wrong” place.

To those attacking and those justifying the attacks: You have lost your humanity and become something “other”. When this is over, however it ends, the biggest change will be the new definition of self that you have embraced – one that is shaped around murder and hatred.

- Georgina Guedes is a freelance writer. You can follow @georginaguedes on Twitter.

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