Our hostility towards “foreigners” is a pity.
Xenophobic attacks that recurrently break out in our big cities and small towns have resulted in people being killed, and shops being looted and burnt down by rampaging mobs.
The interruptions of the lives of people from African countries such as Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Somalia, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Malawi, among other nations, have resulted in people’s relocation and double displacement in the spaces within which they seek sanctuary.
Because of these attacks, people have had to flee their homes and seek shelter in refugee camps. Some have subsequently found their way to their home countries, independently or aided by their governments.
But others refuse to leave, saying South Africa has become their home and that conditions in their countries of birth render their return untenable.
It is important to pause here to point out the obvious – some of these foreigners are good people trying to acquire a livelihood. They do this through offering services that in turn improve the quality of our lives. They are qualified doctors and academics and scientists who serve at restaurants and petrol stations.
They keep gardens and homes clean. They own tuck shops and make basic amenities such as food and household items readily available to locals. These people are anything but a threat.
It is obvious too, based on what we see and read, that some foreign nationals are villainous. If they are not corrupting the youth through making drugs easily accessible, they are selling counterfeit products. If they are not marrying women without their knowledge to obtain residency, they are carrying out heists, in the process wrecking our economy and killing cops and innocent citizens.
But, if we agree that the above characterisation is fair, surely it has to be fair for us South Africans as well. There certainly are very bad people among us. Some among us know South Africans who sell drugs and execute heists and wantonly kill cops and innocent citizens.
Human beings are essentially the same. Everywhere there are nice and nasty people, stupid and smart people, rich and poor people, and so forth. The fact that we have people flocking into our country does not make us any special.
In different ways, we are the same because we are all constantly mobile.
In our constant mobility we do not ordinarily walk into places that are not already peopled and cultured and systemed. We move into these spaces and adapt to become part of the environment or we fail to mix meaningfully with the environment and as a result we move on.
So when we travel to a foreign country, just like when we travel to a different city or town or village, we enter into a relationship with that different environment; a relationship that may or may not work. All factors considered, we either sculpt a home for ourselves or we fail to assimilate and be one with our new milieu.
So whether we like it or not, and whether we know it or not, things are speeding up, things are diffusing, we are globalising – thoroughly.
Capital, for example, is endlessly internationalising. More people travel more frequently and for longer distances. What you are wearing now was probably manufactured in countries from Latin America to Asia.
What you had for breakfast probably involved food shipped in from all over the world. And the email that just popped on your screen from your colleague across the Atlantic has not only rendered the Post Office useless, but it has effectively broken traditional geographic borders.
Having appreciated that even place is not static, how then, in the face of globalising mobility, can we claim to be retaining any sense of local particularity?
I hold the view that the idealised notion of an era when places were purportedly inhabited by coherent and homogeneous communities free of foreigners, whom some among us hate so much, is set against the current fragmentation and disruption.
That idealised notion is decomposing. One can long for the self-interested and ill-informed societal coherence with one’s own, but ours is a time of unavoidable geographic fragmentation, of spatial disruption. The antithetical is anyway dubious because what we call community has rarely been coterminous.
So the question we must ask is this: In this rapidly globalising world, are the people that we refer to as foreigners not, just like you and I, in and out of place everywhere? Are you really purely South African? What would being purely South African amount to?
I think an argument can be made – based, for example, on the South Korean Samsung you are using to read this piece while in the comfort of your ritzy German sedan, within which Elton John’s Nikita lurks quietly in the background, while you are patiently queuing at American fast food giant McDonald’s drive-through, hungry from that long sermon you just endured at the nearby charismatic church – that what is actually happening here is that the world has accommodated us and that our preoccupation should be to reciprocate.
Whoever commits crime here in Witbank or away in Kampala, Uganda, must be arrested and punished if found guilty.
But let’s face it, some among us who are overzealous in their hostility towards foreigners are sad souls who are “South African-only” – whatever that means – because they have neither concept nor sense of the world other than their own little spaces
Our outright antagonism to those whom we call foreigners is not only cruel and indefensible, it is disgraceful and scandalous.
Maruping Phepheng is a published author and doctoral candidate at the University of the Western Cape