A few years ago I wrote an article for NACCW on Xenophobia which is again raising its ugly head in South Africa. We again need to look at this issue not only because there are foreign children in our care but also because prejudice between different races and religions in our country still needs dire attention. I am sharing this article calling for our immediate attention before xenophobic emotions again sweep through our entire land.
This issue calls for our attention because:
(1) NPO’s have several foreign children in our care and
(2) xenophobic attitudes of staff / children could affect our foreign children
(3) It’s also a good awareness making exercise about prejudice etc.
This problem has potential to explode anywhere, anytime. It affects our whole society and therefore us. It has affected the whole world throughout history. Discussion on Xenophobia could be a wonderful tool to look at the tendency all humans have to hold prejudices and an opportunity to understand so many episodes in history -the Germans acts against the Jews, recent Ruanda and Burundi history. And of course as we understand history we learn about ourselves, democracy, human rights etc.
This article is shares discussions held at an Ons Plek meetings over the three xenophobic outbreaks in the last 8 years.
Before xenophobic violence resurfaced in our CYCC’s and resulting emotions rose too high I raised the topic in a staff meeting. I was worried that people would not be honest about their feelings; that the discussion would become very heated and that old angry emotions from our previous racist past could divide us.
The discussion had to model what democracy is about. Therefore, it had to be conducted in an atmosphere whereby the views of all were heard, where all opinions could be questioned and quietly challenged but were not condemned, although disagreements obviously existed.
We started with a question about what everyone had heard in their various taxi conversations about the xenophobic incidents. As each person shared their taxi’s conversations someone would spontaneously raise a question which helped us think further.
Foreigners have increased crime. The Nigerians make South African women smuggle drugs out of the country.
Why are South African women doing this? They do not have to be criminals just because the Nigerians are doing it? Does this mean all Nigerians deal in drugs?
Because South African women are poor. They have to!
Is that not why the Nigerians are selling drugs too? They are poor. Their qualifications are not recognised, are they turning to crime for the same reasons as the South African women? They also have to!
Foreigners steal electricity –they all know how to siphon it off the supplies illegally.
How do we know it is a foreigner?
When it happens you see a Foreigner has moved in to the street.
This is not new. South Africans have been doing this for years. It sounds like the old story – if one Black is in a room full of Whites and a teaspoon is missing who is blamed? If a Sotho person is in a room of Xhosas who is blamed? If a Jew is in a room of Moslems who is blamed? Is there anybody who is not a little prejudiced against people of different language, race, nationality, religion?
Foreigners commit crimes- that’s why the crime rate is up.
Are we sure? Do we have facts? Some are crimes are associated with some groups of foreigners-like Nigerians and drug dealers but in the newspapers the names of people in court are mainly South African.
They take our jobs because they work for cheaper rates.
That is true, they work for less because they are desperate. But who is exploiting them? Is it not South African employers? And we South Africans hate exploitation of ourselves because of our history. But it is us now who are exploiting foreigners by taking bribes when a foreigner wants to go into Home Affairs
A Good Thing About Foreigners
They sell clothes and food cheaper in their shops to us. We all go there. And they employ South Africans.
Are we contradicting ourselves? We moan when they work for less, but we are happy to support their businesses which are undercutting South Africans’ businesses. We are happy to exploit them by paying them less.
They take our jobs, they start businesses, they have money.
What stopped South African’s from starting the same business? What stopped South Africans from getting together to pool the money to start a business as foreigners do?
(At this point all agreed South Africans are not prepared to work as hard as is necessary to start a business.)
For every point raised against the Foreigners there is evidence of South Africans doing the same or benefiting from Foreigners. So why are foreigners being attacked?
The Blame Game
At one point the anger in the room turned against Mbeki for his quiet diplomacy policy.He tolerated the actions of Mugabe thus making Zimbabwe a country that people had to leave and thus causing many refugees in our country. At another point it turned against the Education Department for taking away Trade Schools which equipped Youth with skills in the past. Then it turned against whites for still having so much power economically.
And finally it looked at the role Poor Service Delivery by our own largely black elected government for their role in the anger of poor people who turn against foreigners for their thriving businesses.
However valid the anger expressed towards Mbeki / the Education Dept/ whites or our leaders it was important to notice that when things are wrong we look for someone to blame. And the blaming of the above role players in our meeting is what’s happening with the Foreigners!
They are a handy group to blame for all our troubles!
So many of the reasons given to turn on Foreigners are reasons Whites used to justify apartheid, Germans used to kill millions of Jews, Ugandans used against Indians etc. The reasons come out of fear, they are understandable but they are not always justified. And as we have seen they undermine the rule of law so that even South Africans are attacked by South Africans. In this years recent strikes (2010) workers who were not in the teaching or nursing professions were attacked and a learner who was nowhere near a school was attacked because a group of teachers thought she was a teacher not striking with them. Studies show that acting like this is easier when one gets caught up group actions. Its called mob violence. In the end we all lose out because the country is on fire, crime becomes easier, peoples’ hearts are hardened by the violence.
The discussion ended with all having thought through their beliefs a bit more. I do not know if anyone had changed their beliefs. What was helpful is that it is now an open topic of conversation. The principle of ownership of ones behaviour and beliefs was re-inforced without which behaviour cannot change. The understanding that all peoples are capable of prejudice and exploitation given the opportunity was more clear. We were able to talk a bit more deeply about our own racial attitudes
Having thus prepared ourselves we were more ready to talk with the children.....
A few days later we had a similarly structured discussion with all the girls in our care. A discussion held in latter years not only with informal interpretations in three quarter South African languages but also in Swahili!
With girls from four African countries outside South Africa I was worried about the levels of hurt and anger that could arise. The meeting could crystalise the children’s unconscious prejudices and positions on xenophobia and maybe precipitate divisions amongst them. On the other hand leaving the emotions that underlie prejudice unexplored, was as dangerous.
As many staff attended the meeting as possible to show the children how important the issue was. There was still no official agreement on staff beliefs about Xenophobia. With staff being from all race groups,4 language groups, 2 religious groups and 1 staff member married to a foreign national we could at least demonstrate, if differences were expressed, that we could discuss and tolerate our differences.
The introduction to the discussion was crucial to allowing emotions but in a way that enabled exploration rather than inflammation. The children were told this issue was probably the most important discussion we had ever had for our country, that the attitudes of each of us influence others in society, that the discussion could be hurtful and we would all have to be patient while waiting for our chance to talk but that every person would have a chance to talk.
And talk they did! The discussion went on informally long after the hour and a half session ended. The South African children talked about how unfair xenophobia is and how they are persecuted if they stand up for their foreign friends. The foreign children were remarkably non-defensive. They condemned those foreigners whose involvement in crime taints the image of foreigners.
And overheard from time to time during the discussion was a comment, matter of factually made, and repeated again and again by 6 year old Burundi born ,Sara*. “What are we going to do now?”
Only one of the South African girls was against foreigners. She asserted angrily that they take our jobs. She had personally seen foreigners smearing themselves with herbal medicines which ensured employers gave them work. She held to this view despite her friends contention that if it was so easy to do why is everyone not buying the same muti. That night a ‘xenophobic’ argument erupted between her and a foreign child.
The staff remembered then that the South African girl’s relative had acted as a drug mule for a Nigerian. The relative was as culpable as the Nigerian, but the girl’s anger is all directed at the Nigerians and not at all, at her relative. These feelings must now be explored again as part, not only of the child’s therapy, but also as part of our dealings with xenophobia in our program.
* identifying details changed