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Xenophobia — a by-product of apartheid?

Xenophobia is an ever-present problem in South Africa. It has resulted in several violent attacks on Africans looking to make a home on the continent's southernmost country. Anthony Aduaka, a Nigerian Jesuit and intern at the Jesuit Institute, suggests that “there is a deep-seated anger that stems from the deep unhealed wounds of apartheid” towards other people from the continent.

Since 1948 when apartheid laws were introduced, by the then national government, South Africa suffered horrific gross inequality and separation. The story of this time was narrated as I walked through the Apartheid Museum.

This place holds memories of our tragic past and a brave heart is required to withstand the pain that is so vividly captured in the stories told. As I looked into the eyes of those whose life and death helped shaped apartheid history, juxtaposing these with some of our experiences today, I questioned whether we have learned from our past. At a personal level, the stories make me question the complexities of our cultures, values, traditions and even our human nature. Are we innately and chaotically violent as a species?

Our human make-up is a complex one made of a combination of influences: environmental, social, cultural and biological to name some. As we know, human beings also have the capacity to consider their own actions and shoulder responsibility for them. This makes us different from other inhabitants on our planet and sometimes we pride ourselves on this. As Jonathan Strickland says: “If humans were naturally and chaotically violent, our species wouldn't have survived for millennia.” Nonetheless, there are historical accounts of humans who have violently inflicted pain on others, to the point of death.

An estimated 16-million people were killed during World War I. The number of fatalities tripled with the second world war, where there were an estimated 50-65-million people killed. Some years later about 2-million people were killed during the Vietnam war, and during apartheid around 15,000 lives were taken. Does this mean that there is a violent nature buried deep within us, waiting for the right moment to surface? Do we learn to become violent from others, from our environment or from our past experiences? If we are not naturally and chaotically violent as Strickland suggests, then why is our world riddled with violent acts like rape, domestic abuse, civil wars, terrorism, to mention but a few?

In a restorative effort to respond to the tragedies of apartheid, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was set up by the first democratically elected, government led by the ANC. The success or failure of the TRC can only be measured when we evaluate the rate of violence and human rights abuses that still go unreported throughout South Africa. These violent attacks stem from fake-news-reports and distorted readings of history and of personhood, which cloud the perception of local black South Africans. Abigail George, feminist, poet and short story writer puts it thus: “Apartheid changed us”.

From this, one could deduce that many apartheid experiences have not healed. This is, unsurprisingly, especially the case for local black South Africans. For black people, apartheid was an insidious tool used to induce self-hate and to exclude their group from white society. I believe that there is a deep-seated anger that stems from the deep unhealed wounds of apartheid and that this manifested itself in the 2008 xenophobic attacks and in other hate-crimes against foreigners in South Africa – a by-product of wounds yet to be healed.

As reported in the 2013 African Union Panel of the Wise: “Most mediators recognise that building a durable peace involves addressing the underlying causes and sources of violent conflict.” This is where true peace and reconciliation ought to begin in order to heal the underlying fear that could come to constitute in an occasion for violence in the future. Reconciliation, therefore, should not be a time for politicking over such sensitive reality that has left people wounded and scared. For experience has taught us that genuine peace cannot be found if we’re only finding faults with one another.

In the same AU report, the TRC was accused of contributing only to national and political reconciliation without holding individual and institutional beneficiaries of apartheid accountable. The result of this is the seeming inability of black South Africans to tolerate other black foreigners due to the hostility of apartheid which resulted in their exclusion from the rest of Africa.

As a result, indigenous black South Africans have become xenophobic and are angry towards their compatriots from other parts of Africa. This latent anger that has not been expressed in genuine and concrete ways makes scapegoats of black men and women who have migrated or would like to migrate to South Africa from other African countries. Along with this black South Africans have come to believe that these immigrants are a threat to their economic liberation.

An understanding of this anger could explain the dynamics that played out during the xenophobic attacks in South Africa that make them unique to other xenophobic experiences. It, therefore, raises the question as to why the attacks affected only black African immigrants. What historical narrative is being taught to generate such profound fear? Natasha Robinson raises this question in an article by stating that “we need to include some historical consciousness in the South African history curriculum.” This consciousness is not to make people angry about the past but to help them develop critical thinking skills, awareness of self-identity and a balanced sense of social cohesion. In doing so many black South Africans might begin to overcome the widely felt fear that apartheid, might, if unchecked, repeat itself.

We need to acknowledge that apartheid has left a historical and psychological wound that has affected the perceptions that many black South Africans have of their economic reality in the world. This is a reality that needs to be genuinely and systematically addressed with openness, truth, justice and responsibility. It does not matter whose cow goes to the slaughter if it helps people to face their fears of the unknown and to heal from the wounds of their past experiences. Until this is done, the unhealed experiences of apartheid will bring horrific and often violent expressions of xenophobia.

What are your thoughts? Tell us if you agree in the comments below, we want to hear from you.

Images: Flickr

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.