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Xenophobia or ignorance: changing the narratives

Anthony Aduaka SJ tries to understand the psychology behind the xenophobic attacks in South Africa in early September. He argues that much of the distrust by black South Africans towards other black Africans stems from South Africa’s failure to overcome the racial divisions of apartheid and create the educational and economic conditions for black South Africans to overcome historic injustices.

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk 23:34)

I am aware that so many people have analysed the situation in South Africa and have given reasons why such incidents should not be part of the historicity of South Africa as a country. Some of these analyses blame the South African government for not taking responsibility for the safety of every individual within the country’s borders, while others blame certain individuals for their hate narratives against foreigners, especially Nigerians.

Given all that has been said, I come to this conversation as a Nigerian who has been to South Africa, and also as an African who is aware of how selective narratives can change reality. Based on my experience of South Africa, I feel that the issue of xenophobia and its narratives as portrayed in the media are not as simple as they may seem.

xenophobia and its narratives as portrayed in the media are not as simple as they may seem.

South Africa experienced the horrors of apartheid and is still going through what I might call neo-apartheid. This experience saw black South Africans at war against white South Africans in an effort to uphold black dignity and black survival. It seems that the nation has not completely healed from the horrors of such experiences. To what extent have black and white South Africans been able to face the hatred, violence, discrimination, mistrust and anger that remains locked in their subconscious?

Killing does not resolve the problems

An effort to respond to these observations may be useful to understanding what is going on in South Africa. It is easy to get emotional and pass judgement when one sees these horrors being inflicted on foreigners. But no one can justify the killing of another human being. There is no just cause for such heinous actions. Our African tradition and culture, like other human societies, taught us that life is sacred and should be held with the utmost reverence. How someone in their right senses could commit such a crime becomes an object of a scientific enquiry.

Do black locals believe that a white life in South Africa is superior to a black life, then draw the conclusion that they are superior to other blacks? Or perhaps they have believed the stereotypes that paint foreign nationals as criminal opportunists and feel that their actions are a justifiable means to ending real or perceived criminal activity.

The bottom line is that killing is not the solution to injustice, inequality, racism, and other social vices in South Africa, and neither are hasty judgements and biased criticisms.

A few cannot be responsible for taking the jobs of so many

According to statistics, there are about 3.6 million foreigners in South Africa, which constitute 6.1% out of an overall population of 58.7 million. These foreigners contributed 9% to the South African economy in 2011.

This begs the question, if foreigners working in South Africa are stimulating economic activity, how can this small minority be responsible for so much unemployment (from 27.6% in the first quarter of 2019 to 29% in the second quarter of the year), as the perpetrators of the xenophobic attacks claim?

… if foreigners working in South Africa are stimulating economic activity, how can this small minority be responsible for so much unemployment?

How can black South Africans claim that their jobs are been taken by foreigners when 57% of unemployed South Africans have very low educational qualifications? Could it be that the institutions in South Africa allow this to happen in order to give black South Africans space to vent their anger and frustration on foreigners? This is a plausible question in light of the South African government’s inability to address these attacks in a meaningful way.

A black Nigerian in a white suburb

In mid-2018, while I was on a visit to South Africa, I ordered a taxi from the Cathedral of Christ the King, Johannesburg, to our Jesuit community in Auckland Park where I was working as an intern at the Jesuit Institute of South Africa. The taxi driver asked me to confirm my destination, which I did. I immediately noticed the disturbance on his face. So I interrupted his soul searching by asking – what is the matter? Francis responded, “May I see your ID please?” Knowing that this is unusual, I told him I live in Auckland Park. He smiled and said under his breath, “That’s not possible.”

Failing to convince him, he drove off leaving me stranded simply because he could not bring himself to believe that a black Nigerian was going to Auckland Park, a mostly white neighbourhood. The taxi driver may well have asked himself whether I, a Nigerian, was perhaps a thief, and then he would be associated with a crime. What informed his action? This and other similar experiences during my visit to South Africa, made me reflect on my own blackness and what it means for black South Africans who live this reality daily.

he could not bring himself to believe that a black Nigerian was going to Auckland Park.

You might want to explain away or argue that my experience is a black misconception against a fellow black, just as xenophobia is seen ordinarily as black on black violence. If xenophobia is an attempt by black South Africans to claim back their land and jobs, then why are Nigerians the main targets in South Africa? Why is the violence only on blacks by black South Africans?

Ultimately, the cause for the hateful attacks of the past few weeks runs far deeper than nationality, race or jealousy. South Africans continue to carry the distrust and anger of past injustices. Paralysed by their inability to move beyond their circumstances, they turn to an easy target, upon whom they can vent their frustrations. They probably do not even realise that they are doing this.

I pray – like Jesus on the cross – that God should forgive those perpetuating this crime, for they do not know what they are doing

* 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.