Of hippos and Xenophobes #notoxenophobia

Africa, African Renaissance, Human Rights

Last night I watched a documentary on hippopotamus. Territorial and aggressive; that is how best one can describe them. Hippos do not only behave violently towards each other, but also to humans and other species . I drew parallels between this behaviour among the hippos and the developments I have observed unfolding in South Africa. For years since its independence, I followed the reportage on South Africa’s “alarming” crime rates recording violence among South Africans; from murder, burglary, armed robbery, and rape to corrective rape of lesbians. The list is endless.

In 2010, I studied the alarming rape trends in South Africa, with up to 55 000 reported cases per year and an estimated 450 000 unreported cases just in 2006. 9 of the 10, experts I spoke with agreed that the rape was symptomatic of deeper problems within South African society.  The emasculation of men , economic deprivation, unequal power relations, inadequate security structures for women to be protected from rape or to report and receive justice after the rape, they said. They spoke to failed attempts by the state to disconnect the past from the present, yet in reality some citizens, psychologically challenged by their past and lack, are using violence (including rape) to reclaim their sense of masculinity and power

Now, there is xenophobia and Africa has witnessed the callous hand of a nation slaughtering the very same brethren that housed freedom fighters , supported them, trained them, and provided them with the much needed financial, moral and logistical support.

Technically speaking- it is xenophobia-but in reality South African blacks are targeting their (Anger? Frustration? Hate? ) on vulnerable foreign nationals of African descent who are black! I struggle with the pain of comprehending how one human being can burn another- to death- because they supposedly belong on the other side of an invisible demarcation called a border/national boundary. Indeed, until Africa emancipates itself from the shackles of mental slavery, the scenes in Durban today will be another page in a horror story book tomorrow.

I recognise that Xenophobia in South Africa is not a problem of a “few” South Africans, as some would like to believe. Attacks have been taking place since May 2008, with very few if any convictions secured against perpetrators. The leadership has displayed moral bankruptcy by building and sustaining a culture of impunity where xenophobic attacks are concerned. The police, immigration officials constantly make xenophobic remarks and display xenophobic tendencies, enabled and protected by the South African Immigration Act.

Simply put, Xenophobia in South Africa is institutionalised!

What we see on the streets is a physical manifestation of such institutionalisation and a dearth in leadership to address the root causes. That is what South Africa needs to fix, beginning with the creation of leadership that is conversant with the needs of those at the bottom of the ladder, leadership that does not press the mute button when such attacks are taking place because it recognises that condemning the attackers for their actions could open a Pandora’s box on its own inadequacies and failure to deliver.

*** So, that point brings me to the actual blog ***

The philosophies of Jean Jacques Rousseau — a proponent of the social contract theory — have informed the legitimacy of political authority for centuries. Rousseau argued that government came into being to right wrongs such as the economic and social inequalities precipitated by civilization. He claimed these inequalities robbed human beings of their natural state, one characterised by freedom and dignity.

Rousseau suggested that to recreate the balance of nature, where freedom existed and inequalities did not, man made two pacts: pactum unionis and pactum subjectionis. Under pactum unionis, human beings agreed to coexist peacefully in return for the guaranteed protection of their lives and property. Under pactum subjectionis, they ceded their rights to an authority with the power to enforce the contract. This meant giving power to the authority to govern them to their benefit, to represent their interests and to protect their freedoms.

This theory assumed that those vested with the power would respect the submission of individual wills to the collective will, and that the agreement was between free and equal persons.

Rousseau’s theory would work perfectly if those given the power to govern would be driven by the desire to serve, and to serve first. Assuming that those to whom power is assigned are driven by humility, selflessness, empathy, foresight and are deeply committed to identifying and fulfilling the needs of all those they serve. The theory would also work if those in power knew how to communicate instead of throwing teargas at school children protesting the grabbing of their playground (Kenya) or beating women asking for better service delivery (Zimbabwe).

It would be applicable if those in power did not stir conflict, change constitutions to extend their stay in power and took rapid steps to entrench authoritarianism. Maybe, just maybe, it could work if those leaders were persuasive, convincing others to work together toward a common good, reaffirm others, nurturing the abilities of those around them and recognising their own limits.

This not to say Africa has never had good leadership. It has; leaders who were deeply committed to identifying and fulfilling the needs of those they served, without segregation and recognised the invaluable contributions of all members of society towards building sustainable societies. They worked hard to promote the equality of all human beings.

These revolutionary minds from the continent stated:

“We must understand how the struggle of the Burkinabe woman is part of a worldwide struggle of all women and, beyond that, part of the struggle for the full rehabilitation of our continent. Thus, women’s emancipation is at the heart of the question of humanity itself, here and everywhere. The question is thus universal in character.” Thomas Sankara

“There are among us – the organisation is well aware of this fact – people who believe that we must consecrate all our efforts to the struggle against colonialism, and that the task of women’s liberation, in this case, is purely secondary since it is a useless and strength-consuming task….The liberation of women is not an act of charity. It is not the result of a humanitarian or compassionate position. It is a fundamental necessity for the Revolution, a guarantee of its continuity, and a condition for its success.”-Samora Machel

These leaders walked in the shoes of those they lead; for their comfort and even existence came secondary to that of the people they led:

“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”- Nelson Mandela

Indeed the core is to serve, and to enhance lives.

Seven years ago, Thabo Mbeki pledged, together with other leaders to:

• do everything necessary to ensure that as Africans, regardless of our geographic origins, we will once more live together as Africans, at peace with one another, refusing to impose on ourselves a new apartheid order;

• work expeditiously to achieve the reintegration of all the displaced Africans within the communities from which they were forced to flee because of murderous criminal activities;

• do everything necessary to assist the victims of this criminal onslaught, both the South Africans and our foreign guests, to resume their normal lives;

• act without any unnecessary delay to address all genuine concerns which may give birth to tensions between the native and immigrant Africans;

• work to improve our social and national cohesion, we will also address the challenge to entrench the understanding that this includes full acceptance within all our communities of new residents from other countries, as well as the understanding among the latter that we welcome them as good neighbours and citizens;

•work to mobilise all our communities to isolate and defeat the evil elements in our midst who target vulnerable African migrants, subjecting them to violent attacks for criminal purposes and personal gain;

• ensure that all those responsible for the criminal activities during the dark days of May, targeted against African migrants, face the full might of the law; and,

• take all necessary and possible measures to sustain respect for the law and our Constitutional order by all who live in our country, and the safety and security of all these, whether native-born or immigrant.

Today, the leadership loots from the people, ignores calls to #bringbackthemoney and stays mute in the face of deepening inequality. What we have got out of that is a discontented society whose anger bubbles over to the levels that we see today. That still doesn’t justify the attacks, but the context gives them perspective.

12 thoughts on “Of hippos and Xenophobes #notoxenophobia

  1. Hello, I happened on your blog from my reader. I think you write incredibly lucidly and you brought up many salient points. The one question I have for you, is what role (if any) does the middle class play in the scenario you’ve painted? You’ve talked about the leaders, and the one’s at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. What about the people who are not doing too badly? I guess what I’m trying to ask is, isn’t the complacency/complicity of the bourgeoisie needed to perpetuate the injustices you speak of (by leaders and paupers)?

    1. Thank you very much for your comments. Some among those in the middle class are either indifferent (if my issues are in order then I need not be involved) or complicit (they act to protect their own interests ). But that’s not to say that there aren’t many other people within the middle class who are doing something to bridge the gap or are pushing government to bridge the gap between those at the top and those at the bottom. I guess in a way you may be right to suggest that if the majority were not complacent, the voices speaking for social justice would be more and maybe, the leaders at the top would feel the pressure more and take action. We can only speculate.

  2. It is painful to see what Africans are willing to do each other. I think this is no longer xenophobia but Afriphobia. We have let these crimes go unpunished for too long, look at the Rwandan genocide, the Nigerians who slaughtered each other mercilessly and now the South Africans. It is time that we as Africans take a stand and voice our anger at this hatred we Africans are displaying towards each other. If we Africans do not put a stop to this Africa will go into war with its own fellow brethren.

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