FOR South Africa to address the recurrent problem of xenophobia and afrophobia, the answers — ironically — partly lie in the experiences of the countries currently complaining bitterly over the attacks on foreign nationals there, mainly Nigeria.
Historically and theoretically, xenophobia has its roots in colonialism: how Africa’s borders were arbitrarily drawn up at the Berlin Conference in 1884. This created problems of ethno-nationalism and volatile tribal conflicts, manifestations of xenophobia.
Frankly speaking, the media, and, indeed, social media, is not helping the situation by failing to do the basics: reporting on the current events insightfully, unpacking and analysing issues, bringing out nuances instead of peddling generalisations and perceptions, and of course giving context and background.
The fact of the matter is that we have been down this road as Africans before.
In contemporary post-colonial African history, the problem of xenophobia/afrophobia — again ironically — actually started in Ghana in 1969 with the Aliens Compliance Order, which targeted mainly Nigerians;
200 000 of them were deported.
This Ghanaian crusade was later in the 1980s and 1990s to trigger the “Ghana-must-go” xenophobic and afrophobic campaign, in which two millions Ghanaians were expelled from Nigeria.
After that there were xenophobic campaigns across a vast swathe of Africa in countries like Ivory Coast, Senegal, the Congos and many others.
The situation in South Africa highlights the repeated brutal turns to a similar, xenophobic debate which has happened in other parts of Africa. The toxic debate is usually on nativism (denoting autochthon or indigenous people) and cosmopolitanism (signifying people from different countries and cultures).
It is about the co-existence between locals and foreigners, around citizenship and associated rights.
Obviously, in this case it is also intertwined with a whole range of issues: illegal immigration, crime by locals and foreigners, endemic violence in South African society, drug and human-trafficking, mainly by aliens, cutthroat competition for jobs and social service delivery challenges.
There is also leadership, policy and governance failures, the crises of African economies, and the impact of globalisation, as well as the rise of a new narrow nationalism — sometimes manifesting itself as ethno-nationalism or ultra-nationalism.
South African officials, besides the extremist elements in the subaltern margins of society, have often been caught up in this storm, making remarks bordering on xenophobia. But this also still happens elsewhere. Only this week, Information deputy minister Energy Mutodi joined the ethno-xenophobic brigade, crudely insinuating that Ndebeles are foreigners in Zimbabwe, simply because they came from Zululand and other parts of South Africa centuries ago.
An article New Nationalism and Xenophobia in Africa — A New Inclination?, Kersting, Norbert (2009), which sheds light on this issue, makes interesting reading.
Professor Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni, a local academic, contributed to the related papers. He focussed on developments in Zimbabwe since the late 1990s, as well as the emergence of the Native Club and xenophobic violence in South Africa.
So in dealing with the South Africa situation, let’s draw lessons from our recent history of xenophobia on the continent.
There are so many examples of xenophobic incidents across Africa; previously in the Ivory Coast where people from Burkina Faso and Mali were attacked, and in Kenya targeting Somalis. Mass expulsions have happened in Uganda, Nigeria and Ghana.
In 2008, migrants from the DRC were brutally expelled by Angolan state agencies. In the Congo, West Africans were described as “ndingari”, which means “ticks sucking blood from cattle”, echoes of Rwanda. Foreigners were often described as “corrupt, lying, violent, criminal and dirty” to justify mass expulsions.
Omar Bongo, the dictator who ruled Gabon for 42 years from 1967 until his death in 2009, urged violent attacks and mass deportations of foreigners.
So let’s learn from these ugly experiences and stop South Africa from following horrific examples, particularly from Ghana and Nigeria, and descending into a spiral of violence, chaos and killings.