south africa’s xenophobia is a generational curse

September 26, 2019
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The conversation on xenophobia may have gone quiet on news platforms in the international community, but it is one always being had by people living in South Africa. With high tensions surrounding commonly held misconceptions that foreign nationals incite corruption and are weighing down the country’s economic progress, it’s hard to determine whether xenophobia is something that will soon end in the country. This is particularly difficult because of the apathetic views — and sometimes, supporting roles—  that South African politicians hold on xenophobia. There are always speeches about “taking a stand against” xenophobia; but when it comes to action, it’s usually on the part of immigrants trying to protect themselves, because nobody else will. It’s been just over a week since Nigerian airline, Air Peace, was deployed in South Africa to facilitate free airfare for the return of immigrants back to Nigeria. We’ve since seen the repatriation of about 640 immigrants. But why is the bulk of anti-xenophobic demonstration from the youth? And why is the rest of the citizenry so merciless to the suffering of people who are just like them? To what can we attribute the scarring that allows xenophobic outrage to perpetually resurface in South Africa?

It’s no surprise that, during his presidency, Thomas Jefferson said that the American constitution  would need to be amended every 19 years if it truly aims to acclimate to the new needs and ways of thinking of its citizens. In any state, “progressive” thought has always matured from generation to generation. Younger people are louder and more open to conversations that are taboo or never thought of previously — now that applies to queerness, pro-sexuality and racism that is both internal and external. Internal racism is not something that is new to Black people, and particularly to South Africans. The point of intersection between the two is notably pervasive in our history with tribalism. The term ‘100% Zulu’ was drilled by past president, Jacob Zuma, and it enveloped a lot of harmful ideology which can be paralleled with that of Adolf Hitler: the Zulu tribe was politicized as superior to any other, and the erasure of other tribes was believed to be the solution to improving the state of the nation. Regional divisions in Limpopo saw conflict between Venda and Tsonga tribes between 2012-2016 — and that conflict isn’t something that comes one week and is gone the next, but is ongoing. The colonially devised ‘Divide and Conquer’ rhetoric gave way to a culture of ‘othering’: ostracizing and alienating minority groups based on what is believed to make them intrinsically different to the majority. When you live in a country where the majority were infected with the doctrine of othering within themselves, people have a tendency to other because they, too, have been othered. It’s a toxic transfer of residual trauma.

The International Organization for Migration revealed that “South Africans are increasingly identifying themselves in terms of ethnicity and language,” and that “the xenophobia-related violence of May 2008 did not exclusively target foreign nationals — it also affected people seen as ‘outsiders.’” When probed and juxtaposed, tribalism and xenophobia are not all that different.

Born-frees and Gen Z’s live in a more globalized, multicultural and inclusive South Africa, where the politics of the ‘other’ transcend geographic and territorial differences but seep into personal identity such as sexuality, gender expression and body autonomy. It is said that the vocal, online presence of South Africa’s youth is the driving force of progressive thought and the loudest instrument for awareness of major crisis in the country. The distribution of footage, news and information is far more rapid, widespread but also varied, which is important. The difference in news sources and the access to it is what increases reliability but also cultivates more informed opinions. The relationships of the respective generations with technology, access to information, and the cultures practiced around them are all things to be taken into consideration when dissecting why our country holds so many conflicting ideas on foreign nationals. The last swell of xenophobic violence took place in 2008. In the last 10 years, we’ve seen a decline in the national televising of immigrants being maimed, we’ve seen a drop in the circulation of xenophobic slurs on the news and TV shows but this hasn’t undone the culture of othering that is so deeply entrenched in black history.

If South Africa is to grow in prosperity and have a healthy relationship with other African nations, there is no place for xenophobia in its future. Furthermore, South Africans need to value foreign nationals for their status as human beings, outside of their usefulness to our economy. The sooner South African citizens and leaders stop evading accountability and acknowledge their own role in the denigration of our society, the better. Socio-political dynamics remain terse in the country, for reasons outside of xenophobia, and South Africans have a lot of reason to be upset and dissatisfied but none of which serve as a justification for xenophobia or xenophobic violence. The generational curse that seems to be blocking this realization is sustained by our battles with circumstance and not having the language to nationally partake in the same conversation but South Africa is an infant democracy with a painful and generational history. There remains a lot of unlearning and rebuilding to be done.