Life Stories | A Ugandan Student’s Tale Living Through Xenophobia Attacks In South Africa
Life stories — “I am not being rude I just want to understand why you Africans come all the way from your countries and just don’t stay in your homes countries?” asks a very frustrated but patient and inquisitive black South African female friend.
“South Africa is not special,” I reply. This fuels her rebuttal even more while we sit in the shade of a balcony at a barbecue (also referred to as braai) that we are attending after church. In hindsight, the curiosity, discomfort and apprehension in the air hilariously contradicts the spirit of this gathering as Christians.
For those who are not in the know, xenophobia is an intense dislike of or prejudice against people from other countries. This does not necessarily mean that it is a black-on-black phobia. In actuality, there have been reports of growing xenophobic incidents in Europe due to right-wing extremism targeting the Polish communities in the United Kingdom, following Britain’s exit from the European Union (EU), otherwise referred to as BREXIT.
As a Ugandan living and studying in Cape Town, I am an outsider and, sadly, this is something I have not been allowed to forget. It is heartbreaking to discover that in the past two years, xenophobic-fueled violence has claimed lives and destroyed property in communities across South Africa (SA). Between January 2015 and 2017, close to 70 people have died, over 100 assaulted, more than 600 shops looted and over 10,000 people displaced due to these xenophobic attacks. Since official figures are not released by the South African Police Service (SAPS), these numbers are based on media reports alone, which are most likely an underestimate of the total number of victims.
In the same breath, l must admit that since I’ve lived here for more than two years, the majority of my friends are South Africans. Being a very curious and inquisitive person, my nature has gotten me into a few sticky situations with the citizens of this rainbow nation, so it comes as no surprise that I find myself in a heated debate at a braai with a group of students and working class individuals – especially those who the country has categorized as black.
So, who exactly is to blame, I asked them?
Some point to the media as an accomplice in fueling the conflict. According to a government-commissioned report released in April last year, “The failure of media houses to contextualize the violent occurrences sent shockwaves across the country and around the world”. The report released the findings from an investigation into the causes and consequences of the 2015 xenophobic attacks in the KwaZulu-Natal province. For one, I personally hold the South African media accountable for the sensational reporting that resulting in the fear mongering. Yet, one can also speculate that perhaps that might be an unforgiving criticism, considering that it is their job to keep the masses educated and informed.
Others mentioned law enforcement and government officials were at fault. In my opinion, it is the South African Government, and provincial administrations, who have a constitutional obligation to protect the human dignity and safety of asylum seekers, refugees, economic migrants and all those living in the nation. Through further research, l found that a probe headed by Judge Navi Pillay, former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR), took more than seven months in 2016 compiling shortcomings of law enforcement agencies that contributed to tensions between locals and foreigners. Despite these revelations and reports, it has not eased the anger of the nationals in other countries. According to the Department of International Relations in SA, Nigerian nationals allegedly retaliated by attacking the offices of a South African companies during an anti-xenophobic protest in Nigeria’s capital Abuja.
So why do citizens from other African nations head to South Africa?
At the dawn of the “new South Africa” in 1994, Mzansi became a refuge to many outsiders, offering protection and asylum to anyone who was suffering in unfavourable conditions in their home country. Much like those countries had played key roles in offering fleeing South Africans a safe haven when they were hunted during the apartheid regime. A study by the SA Institute of Race Relations found that South Africa has more undocumented immigrants than wealthier countries such as the United Kingdom and Germany. In between mouthfuls of meat and salad l point out the word ubuntu – which, l found out, is just one part of the Zulu phrase “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu”. The idiom literally means that a person is a person through other people, this is where the idea that communities form the building blocks of a greater society.
South Africa really is not unique. The world is a global village, and people migrate to different countries looking for better social and economic opportunities. Even Uganda sees a multitude of refugees from South Sudan, Somalia and Burundi who are fleeing the current civil unrest in their countries.
From a distance, the discussion could have resembled a verbal confrontation on the verge of exploding, however, it was a healthy debate that was only fueled by irritation and frustration that is felt by the historically and financially disadvantaged majority of South Africans, who just happen to be black.
And so inspite of all the facts and anecdotes that l’ve pointed out, it still does nothing to mitigate the discomfort and isolation that l have experienced with having to sit in multiple rooms and social settings with a group of black South Africans confidently speaking their language and forgetting to accommodate me (not necessarily out of malice but out of habit). The debate ended but the questions lingered: who is to blame for xenophobia in South Africa?