Twenty-one years ago, South Africa returned to the international community. More importantly it returned to the continent to reclaim its African identity. A few years later Thabo Mbeki's African Renaissance provided the great vision for Africa to take its place among the community of nations as an equal partner.
In 2008 that vision was dealt a severe and devastating blow when South Africa experienced the first major wave of xenophobic violence.
Read our related paper 'Xenophobia Trivialises South Africa’s Ambitious Africa Policy'
Who can forget the necklacing of the Mozambican immigrant and that powerful cartoon by Zapiro which portrayed the perpetrator remarking that ‘I could tell he was a @#&* foreigner!... He didn't know the meaning of Ubuntu!’?
In 2011 the Department of International Relations and Cooperation brought out a White Paper under the title of Diplomacy of Ubuntu:
South Africa is a multifaceted, multicultural and multiracial country that embraces the concept of Ubuntu as a way of defining who we are and how we relate to others. The philosophy of Ubuntu means 'humanity' and is reflected in the idea that we affirm our humanity when we affirm the humanity of others. It has played a major role in the forging of a South African national consciousness and in the process of its democratic transformation and national-building.
The truth is we have not internalised the meaning of ‘Ubuntu’ beyond the words and reference to our peaceful democratic transformation. South Africa’s reputation for reconciliation, enlightened leadership and commitment to Africa is increasingly becoming meaningless. The last few weeks of xenophobic violence have precipitated loud anger from immigrant communities as well as Africans living in the rest of the continent. Rebuilding trust and reputation will take a long time – provided we are able to tackle the challenge of managing diversity in South Africa.
Gone are the days when countries could boast of homogeneity in language, culture and ethnicity - if those days ever existed. 'The other' is us. We cannot hide from it and societies cannot build walls against it. The politics of exclusion and chauvinism cannot be a solution to the multitude of challenges states and societies face in the 21st century.
Read another SAIIA article on the recent xenophobic attacks, 'Lessons for South Africa: How Zambia prevented xenophobia.'
In his book on Identity and violence, Amartya Sen argues that ‘the hope of harmony in the contemporary world lies to a great extent in a clearer understanding of the pluralities of human identity, and in the appreciation that they cut across each other and work against a sharp separation along one single hardened line of impenetrable division’.
Societies across the globe face the severe socio-economic stresses of youth unemployment, rampant inequality, disjuncture between political elites and citizens, and competition for scarce resources. South Africa is no exception. Where fear rules, the default response is often to demonise ‘the other’ and make them the scapegoats. Sustainable solutions are much longer term and require political commitment and constructive leadership. The hard power of policing addresses the symptoms alone. If there is a lesson to learn – albeit late – from 2008 and now 2015, it is that the quelling of violence is only the beginning of the #notoxenophobia project.
South Africa cannot be a beacon of peaceful transformation, democracy and Ubuntu without grappling with the twin challenges of socio-economic despair and the politics of exclusion and fear.
Our goal should be to explore all options that allow people to earn a living so that the social welfare system does not create permanent dependencies. Immigrants of whatever colour or hue can all make contributions; but we focus often on the negatives and allow gross generalisations about crime to determine the narrative. And our society needs to tackle the severe social trauma that finds expression in such violence – whether it is domestic violence against partners or children, or against foreigners. On the economics front South Africans need partnerships between government and business in tackling unemployment and inequality – not adversarial approaches that apportion blame rather than solutions. Our leaders and others in positions of influence should recognise that their statements are powerful weapons – and that they need to be used carefully and responsibly.
Ubuntu can be a powerful idea and movement to highlight our common humanity and the kind of world that South Africa advocated on its re-entry to the international community. But it will require more than just the rhetoric, branding or police units to create a lived reality for both South Africans and all those others who live in South Africa and make it the diverse, dynamic society that it is.
Ke MoAfrika! (Sesotho)
Omo Africa ni mi! (Yoruba)
E nee Aferikaa nanye! (Amharic)
I am an African! (English)
~ Elizabeth Sidiropoulos, Chief Executive of the South African Institute of International Affairs
Read the statement issued by the SAIIA Youth Policy Committee, 'SAIIA Youth Policy Committee says no to xenophobia in South Africa!'
Click here for photos from SAIIA staff saying #notoxenophobia.