South Africa's new shame

South Africa, the country that was outcast by the international community for so many years because of its apartheid policies, has a new shame.

It is called xenophobia and this time it is not white people who are oppressing, displacing and killing blacks. It is black killing black. The only crime of the victims is that they are not originally from South Africa, but from other African countries.

A mere 14 years after South Africa ended its race-based policies, in terms of which the white minority dominated the black majority, black South Africans have been going on the rampage, killing close to 50 immigrants from other African countries and displacing thousands.

The violence, which started in South Africa’s richest province, Gauteng, quickly spread to other parts of the country this week.

Some victims have been burnt in the way alleged police informers were burnt in the anti-apartheid struggle in the 1980s. Scenes reminiscent of those years, when protesters brandishing all kinds of weapons confronted police in the streets, were played out in South Africa this week.

As far as we know, no Ghanaians have been victims of the violence in South Africa, but it seems like no immigrants from other African countries are safe in South Africa today.

Today they could be targeting Zimbabweans, Nigerians or Somalis. Tomorrow they could be targeting Ghanaians.

One prominent politician said it was “brother fighting against brother” in South Africa at the moment.

The irony is that many of the people who are being targeted moved to South Africa in search of a better life because of poverty or conflicts in their country, as is the case with Zimbabweans. Others merely wanted to join in the benefits that came from a liberated South Africa, which has one of the strongest economies in Africa.

Another irony is that, in the dark days of apartheid, when South Africa’s liberation movement fought a violent battle against the apartheid regime, many other African countries hosted the anti-apartheid freedom fighters.

The people from some of those countries, who are now in need of solidarity themselves, are being met by machete-wielding hordes who are chasing them out of the country, back to an uncertain future. That is if they are lucky to escape with their lives.

An even starker irony is that today (Sunday 25 May) the continent celebrates Africa Day or African Union Day, which is meant to celebrate what it means to be an African and the unity of Africans. The events in South Africa this week have soured these celebrations.

There have been all kinds of explanations offered by experts for what has been happening in South Africa. Ultimately, it comes down to South Africa’s black majority, who have been oppressed and exploited for so long, feeling that immigrants from other African countries are taking away their hard-earned economic gains.

This is, of course, not true as many African immigrants are in fact, through creating businesses, helping with job-creation in this country where the unemployment rate is as high as 50 percent in some areas.

No matter what the explanation, no one can forgive the wanton killing of innocent people who are merely trying to improve themselves and their families.

But as not all white South Africans were bad during the days of apartheid, not all black South Africans are bad today. There are many South Africans of all colours who are disgusted by the actions of their fellow citizens.

These people have been making their voices heard in protests throughout the country this week, but have also been helping at centres where displaced refugees find themselves.

The situation in South Africa today indicates the need for more education about what it means to be an African; about the need for tolerance and the need for all of us to live in harmony on this troubled yet beautiful continent.

We should allow a repeat of the violent attacks in South Africa, not anywhere on the continent. Events such as what happened in South Africa this week only serve to give our entire continent a bad name.

(First published in Sunday World in Accra, Ghana, where I was consulting editor in 2008)