Xenophobia and Afrophobia in South Africa

Meron Semedar is a One Young Word Ambassador from Eritrea who has lived in South Africa for 8 years. He is passionate about addressing the appalling human rights situation in Eritrea, but was compelled to write about the xenophobic riots that swept his adopted country, South Africa.

His friend Meron Obkandrias, a lecturer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, contributed to this article.

At least 5 people were killed over a three day-period in Durban, including a 14 year old boy. Thousands are stranded in camps, shops at West Street (Durban's business district) have been closed and foreign shop owners in other cities are holding their breath. In several videos circulated on Facebook, you can see black South African men throwing stones, brandishing machetes, burning tires, and also carrying looted goods from foreign owned shops. Last Tuesday and Wednesday April, some places in Durban and Johannesburg became a no-go-zone. Over the past three months sporadic attacks have happened all over the country. But the current xenophobic attacks came as swiftly as a bush fire, inflamed by simmering xenophobic sentiments.

The violence followed comments made by King Goodwill Zwelithini (King of the Zulu nation), who said last month that foreigners should leave South Africa. The king has denied have xenophobic sentiments and claims his words were lost in translation. There is no mistake, however, that he called for "foreigners to take their bags and leave". Of course, the underlying reason goes deeper than this.

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South Africans blame immigrants for taking their jobs. However, us foreigners respond by saying that we are serving the community by proving goods at a very affordable price. The conflict between foreign and South African-owned shops has been simmering for a while.

An Eritrean immigrant residing in South Africa since 2002 and who owns a shop at West Street Durban says, "We can't leave our homes. South Africans are waiting outside to kill us. We don’t know what would he solution should be to this ongoing situation. In my case, I can't even go back to my country. Eritrea is a country run by an oppressive dictator. Here, I might be able to survive this current situation like the many other attacks in the past with the help and prayers of the compassionate South Africans."

"The police are not doing enough to stop this killing. We constantly face this bad behaviour of South Africans towards fellow African people", says a Congolese immigrant who did not want to be identified by name. Foreign shop owners are also seen in the streets closing their shops, but at the same time protecting themselves and their property.

Foreigners are calling for South African politicians to do more to end the violence and to find a lasting solution to these ongoing xenophobic attacks. They have been rather slow in responding to the chaos. The comments of some public officials have been catalysts for xenophobia sentiments in the past. It is those officials who need to speak out.

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I have lived in South Africa for eight years as an immigrant while studying. I will never forget the xenophobic attacks in 2008. Over the period of one month, at least 64 people were murdered. Some were burned alive, some were stabbed to death, some were stoned to death; and many shops were burned and looted. For two weeks, I had to stay at home without going to work or school.

I came to South Africa with nothing, but I was able to educate myself at a University while working at a restaurant at night. Yes, Apartheid played a major role in the lives of native South Africans and their forefathers, but they also have opportunities to empower themselves. If I can come here with nothing, like many immigrants, and make something out of nothing, there is no reason they cannot overcome their past and create a better future for themselves.

You need to know your history but you cannot live in the past. You have to make the best of today while planning for tomorrow. South Africans need to empower themselves through education, use all the means that the government provides to get themselves out of poverty. Hatred against fellow African migrants will only scare foreign investors. South Africans could also become victims of such events in other African countries and might not be welcomed, as we saw in Nigeria three years ago where a full plane was turned back to South Africa. After all, they claim to be the gateway to Africa. In today's South Africa, the value of Ubuntu (a Bantu word meaning 'human compassion') has lost its place.

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South African leaders and police need to step up their efforts to end these atrocities - but they are renowned for their corruption. A failure in leadership has produced a high unemployment rate of 24% (a conservative estimate). In most cases, if the President is corrupt, the public officials follow suit. Today the majority of black South Africans are poor and are unable to enjoy the fruits of their democracy - while it is the African National Congress (ANC), led by black South Africans, who have ruled the since 1994. The economic pie is getting smaller and smaller. Although we did end colonialism in Africa, the older generation continues to fail the younger once.

Seven years ago, the then President of South Africa, Mbeki said his government would "do everything possible and necessary to ensure that we have no need in future to proffer this humble apology, which is inspired by genuine remorse", the Times of South Africa reported.

The African Union President, leaders of Malawi, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Zambia, Mozambique and other countries have raised their concern over the situation of their citizens in South Africa. Africans who supported the liberation from Apartheid have been rewarded with killing and burning. Many South Africans were given refuge and a base of operation in many African countries during the Apartheid era."

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As we celebrate 21 years of freedom this month, we do so knowing that this freedom should be shared and owned by the people of Africa as whole; many of whom come from countries who were nothing but friends to the South African people during our dark days of Apartheid brutality. These unpardonable attacks against them are a shameful assault on our very humanity", the ANC said in the statement signed by its national spokesperson, Zizi Kodwa.

On Thursday 16th April, thousands of people attended a peaceful protest march to end xenophobia, including civil society groups and religious leaders . A lot of South Africans are feeling ashamed about what is happening and they are condemning it loud and clear.

However, South African politicians have been reluctant to call the attacks xenophobic, but rather Afrophobic. It is true that it is mainly black Africans who are been attacked. No matter what terminology you apply, what matters most is that innocent lives have been burned, stoned, intimidated, forced to stay indoors and close their businesses. The question should be how to end such attacks from ever happening again. Also finding a solution to the South Africa's faltering economy, growing unemployment rate and ending corruption would go a long way to easing xenophobic sentiments, and stopping attacks on foreigners and their business. The repeated attacks on African migrants are a black mark on South African history.

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Published on 21/04/2015