By Emma Emeozor, [email protected]
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa in his inaugural speech on May 25 paid glowing tributes to African countries for the support and assistance they gave his country during the struggle against apartheid.
He reaffirmed his government’s commitment to the realisation of African Union’s Agenda 2063: “To build the Africa that we all Africans want. To forge a free trade area that stretches from Cape Town to Cairo, bringing growth and opportunity all African countries.
To silence the guns and let peace and harmony reign.”
With a sense of modesty, the president told his guests that his country cannot progress in isolation of other African countries. He said: “Today, we declare that our progress as South Africa depends on and cannot be separated from the onward march of our beloved continent Africa.”
Ramaphosa was careful in his choice of words which undoubtedly highlighted the general desire of Africans to unite and progress together in an environment of peace and harmony. However, what the president may not have known was that watchers of South African affairs were expecting him to use the auspicious occasion of his inauguration to assure Africans resident in the country of their security against the backdrop of the unending reports of xenophobic attacks.
A xenophobic attack was one of the ugly legacies he inherited from his predecessor, Jacob Zuma. Zuma was not able to combat the problem and Ramaphosa cannot be said to have faced the problem headlong for the 16 months he held reign before the May 8, 2019 general elections, perhaps because of the exigencies of the time. He took over power after Zuma was forced to resign. He needed time to consolidate his position.
The problem of xenophobia in South Africa started in 1994 and peaked in 2008. The chart has since been on the high. Either it was deliberate on the part of the president not to raise the issue of xenophobic attacks because of it’s sensitive nature or it was a human error.
Ramaphosa need not be told that the unwarranted attacks on Africans resident in South Africa have dented the image of one of the sub-regional powers in Africa.
As it is now, it will amount to absolute hypocrisy for any South African leader to talk about the need to “silence the guns and let peace and harmony reign” in the continent when the country is a theater for xenophobic attacks.
According to records released by Xenowatch, African Centre for Migration and Society, between 1994 and 2018, there were 529 incidents of xenophobia violence. A breakdown of the figures shows that 212 were in Gauteng Province, 111 in Western Cape Province, 67 in KwaZulu-Natal province, 40 in Limpopo, 33 in Eastern Cape, 22 in Mpumalanga province, 20 in North West Province, 19 in Free State Province and 5 in Northern Cape Province.
Observers however believe that violence incidents during the period were higher than the number recorded by the centre. More incidents were recorded early this year ahead of the May 8 elections. For example, there were attacks on foreign nationals in eastern eThekwini municipality. The president cannot claim ignorance of the incidents reported while he was campaigning for his election. These incidents remain fresh in the memory of people even as the president starts his new mandate of five-year term.
Interestingly, politicians, including Ramaphosa were accused of fuelling the attacks on foreign nationals that took place during the campaign season. Precisely, “politicians, community leaders, and individuals were accused of making inflammatory statements that fuel division and incite violence against non-nationals or promote discrimination.”
It was observed that “statements such as those made by President Cyril Ramaphosa at an African National Congress (ANC) rally earlier in March, when he blamed undocumented migrants for problems facing the country and promised a crackdown, were inflammatory as “they scapegoat migrants and feed anti-foreigner violence.” An appeal was made for the president to set a much better example.
Over the years, Pretoria has been accused of not being decisive in its action(s) against promoters of bloody attacks on foreign nationals. The response of successive governments to violent incidents cannot but be described as ‘halfhearted.’ How else can it be explained that xenophobic attacks have continued in the country for 25 years.
The government had always made promises to halt the ugly trend each time violence incidents are reported. Yet, the situation remains explosive. Observers have repeatedly decried the failure of the government to arrest and prosecute the perpetrators of the attacks.
Also, the government has been accused of “not collecting data on attacks.” As a result, the government do not have reliable records on violence incidents across the country.
Also, the police have not lived up to expectations in tackling the problem. Often the police look the other side even in glaring cases. Human Rights Watch reported the case of a Malawian truck driver, Tinei Tawawira, who was stabbed on March 25, 2019, by members of South African truck drivers association as the police looked on.
As Tawawira case speaks for the many atrocities committed daily by South Africans opposed to the presence of their African brothers in the country, the report is reproduced here: “A group of South African truck drivers and other locals protesting the employment of foreign truck drivers blocked the South Coast Road near Durban’s dock yards, and then moved along the lines of stopped traffic, forcing truck drivers out of their vehicles and demanding their driver’s licenses to identify foreign nationals. The group then took the keys from many drivers they identified as foreign nationals, left the trucks on the road, then beat the drivers.”
Recounting his ordeal to Human Rights Watch, Takawira said he was stabbed as the police looked on, without apprehending the attackers or helping him get medical care. He said that six protesters approached his truck and told him to get out. Once he showed them his driver’s license, which revealed his nationality, one of the assailants lurched out of the group and stabbed him in the stomach once with a knife.
“As I fell down bleeding, I saw (the assailants) casually walk away while the police (monitoring the protest) watched,” Takawira said. “I called out to the police to ask for help, but they ignored me and continued to watch as other protesters ransacked my truck, stealing my shoes and food.”
Takawira said that the police at the protest at the time said their mandate was to monitor the protest and not to arrest people. They did not arrest his attackers or write a report about the assault. What an excuse for protecting criminals!
And on March 26, 2019, a local rights group, the Africa Unite reported another pathetic case that took place in Springfield.
According to Africa Unite, a community protest against a local council member turned violent as two people attempted to loot a Somali’s shop and the owner shot at them. It said the local people then began to attack other shops and businesses owned mostly by Ethiopians and Somalis.
“In the early hours of March 26, a group of locals in eThekwini ward 25, known as Burnwood Informal Settlement, targeted foreign nationals, beating them and looting their belongings, forcing over 250 Malawians and a Zimbabwean to seek refuge at Sydenham Police Station in Sherwood.”
These two cases are among the many that occurred as Ramaphosa and the other candidates criss-cross the country seeking votes. The opposition Democratic Alliance party was once quoted as saying the ruling African National Congress party should be held responsible for the “scourge of xenophobic violence” in the country. Though it is the responsibility of the government to secure the lives and property of all, it must not be noted that the government must be given support and assistant by all.
If individuals, institutions, political parties, civil society organizations, women and youth groups had stood up (and with sincerity) to the challenge of xenophobic attacks, the evil would have been defeated even before the emergence of Ramaphosa as president.
South Africa is a country Africans revere because of its history, culture, wealth and eminent citizens, particularly its former president and apartheid icon, Nelson Mandela. Mandela became the face of Africa within the short period the country emerged from its dark era. Mandela preached tolerance, forgiveness, oneness and peace among Africans. The expectation was that his successors would deepen his legacy.
Reflecting on the significance of the day of his inauguration, Ramaphosa said: “We gather here on the day that the people of our continent celebrate the unity of Africa. It s a day of friendship, solidarity and cooperation.” But how can “friendship, solidarity and cooperation” be realised if citizens of the continent cannot be their brothers’ keeper?
The harsh economic situation, particularly unemployment has been blamed for the aggressiveness of South African youths who allege that foreign nationals were taking the jobs from them. But they never talk about the contributions of foreign national to the process of revamping the economy. Why is it that the attacks are carried out by black South Africans against blacks?
Even then, is bloody attacks on foreign nationals the best option to address the economic crisis facing the country? Certainly not.
South Africans must not hunt nationals of other countries under the disguise of saving their economy from exploitation. Certainly, yesterday has much to tell. That being the so, South Africans must learn to beget love with love. Citizens of other African countries sympathies with them as a people facing economic hardship after a grueling period of apartheid.
The challenge on the table of Ramaphosa now is how to put an end to xenophobic attacks. He must face the problem with the force it deserves. Africans are unhappy with Europe’s far-right bloc because of the treatment being meted to African migrants. The discrimination Africans suffer in Europe and America should not be a thing to practice in African soil, not in a country ruled by a leader of Ramaphosa’s status, less the president loses his hard earned reputation as an astute leader.
He has said his government is keen to build “a society where every person, regardless of race or sex or circumstance, may experience the fundamental necessities of a decent, dignified life.” Since South Africa cannot be an ‘island’ for only South Africans, it is believed that citizens of other countries resident in the country are included in his dream society.
The government has announced a “five-year-year National Action Plan (NAP) to eradicate xenophobia, racism and discrimination.” The government must be decisive in the implementation of NAP and make the country a safe haven for both nationals and non nationals.
A number of African countries are facing the problem of illegal immigrants. South Africa is not alone. Of course, no country tolerates the presence of illegal immigrants or acts of criminality by foreign nationals no matter their legal status. South Africa should apply its immigration law when necessary instead of allowing angry mob to become an arm of its immigration office.