Nearly two years ago the world witnessed horrific images of murder and arson on a horrendous scale. We saw pictures of grim-looking, matchete-wielding young men roaming the dusty streets of shanty towns of South Africa hunting for foreign-looking Africans to hack to death.
They dragged their victims out of their shacks and murdered them, and then burnt the shacks. Or they pulled them off commuter taxis and cut them to pieces by the roadside.
The excuse for the blood-letting was that the foreigners were stealing jobs from locals.
Then the murder and burning ended and we thought the killing frenzy had spent itself and that the worst had passed.
Early last year similar scenes of killing frenzy appeared in Kenya following the disputed presidential elections of December 2007. The pretext here was that the election had been stolen. The violence, however, had a distinctly ethnic character.
The same murderous scenes have again returned to South African streets – again in the shanty towns. This time the target are Zimbabwean immigrants.
These widespread and now periodic spells of murder and other acts of violence aginst foreigners are what is called xenophobia. In ordinary language this means the extreme hatred of foreigners.
Now, you will probably ask: who are the foreigners in the case of Kenya? Well, there are foreigners even within one country when one national(ethnic)group claims exclusive rights to some territory. You only need to look at Nigeria, Kenya and, in the most extreme case, Rwanda up to 1994.
You shouldn’t think that dislike for foreigners is limited to the shanty towns of South Africa, or the slums of Kenyan and Nigerian cities.
No. It is more widespread than that.
In our own region of East Africa, we have had our fair share of hatred for foreigners. In the past few years thousands of Rwandans living in Tanzania have been expelled from the country ostensibly because of disputes over land.
The expulsions went unnoticed outside the region largely because they were done in remote parts of the country away from the glare of international media.
The sober and level-headed manner with which the Rwandan government handled the issue stole the emotion out of it and made it less noticeable except for those directly concerned with it.
The land issue in Tanzania remains a stumbling block to fuller East African integration especially concerning the free movement of people and the right of residence.
The fear of foreigners grabbibg their land is making Tanzanians drag their feet on the residence issue.
In fact in a BBC Swahili service programme on November 19 some Tanzanians threatened war if their government allowed foreigners to come and settle on their land and, as they said, eventually take it over.
By foreigners they usually mean Rwandans and Burundians and wealthy Kenyans. Their government is not about to do that as recent expulsions of Rwandans show.
All these haters of foreigners, because of short term interests and short sighted concerns, miss very important advantages immigrants offer. The history of the human race is full of examples of advantages immigrants bring to new countries.
The classic example is that of the United States of America. The United States was built to super power status by penniless immigrants running away from natural disasters in Eutope, repressive or intolerant governments, or simply those seeking personal fortune, and, of course, African slaves. Immigrants still flock to America, although it must be said, they are not universally welcome.
Asians were expelled from Uganda in 1972 by Idi Amin on the pretext of returning the control of the economy to native Ugandans.
They left their property behind and arrived in Britain penniless. In a very short time they rebuilt their lives and businesses and became millionnaires, added to the GDP of Britain, created more jobs, paid more taxes and generally made Britain wealthier.
Who gained from their industry? Britain. Not Uganda that had turned them away. The only thing that Uganda gained was notoriety and a shambolic economy.
Winners of the Nobel prize in such fields as medicine, physics, chemistry and economics have many immigrants in their ranks.
These are some of the best brains in the world who have made ground-breaking discoveries and inventions that have had a tremendous impact on the course of human development.
They have brought honour to themselves and their adopted countries, not to their countries of birth or origin. Who knows, among the shanty town-dwelling foreigners in South Africa could emerge a Nobel Prize winner in economics or physics.
Immigrants or their descendants now provide some of the world’s top leaders. Nicolas Sarkozy is unchallenged in France. Who says the Rwandans or Burundians that the Tanzanians are intent on keeping away cannot produce another Julius Nyerere – a man or woman with a pan-African world view and the intellectual and leadership qualities to truly unite East Africans?
South Africans are currently having problems with their football team – Bafana Bafana. They cannot score goals and therefore cannot win matches.
It is conceivable that the stars who can make things happen for Bafana Bafana in future might be among the barefoot kids with the dazzling dribbling skills in the dusty streets of the shanty towns.
You only have to look at France to know that this is a real possibility. You might also discover among the boys and girls now cowering behind the wire fences of rugby stadiums real athletic gems with no gender ambiguities who could bring untainted glory to the country.
So, why throw away these gems ?