In South Africa violence against immigrants from other African countries has become a disturbingly regular occurrence. Last week South Africans were at it again.
They attacked immigrants, killed many of them, ransacked and burnt their houses and businesses. Terrified survivors huddled wherever they could find safety.
Five years ago, we witnessed similar murderous scenes on South African streets. This time the target was Zimbabwean immigrants.
Earlier, at the beginning of 2008, we saw horrific images of murder and arson on a horrendous scale. We saw pictures of grim-looking, machete-wielding young men roaming the dusty streets of shanty towns of South Africa hunting 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. It is the same excuse today.
So what is wrong with South Africa?
Upon Nelson Mandela’s passing, I mused, in this column, about the kind of South Africa that would emerge after him. Today I return to that thought because recent happenings point to the kind of society that South Africa might become if the country does not change course.
Mandela was a huge asset for South Africans, at once a symbol of unity and the glue that kept the different strands of the country together, an embodiment of tolerance, forgiveness and the willingness to leave the past behind so as to move on with the future.
With his passing, many issues were bound to come to the fore. Would his physical absence remove the examples and restraints that his presence had ensured? The events of last week seem to suggest that indeed those restraints are long gone.
But the picture is more complicated than that.
South Africa remains a hugely unequal society. We have already seen dangerous flashes of what could happen if the inequality gap is allowed to grow wider. For instance, miners have gone on strike and been met with police brutality reminiscent of the apartheid era.
Violence against African immigrants has periodically broken out among the country’s poorest citizens who feel they have not tasted the fruits of liberation.
The ruling African National Congress (ANC) to which the majority of black South Africans belong remains strong, but in recent times, cracks within it have begun to appear. Its top leaders have been accused of an obscenely lavish lifestyle while ordinary people remain dirt poor.
Some party members, dissatisfied with the state of affairs, have broken away and formed rival political parties. How long can the ANC hold together, and more importantly, deliver on the promise of liberation?
Mandela was, of course, pan-African and was aware of the immense sacrifice and solidarity of other Africans during the liberation struggle in South Africa. He used South Africa’s economic clout as a force for good on the African continent, to drive common cause and even mediate various conflicts that threatened the unity, prosperity and stability of the continent.
South Africa’s leaders today are different. They are more inward-looking nationalists and use the country’s power as a bully would.
I concluded my reflection with the thought that perhaps a diversion from Mandela’s path has already begun. The chillingly regular bloodletting against African immigrants seems to validate this view.
Now, don’t imagine that hatred of foreigners is limited to South Africa. It is more widespread than that. It happens wherever one national or ethnic group claims exclusive rights to some territory.
The most extreme example of this is Rwanda up to 1994.
In East Africa, we have had our fair share of xenophobia. In the past few years thousands of Rwandans living in Tanzania have been expelled from the country ostensibly because of disputes over land.
In 1982 the government of Milton Obote in Uganda uprooted thousands of Rwandans and Kinyarwanda speaking Ugandans from their homes in western Uganda because they were “foreigners”.
Earlier in 1972 Idi Amin expelled Asians from Uganda on the pretext of returning the control of the economy to native Ugandans. The only thing that Uganda gained was notoriety and a shambolic economy.
All these haters of foreigners are short-sighted and miss a very important point. Immigrants are very hardworking people whose efforts benefit the whole country.
A classic example is that of the United States of America that was built to super power status by penniless immigrants running away from natural disasters in Europe, repressive or intolerant governments, or simply those seeking personal fortune, and, of course, African slaves.
Winners of the Nobel Prize in almost every field have many immigrants in their ranks. These are men and women who have made ground-breaking discoveries and inventions that have had tremendous impact of human development.
Who knows, among the shanty town-dwelling foreigners in South Africa could emerge a Nobel Prize winner in economics or physics.
Who says the Rwandans or Burundians that the Tanzanians are intent on keeping out cannot produce another Julius Nyerere – a man or woman with a pan-African outlook and the intellectual and leadership qualities to unite East Africans.
Besides, killing them or looting their property does not create jobs or grow economies.