The Sad Irony of South Africa’s Xenophobic Attacks: darkness descends 25 years after democracy

The irony of the xenophobic attacks currently plaguing South Africa will not be lost on most people. Black South Africans, notoriously repressed by the white-minority Apartheid regime for the majority of the 20th century, are now turning their disillusionment on migrants from across the continent.

The attacks have been accompanied by fearsome riots

Starting as a semi-formal practice after the Boer War, and becoming government policy shortly after the Second World War, Apartheid under the National Party (NP) became a byword for racism and colonial degradation. Black South Africans were forced into ‘homelands’ and shanty towns away from white accommodation and business, their everyday lives segregated from their masters and any dissent ruthlessly crushed.

Resistance was quelled through political imprisonments and exile, with the now-ruling African National Congress (ANC) forced underground. Those of its leaders that were not put in jail sought solace in neighbouring African countries, particularly those that had already freed themselves from European colonial rule. Without this shelter and support it is unlikely that the ANC would have been able to maintain a coherent movement and enable the global public relations campaign that eventually secured the release of Nelson Mandela and democracy.

The Apartheid government attempted to herd blacks into homelands or ‘Bantustans’

Memories are seemingly short, for it is natives of some of these countries (such as Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania and Nigeria) that are bearing the brunt of the xenophobic assaults taking place in South African cities today.

Where once there was solidarity and common cause, now there is only bitterness and divisiveness. The ANC’s South Africa – beautified by Mandela’s declaration of a ‘rainbow nation’ – has become the racist pariah on the continent, its allies shifting uneasily as their subjects suffer undiluted discrimination. The situation has become so desperate that Nigeria is repatriating hundreds of its citizens.

Nelson Mandela popularised the idea of a rainbow nation in South Africa that would inspire other countries

Unfortunately, the origin of this tragic scenario all boils down to the incompetency and colossal misgovernance of the ANC, whose inability to manage immigration, corruption, the economy and crime are leading South Africa to become the continent’s latest basket case.

Its easy to say that the Mozambicans are ‘stealing jobs’ or that the Nigerians are turning once desirable suburbs such as Hillbrow into ‘drug slums’ but that is to deny the reality of contemporary South Africa.

Huge numbers of South Africans live in crowded and unhygienic shanty towns

On the ascension of the ANC to power in 1994, there were strong hopes amongst the previously disenfranchised majority that they would receive reparations for their years of submission. Over the last 25 years ANC politicians have done little to temper the hopes of their impoverished people who are now looking for a scapegoat for their troubles.

The government itself is becoming an increasing target – not helped by embarrassing broadcasts such as that aired of President Cyril Ramaphosa speaking on the xenophobia issue – but there is still a degree of gratitude shown towards the ANC for delivering democracy, whereby their inadequacies are overlooked. As with many countries across the globe, day-to-day problems and poverty are being blamed on the ‘other’.

A sad reality is that for many black South Africans, they are now worse off materially than they were during Apartheid. Of course you will find very few who would openly yearn for those terrifying times but political disenfranchisement and social repression can seem trivial compared to an empty stomach.

It is important to remember that South Africa was a fabrication rendered by the early Dutch and English settlers. It was not a nation before, nor did it ever contain any ‘great’ civilizations. But it had, and still has, a myriad of tribal groups, each with their own distinct belief systems and customs. Traditional enemies such as the Zulus and Xhosa were often willing to forego their differences to fight a common enemy during the Apartheid era. Now, ethnic divisions are ripping the country apart.

The Dutch planting in South Africa in the 17th century was arguably the start of the region’s problems

Where it stops is anyone’s guess. Shortly after the death of Robert Mugabe – who delivered independence to Zimbabwe but then destroyed the country from within – the ANC stands at a precipice. If its politicians cannot find a way to re-unite their people in a manner befitting of Mandela, and putting in place altruistic policies that do more than grease the palms of family and friends, civil war is a distinct possibility.

The extremists of Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters wait slavering in the wings. A dark era now looks set to envelop South Africa, a mere quarter-century after that famous rainbow light.

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Sexual Violence and the Rwandan Genocide: Kagame Stands in the Way of Healing

The UN is striving to put an end to conflict-related sexual violence and one of the key steps to achieving this lofty goal is to get an understanding of the scale and repercussions of rape and sexual assault during war.

A particular case in point is Rwanda where, 25 years after its brutal genocide, thousands of young adults are still unsure of who their fathers are. Why? Because their mothers were raped during the orgy of violence that accompanied the mass killings.

After Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana (an ethnic Hutu) was killed when his plane was shot down on the 6th April 1994, all hell let loose. In the conventional telling – one propagated by the ‘liberating’ forces of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) – 800,000 Tutsis and ‘moderate’ Hutus were murdered in the following 100 days by extremist Hutu forces. Hundreds of thousands of women were raped – some multiple times.

By the end of the genocide there were mass graves everywhere

Of course, with anything so horrific there is complexity to the story. Whilst Tutsis were the majority victims of the genocide, they were by no means the only ones. There is good evidence to indicate that ‘extremist’ Hutus, too, were massacred by forces loyal to the RPF.

Since 1994, the RPF has ruled Rwanda virtually unopposed. Current President Paul Kagame has been the leader since 2000, the de-facto ruler for the six preceding years. Kagame is a darling of the international community for bringing stability to Rwanda so quickly after the genocide.

Whilst a not inconsiderable feat, this has come at a cost to many ordinary Rwandans. RPF loyalists and the urban elite have prospered. The rural poor have stayed poor. What’s more, they are under constant surveillance from a vast network of government employees and volunteers, who are required to report on any sign of dissent or transgression, however minor.

Kagame has become increasingly dictatorial

Kagame has been steadfast in his denial that the RPF were responsible for any atrocities during the genocide, repeating that they used violence only to halt the extremist Hutus from wiping out the Tutsis. But his subsequent pursuit of the fleeing Hutus into neighbouring countries (particularly the Democratic Republic of the Congo) after the genocide (the Génocidaires) suggests otherwise.

Now a dictator in all but name, Kagame’s intransigence further scuppers the hopes of thousands of Rwandans from ever being able to identify their birth fathers. For how could it be a Tutsi when the violence of the genocide was only perpetrated by one ethnic group, namely the Hutu?

The majority of Rwandans rely on the land for their subsistence and income: few have seen real benefits during Kagame’s tenure

The events of 1994 transpired with such an unprecedented rapidity that nobody will ever know the whole truth. Much will have been lost in the bloodshed and the mayhem. To deny survivors some respite in their long-term suffering is avoidable, yet Kagame persists. With the support of the world behind him, he has been allowed to create a corrupt and authoritarian regime that would not be tolerated elsewhere.

If the UN is to succeed, it must start calling to account recalcitrant leaders such as Kagame. Without the pressure to reform his historical narrative, the pain of the Rwandan genocide will, for many, persist indefinitely.

Further Reading

Thomson, S. Rwanda: From Genocide to Precarious Peace (2018)