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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.