Former president Thabo Mbeki made a promise to the world in July 2008. He was speaking at a memorial service for 63 people killed in an orgy of xenophobic violence that had engulfed South Africa. Offering an apology on behalf South Africans, Mbeki decried the fact that “we allowed criminals in our midst to inflict terrible pain and damage to many in our society, including, and particularly, our foreign guests” “We will do everything possible and necessary to ensure that we have no need in future to proffer this humble apology, which is inspired by genuine remorse,” he said. Since Mbeki made that promise, xenophobic attacks have continued unabated in South Africa.
The current xenophobic attacks against foreign nationals in the country have left so far 7 people killed. Many shops owned by foreign nationals have been looted and several hundred foreign nationals have sought refuge in tents for their safety. The brutality of South Africans turning to foreign nationals was brought home on Saturday, April 18th, as people stood by while a Mozambican man was stalked, stabbed and killed as he lay in Alexander township, pleading for his life. Whatever the reasons, the fact that South Africans have not been able to live up to Mbeki’s promise shows there is a deep problem that needs more than reactive policing. The solution will need to begin with an acknowledgement that the attacks are xenophobic and not the sugar-coated explanations by politicians who insist these are just criminal acts. Whether criminal elements take advantage of these attacks is neither here nor there. The fact is that violence against foreigners is becoming institutionalised and children are growing up seeing this as normal. Africa Unite believes that education is very important to fight against this evil and dehumanising xenophobic attacks in the country.
One of the factors contributing to the ongoing xenophobic attitudes is the lack of interaction between migrants, refugees and citizens. Most of the beliefs against foreign nationals are based on hear- say without any apparent evidence or knowledge. Experience has shown that those citizens, who have had opportunities to interact with refugees and migrants in a meaningful way, are less likely to be xenophobic. This process of interaction however will only succeed if they are specifically constructed to allow for dialogue and meaningful interaction. By implications, this means that such interaction cannot just be coincidental, but need to be organized and facilitated.
For the past ten years, this has formed part of Africa Unite’s work in order to build human rights communities and promote social cohesion among locals and foreign nationals. This is the time for the South African government to partner with civil society organisations such as Africa Unite to conscientise citizens about the evils of xenophobia.
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