A fading rainbow

I recently watched a film that interspersed scenes from St John Paul II’s requiem with scenes from the great Pope’s 27-year pontificate. One of the latter scenes showed his meeting with Nelson Mandela in 1990, at the Vatican.

The South African freedom hero, who would meet the Pope two more times in his lifetime, and come to refer to him as “my brother,” had just been released from prison, in which he spent 27 years for spearheading the struggle against apartheid.

Now, almost thirty years later, the struggle for which he gave up so much, and the gains made through his and others’ considerable pain and sacrifice, are unravelling. South Africa is afire again with the flames of xenophobic hatred. The only difference is that black South Africans, the quest for whose equality with whites committed Mandela to Robben Island for 27 years, are now on the offensive, venting out their frustrations on black immigrants from the rest of the continent.

Recent weeks have been replete with stories of clashes on the streets of South African cities, deportations of Nigerians and shameless name-calling on local and international radio. Reactions from across the continent have been unanimous. South Africans ought to be ashamed of themselves. For while they remained under the yoke of apartheid, the rest of Africa rallied behind their cause for equality.

And when equality was finally achieved, the rest of Africa rejoiced with the brethren down south. A sense of common achievement swept through the continent. In 1994, the year I was born, Mandela was elected President and South Africa firmly set itself on a path of healing, reconciliation and brotherhood. There was talk of a rainbow nation. The consensus then was that there would never again be a time when men would be divided on any grounds, that all men were equal, and that the country would stand for what was best in humanity.

Looking at these recent scenes, however, it is clear many South Africans did not get the memo. Where the rest of Africa fought for their freedom, they now see other Africans residing in their country as a burden that needs to be shaken off even at the cost of violence. And so, since 2008, rarely does a year pass without gruesome stories of the mistreatment of immigrants, and sometimes, of hatred flaring up into conflagrations of violence, while successive surveys show an increasingly hardline opposition to immigration by South Africans.

Now, I know that every country has the right to determine who comes in and not; those who know me will tell you I have some of the most radical ideas in this matter. I know problems will necessarily arise before immigrants are adequately integrated into the societal fabric of their new nation. I know there is a lot I do not understand concerning immigration in South Africa because I am not a South African. And I know that other Africans don’t get a free pass into South Africa just because they stood shoulder-to-shoulder with South Africans in the apartheid days.

But none of these, or any other such arguments, can be used to support the degradation of the human dignity of those drawn by the promise of a better life to cross borders, from the Zimbabwean cab driver on the boulevards of Johannesburg, to the Ethiopian shop-owner on a street corner in Durban, to the Nigerian hawker in Soweto. The resentment that leads to this kind of barbarism can only come from misguided notions of nationhood.

I have not been to South Africa, but many of my friends have. Each of them, when they come back, state that the country seems to be off the rails. There is something generally amiss; you can smell it in the air. The post-apartheid national order seems to be fraying at the edges. The streak of militant nationalism which sometimes polluted the fight for equality, and thereby detracted from its legitimacy, seems to be rearing its ugly head once again.

The cause, apparently, is a growing frustration on the part of black South Africans with the pace of progress. The promise of better lives after the end of apartheid is not panning out as they expected it to. For while equality heralded better times, they have come to realise that those better times had to be worked for. However, the person who pointed to immigrants as the reason behind this South African inability to work for better times has made an erroneous diagnosis.

The should be sought, instead, in the fact that education, the primary tool for this new struggle, seems to have fallen out of favour with the average black South African. This is not conjecture; it is a fact, the truth of which is attested to by none other than the South African education ministry. If is for this, and for the other reasons resulting from it, black South Africans are, on the whole, not stepping forward to avail themselves of the opportunities now open to them.

Consequently, it should come as no surprise that other Africans, drawn to the country by these opportunities, and driven away from their own countries by less than favourable conditions, should find their way into South Africa. The problems South Africans should be handling, therefore, seem to have little to do with immigrants and more to do with getting their own house in order.

This need to be done quickly. Because South Africans are setting themselves up for more disappointment if they think kicking out immigrants will make things better; if dislodging the white man from his perch of power didn’t hand progress on a silver platter to black South Africans, dislodging the immigrant from his hard-earned position and fortune is just as unlikely to do so.

Feature image: Wissup.

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