David Smith
David Smith

Happy World Refugee Day

I imagine the Tuesday night debate at Wits on xenophobia was the sort of event that attracted the kind of people who read and contribute to Thought Leader. I was there and I’m pleased to have made the effort.

The discussion was interesting, and probably could have gone on for hours had there not been a 90 minute time limit. During the 90 minutes however, a very important point was missed. I had my hand up to make the point during most of the period devoted to questions but time was not on my side. Thought Leader is now providing me with that time.

Not surprisingly, discussion focused on the strengthening of border security, the need for faster service delivery, and how it might be possible to integrate the millions of foreigners living in this country into South African society. It was recognised that the word xenophobia was something of a smoke-screen hiding bigger, more widespread problems in the country.

Sadly, the spirit of ubuntu, a word bandied about a lot these days, did not shine through the gathering. At no point during the evening was any reference made to why so many Africans continue to stream across South Africa’s borders. At no point was any reference made to the difficult circumstances people find themselves in in many of the countries to the north of our borders.

One of the only times foreigners were mentioned was when one member of the audience complained about the better treatment displaced persons receive compared to their South African counterparts living in informal settlements. This is an understandable point of view, as the same situation appears virtually everywhere in Africa where the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees erects refugee camps. The local population, suffering prior to the arrival of the refugees, wonders why the newcomers are given shelter and food. How quickly we forget that preparing the ground for a better life for all is the domain of the government of the sovereign state in which the refugees find themselves, whether that state is Chad, Sudan, the Central African Republic, or South Africa.

South Africa is not a country in isolation. It is part of a region, a continent, and a planet. Whether we like it or not, what happens outside our border affects us, whether it be the price of crude oil determined by OPEC states or the availability of bread in Bulawayo.

Building higher fences along the Limpopo and increasing the number of army patrols is not going to fix anything. If the United States can’t stop Mexicans from getting into their country, how can we expect to seal all the borders with Zimbabwe, Botswana, Mozambique, Swaziland and Lesotho? And even if we could, would this solve the problem? No, certainly not.

Until South Africa recognises that its destiny is linked to the destiny of its neighbours, no lasting solution to this regional problem will be found.

Do Congolese parking guards really want to help you back out of your parking spot at Sandton City? Not at all. They want to be back in Kinshasa, or Lubumbashi plying a trade and going home to their families in the evening. They don’t want to come to South Africa, but they have to. South Africans living in exile thirty years ago didn’t want to leave home either. But they had to.

South Africa currently occupies a position on the United Nations Security Council. So far, it has done little with that power and privilege to help address some of the problems in the region. One can only guess what President Mbeki is thinking when he is acting as SADC’s chief mediator in the Zimbabwe crisis. One can only hope for the best.

One can only hope for leadership. That’s when we’ll fix things, when we look at the big picture and accept responsibility for making things right.

Imagine what it would be like if Zimbabwe were the successful, functional, economically stronger state, and South Africa the nation in crisis. Imagine what it would feel like heading north through the fence near Beitbridge looking for food and money to send back home.

What we need here is some empathy. Imagine yourself in the tattered shoes of a Mozambican living in Diepsloot.

By the way, Friday is World Refugee Day.