I don’t know how to introduce myself anymore. I don’t know which hat to wear in public, or in identifying myself.
Last week Friday, April 17, I wrote that “I’m not even sad or disappointed. I am pissed off and angry that there are South Africans who are attacking our brothers and sisters — fellow human beings — because they were not born within our borders. I am pissed off. I am outraged. This is not and never acceptable.”
Do I introduce myself as South African? As a Member of Parliament? No. I will introduce myself as a husband and as a father — admittedly of Hazel and Pretzel, two beautiful Dachshunds — because I am ashamed of being a South African.
Am I a foreigner? What is the opposite of a foreigner? A native?
I am not native to Pretoria. I am not native to Gauteng. I am a child of South Africa, born in Mpumalanga, but also grew up and lived in KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, North West, Gauteng, the Western Cape and Swaziland. However, my father was born in Zimbabwe. His mother came to South Africa, born in Tanzania, and having lived in Malawi and Zimbabwe.
My ancestors are not of this continent. They arrived here — approximately 180 years ago — escaping religious persecution in Europe, seeking economic opportunities and a better life for themselves and their descendants, of which I am one today.
Their ancestors were not from Europe. They were Celtic peoples invading the remnants of the Western Roman Empire in search of a better life for themselves and opportunities for self-advancement.
And so the story goes on. I am a foreigner.
But I am not a black, African residing in, but not born in, South Africa.
Do I need to be to speak out against the murder of and attacks against black, Africans residing in, but not born in, South Africa?
Yes. Not because #NoToXenophobia is an easy and attractive bandwagon to jump on. My conscience, my gut, my brain, but more importantly, my humanity, compels me to.
I am sure that Martin Niemöller will allow me to pervert his now famous poem about Nazi persecution of “the other”:
First they came for the Mozambicans, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Mozambican.
Then they came for the Muslims, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Muslim.
Then they came for the Shangaan, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not Shangaan.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.
Xenophobia. Islamophobia. Homophobia. Ethnophobia. Afrophobia.
The Other. The Unknown. Those foreign to us. Those different from us.
The definition of xenophobia — and indeed as is true of the other so-called “phobias” — is that it is rooted in the alleged “fear” of the unknown. That which we do not understand. That which we cannot empathise with.
But it is not ignorance and fear.
We are brothers and sisters. We know our brothers and sisters. We grew up with our brothers and sisters. Our fathers and mothers were in the trenches with our brothers and sisters. Our brothers and sisters shared their homes, their tables, their food, their misery, their sorrow, their losses, their victories; and we shared ours.
We are brothers and sisters.
Our bodies function the same, our brains function the same, our hearts function the same.
We are human.
It is not ignorance. It is not fear.
It is not criminality, it is not vigilantism, it is not xenophobic attacks. It is murder, it is attempted murder, it is — as some have argued — genocide.
It is hatred, it is anger.
It is hatred of identifiable — usually along demographic or cultural features — vulnerable people who make easy targets. Easy targets for our anger, our frustration, our unhappiness, our desperation, our hatred.
But our brothers and sisters are not the right targets.
They have become scapegoats for the failure of our society as a whole — but government and the state in particular — to meaningfully, substantively, and decisively address the legacy of a divided past, of colonial and apartheid oppression, persecution and exploitation.
They are scapegoats — punching bags — for the failure of our society — but government and the state in particular to deliver and to be accountable to the people of our country.
So-called xenophobia is not unique to the South African experience. It reared its head in Ghana, in Uganda, and in Zambia in the previous century.
Elsewhere on the continent people have found other convenient, easily identifiable and vulnerable targets for their anger, their desperation and their frustration. Gay men and women. Muslim men and women. Christian men and women. Men and women from different tribes. Women.
The “other” become convenient targets — scapegoats that distract from government’s failures — and the government discourages it through lip service, does nothing, or in some instances jumps on the populist bandwagon to stay in power.
A history of brutal violence, extreme poverty and destitution, rampant unemployment and incredible levels of socio-economic inequality have undermined our dignity, and destroyed our humanity. It has made some of our brothers and sisters incapable of empathising with “the other”, it has made it possible for them to see “the other” as objects, as animals, as inhuman.
Politicians like me are partly to blame, even though I am in the opposition.
We have allowed lies about people not born in South Africa to go unchallenged. Lies like “they steal our jobs, our wives, our homes”. Lies like “they are undocumented”. We have allowed the use of — and often ourselves used — phrases like “illegal aliens”. Aliens. Inhuman. They. Them.
We have, through promises and rhetoric, created unrealistic expectations, and then through inaction, greed and self-serving conduct, failed to fulfil those expectations; or as a society tolerated it.
How do we address this? How do we restore our common humanity, our human dignity, how do we achieve meaningful freedom and substantive, real equality?
Izimbizo are not sufficient. Dialogues like this, although important and necessary, are not sufficient. Protests and marches, although they send a strong message, are not sufficient.
The reality is that those who need to attend these, those who need to hear these words, those who need to become human again, do not attend. They don’t have an opportunity, they don’t have the desire, they don’t see the need. They don’t know that they have lost their humanity.
I know we need to take action. I know we need to send in the police and the army on raids to confiscate weapons in hotspots, but what happens when they leave? The weapons can just as easily be replaced, as they were obtained in the first place. The resentment, the anger, the hatred remains and perhaps, is even entrenched or inflamed.
We need action. We need accountability. We must demand accountability not only from our government for its failures and we must ensure that those who are murdering and attacking our brothers and sisters who were not born in South Africa are held accountable, brought to book and punished to the fullest extent of the law.
We have seen action recently. And I welcome it. I welcome the speedy arrest of murderers. I question why we have taken so long to deal with it, and why we have done nothing since 2008 to address this scourge.
It is incumbent on our law-enforcement agencies, on our churches, on our civil-society organisations, our mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, each one of us, and on our politicians to speak out, to condemn, but also to actively pursue and prevent it where we see it.
If they come for me in the morning, they will come for you in the night, Angela Davis said.
Where will it end? Who is next?
But more importantly, what are you doing about it?
I don’t have the answers, and it depresses me, but when ordinary South Africans speak out, take action, I am given hope, and I have a renewed belief in our ability, our desire, to restore our common humanity, our human dignity, to achieve meaningful freedom and substantive, real equality.
This piece was written for a reading at a Readers Café Africa event on Friday, April 24. Other topics addressed included statues and the Chibok schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram. This is an intensely personal reflection and is meant to be seen, and read, in that light. Readers Café Africa is an incredibly relevant initiative to encourage dialogue around African issues and stories. It was started by fellow Mandela Rhodes Scholar Cynthia Ayeza. Their website is available here, and you can follow them on Twitter or Facebook.