By Unene Gregory
Last Thursday morning, which was unseasonably sunny for a UK morning in early Spring, I switched on my work computer and began catching up on the latest SA news. I came across a YouTube news video about the current affairs of the state which made me increasingly anxious the longer I watched it. The source of my anxiety was the recent spate of xenophobic attacks in KwaZulu-Natal and more so, that people had begun the “rampage” after a “supposedly misquoted” statement from King Goodwill Zwelithini stating that all foreigners should go back to their own countries.
My initial response to the actions carried out by my fellow countrymen on fellow Africans was that of confusion, which later turned into anxiety. A slew of questions streamed through my mind at a speed similar to that of downloading a 13mb file on a high-speed optical fibre connection. These questions ranged from: How could someone in a position of authority utter such an irresponsible statement? Why would anyone heed such a call and take to action without question or context? How were these people justifying their actions? And so forth. I spent much of my day with my mind, to some extent, preoccupied with such thoughts.
My anxiety was due, in part, also to my currently being a foreigner. I have only been in the UK for seven months conducting research, though every day not at home, my beautiful homeland, feels like an entire week. Even though my being a foreigner will be relatively short-lived, I pondered whether I would be shown mercy from such attacks if British nationals took it upon themselves to rid their land of all foreigners — such as the individuals in KZN. It is no secret that the British are not particularly keen on foreigners, their main argument is that foreigners steal their jobs, bring crime and, as some have said, dilute the “British blood line”. These were all similar “reasons”, excluding the latter, given by South Africans that are staunchly opposed to foreigners in the country.
The similarity shared by the majority of British nationals and South Africans that are “anti-foreigners” is that they usually come from marginalised communities or communities that have, to some degree, been economically excluded. However, unlike British nationals, “xenophobic” South Africans seem to target African foreigners or those of darker skin colour. This begged the question, has colonisation and later, apartheid, led to our narrowed view of “problematic people”? Has apartheid led us to being racially bias, profiling people based solely on their skin colour and, in the case of the xenophobic attacks, led us to misdirecting our anger to those of darker hues? As a nation, we pride ourselves on being inclusive; foreigners in our country are not only those of darker skin shade or fellow Africans, it also includes Europeans, Americans, Asians and so forth, so why is anger towards foreigners only directed at those with darker hues?
Further contemplation and some internal debate did nothing to diminish my anxiety, rather, I became divided on the matter. On the one side I am of the belief that most (African) foreigners in South Africa have come in the pursuit of a better life for themselves and their families, and usually take on jobs that most locals are not eager to do, which is a similar trend of most foreigners who migrate to more developed countries. I believe that these people deserve a chance in life, because if the proverbial shoe was on the other foot we would all also want the opportunity to carve out a life for ourselves and those dear to us. But on the other hand I know that not all foreigners come with “good intentions” and it also upsets me that the majority of foreigners in our country do not pay tax, which means that working-class South Africans are left to foot the bill not only for other citizens but also for foreign nationals, putting further strain on “the system” and our people.
The spokesperson for the Zulu royal family later came forward, stating that the Zulu king had been misquoted. The spokesperson said that King Goodwill Zwelithini was only referring to illegal foreign nationals that partook in criminal activities. Even though I agree with the “amended” statement I felt that it was “too little too late”. The damage had already been done and too many innocent lives, on both sides, had been lost.
My anxiety goes beyond the unjustifiable xenophobic attacks to, what I feel, are actions that will distance South Africa from other African states, which makes the dream of a strong, united Africa, which most of us share, even harder to achieve. We already have a plethora of obstacles that inhibit us from achieving a united continent without more infighting among its people.
Unene Gregory is a 2012 scholar and is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Manchester.