As everyone else, it saddens me to see that South Africa has come again under the international spotlight following the surge of xenophobic attacks that led to the death of at least 6 people in the country.
Xenophobia in South Africa is not a new topic. I heard about it for the first time a few months ago, when citizens from Soweto decided to take justice into their own hands, following the death of a 15-year old South African, shot by the foreign businessman he was allegedly robbing.
For a couple of weeks, tension rose in the district and in other parts of the city. Looting of foreign shops dramatically increased, leading to the departure of foreigners from these areas, fearing for their lives.
From that period, I remember the testimony of one of the victims, crying after being robbed of his possessions, his passport included, and the precious visa he needed to stay in the country. I also remember the strange feeling of discovering that I was mixing xenophobia with racism and that xenophobia in South Africa is not a matter of native Africans versus descendants of the European colons, as I naively thought first. It is a much more complex feeling, targeted towards foreign citizens, rooted, according, to the Human Sciences Research Council, in an acute sense of deprivation (e.g. fierce job competition), a nationalistic group categorization, the South African strong sense of superiority over other African nations, and SA exclusive citizenship that makes it extremely difficult for foreigners to enter the country or obtain South African visa (and believe me, we know that part very well!)
But the purpose of the post is not lengthy discuss of the reasons of xenophobia. I feel too privileged and too far away from the harsh reality of the life in the townships to have an opinion that really matters on that topic. Besides, I have done very little so far to positively contribute to the general welfare of the country, apart from diligently paying my taxes and hoping they would not only fund the recent upgrade of the president’s outrageously expensive home. Hence, as heavily and as I can condemn the attacks, casting a stone would be too an hypocritical act from my part, unless I cast it first upon myself. I shall then refrain to do so. I don’t like to cast stones anyway.
So instead of blaming, why not celebrating?
Last week, while checking my instagram feed, I came to read for the first time the preamble of the South African Constitution, which starts as follows:
“We, the people of South Africa,
Recognise the injustices of our past;
Honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land;
Respect those who have worked to build and develop our country; and
Believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.
We therefore, through our freely elected representatives, adopt this Constitution as the supreme law of the Republic so as to —
- Heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights;
- Lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law;
- Improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person; and
- Build a united and democratic South Africa able to take its rightful place as a sovereign state in the family of nations.
May God protect our people.
Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika. Morena boloka setjhaba sa heso.
God seën Suid-Afrika. God bless South Africa.
Mudzimu fhatutshedza Afurika. Hosi katekisa Afrika.”
I instantly felt deeply connected to the text, and wanted to know more about it.
The South African Constitution was written between 1994 and 1996, and promulgated by Nelson Mandela on the 10th of December 1996, ending the 2 years of transitional process that followed the fall of the Apartheid regime. During those two years, while an interim constitution was enforced, opinions and voices of all South Africans from all parts of the country were collected to make sure they were correctly reflected in the final version of the text. As a result of this thorough exercise, the South African constitution is said to be one of the longest in the world (161 pages in the pdf version I downloaded), but also one of the most progressive and a subject of constant pride for all South Africans. It is intentionally written in a fairly simple way so that everyone can read and refer to it.
It guarantees rights such as the right to equality before the law and freedom from discrimination (including discrimination based on sexual orientation), freedom of assembly and right to protest, freedom of thought, speech and religion, among others. It also celebrates the diversity of the country by, for instance, formally recognizing its eleven official languages, one of highest numbers in the world, behind India (23) and Zimbabwe (16). Being on the forefront of social and democratic advances, the new constitution led to the recognition of same-sex marriage in 2006, making of South Africa the 5th country of the world to recognize same-sex marriage and still the only one to date on the African continent.
The constitution is very dear to me as it had a significant impact on our decision to move to South Africa. By recognizing our marriage, it allowed my husband to legally enter the country under a spouse visa, and guaranteed us the same rights as any other married couple. Despite significant progresses in the recent years, this is still an exception in today’s world, rather than the norm. Well done South Africa!
This is therefore the South Africa I want to celebrate, the work of thousands of men who tirelessly fought against a regime that was unfair to them, who gave up all they had for the sake of their convictions in order to make of this beautiful country a better place and a land of promises and opportunities for their children. Their success in doing so is a source of constant awe and celebration. So yes, there might be a minority of South Africans who conduct xenophobic attacks, and chances are, this will happen again, as long at the root causes for xenophobia are not tackled. But there is also a vast majority of South Africans who recognize themselves in the core values of the constitution, who praise them and celebrate them and who do not hesitate to take the streets when time calls for action to demonstrate that we are all united against xenophobia, so that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity“. When referring to xenophobia in South Africa, this is definitely a part of the story we should not forget to tell.