Good morning, Sanbonani, Goeie More, Salaam, Shalom, Namaste
I greet you friends in celebration of our diversity in humanity and our diversity as South Africans; a diversity which profoundly contributes to the beautiful mosaic of our wonderful country.
Friends, June 16th is a hallowed day in South Africa’s history. It should be one that is celebrated in every school in this country. It was the day in 1976 when youth, such as yourselves, stood up and said no to injustice, no to discrimination, no to apartheid, no to xenophobia. It was the beginning of the Tsunami that saw the eventual dismantling of Apartheid in our country two decade later. That moment in 1976 represents the bravery, courage and vanguardism of South African youth that had consequences many years later. That mantle passes on to you – because what you do today will have repercussions in future. You make tomorrow. I therefore commend the organizers for their bravery in taking up this burning issue of xenophobia.
Xenophobia is the “deep-rooted, irrational hatred towards foreigners or of the unfamiliar”.
Put simply, Xenophobia is a form of hatred for others simply because they are different or unfamiliar to us. It represents a hatred for people who are different because of their race, culture, language, ethnicity, religion, nationality or sexual orientation. This hatred also has other names: racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, Nazism, homophobia or Zionism.
It is an irrationality that arises out of seeing people as others – or outsiders from our own circle of insiders; outsiders because they are different to us in some aspect. Because of this difference we then stigmatise such people and then discriminate against them. Creating a situation of insiders and outsiders, us and them, permits us to reduce their sense of humanity in our eyes, and permits us to discriminate against them without disturbing our natural sense of justice. This ‘othering’ creates a banality in our evil – where even good people inexplicably commit the most dastardly evil.
This is evident in history whether it was in this country, in Rwanda, in Bosnia, during colonialism or during the Holocaust. During the Holocaust the Nazi’s killed people simply for being different – they killed the Roma people, they killed those who were disabled, they killed the communists, they killed the gays and they killed the Jews. They were killed because these people were considered the outsiders, aberrant or imperfect. We see in Rwanda and Bosnia – where communities who lived an integrated existence and intermarried turned on each other. Neighbours turned on neighbor in a frenzy of hatred. But we also see forms of it in the USA, in Britain, in France, Germany and Spain – particularly with regard to recently arrived immigrants.
We need to check ourselves because we all engage in stigmatizing other people in our daily conversations. We attempt to give his hatred a degree of rationality, either through our negative experience with a member of this group and generalize that tendency to all members of that group. Or we may grow up with assumptions about certain people and then dehumanize them, and then discriminate about them. In other cases we simply imitate what other people, who are close to us, say and do. To some degree we all do this. It is a tendency we need to be vigilant against and constantly check ourselves and others– so that we don’t allow these attitude to take root and fester. So that we learn and teach others to accept people as humans, as individuals and attribute an essential goodness to them. We must celebrate our diversity and as a nation celebrate our unity in this diversity.
So my first point is that xenophobia is possible because we all create insiders and outsiders within a circle that we create, and use this as a basis to hold certain views about outsiders, stigmatise them and then discriminate against them.
My second point is that there is an irrationality about creating insiders and outsiders – because while we may inside our circle, because of our difference we may be outside somebody else’s circle. While we stigmatise others, they may form a basis to stigmatize us. Today we may discriminate against someone for being different to us; tomorrow we will be targeted for being different
There is an ever-closing circle of ‘othering’. To quote UCT Social Anthropology Professor Francis Nyamnjoh:
‘this diminishing circles of inclusion dictates that the next amakwerekwere, foreigners or strangers, is always one layer below the obvious one’.
Today it is the foreigners, tomorrow it could be Indians, Coloureds and Whites, then it could be Vendas, Pedi or Sothos, then it could be gays and lesbians, then it could be the disabled, then women …. This hierarchy of race, class and ‘othering’ continues to close down on those who are more vulnerable, as if the dehumanization must be a continuing cycle: that because I am dehumanized, I must similarly act in an inhumane way towards others below me in the social hierarchy.
Unless we break this cycle – this continuing cycle will destroy all of us.
This ‘diminishing circle of inclusion’ is poetically and presciently captured by one of Hitler’s victims, Pastor Martin Niemoller:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me
We can only act against this urge, if we being to treat humanity as one family – as part of our family. As we celebrate differences in our own families – we accept the differences in us as human beings as a strength. More importantly where we see the earliest signs of racism or xenophobia we challenge it.
Friends, we as individuals need to recognise and be conscious of the fact that we are not the pure products of any group. Rather we are the products of a historical process, to quote Antonio Gramsci, who have been influenced by‘infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory’. If we are to compile that inventory of what has influenced us– we would be African, European, Asian and American. We have influences of different races as proven in our genetics. Our civilisations and cultures have been influenced by previous ones since the dawn of time. In our own lives we have influences from different cultural systems – we use the Arabic alphabet, we watch American movies, drive Japanese cars, listen to African music, and consume Indian cuisine. We have infinity of traces that enriches our lives. We are bound together by a fatalistic dialectic. Society can never be divided into us and them. There is only us. Therefore to hate – is to hate that part of who we are.
My final point is that we are all foreigners and natives to this land. Let me demonstrate that fact by invoking a Nando’s advertisement to demonstrate our common history:
The ad starts with black Africans illegally crossing a barbed-wire border fence into South Africa. There is a voiceover and each time the voice calls out a name, the group of people who represent that particular identity are transformed into a cloud of smoke, as follows: You know what is wrong with South Africa: all you foreigners. You must all go back to where you came from – you Cameroonians, Congolese, Nigerians, Somalis, Ghanaians and Kenyans. And of course you Chinese and you Europeans. Let’s not forget you Indians and Pakistanis. Even you Afrikaners. Back to Swaziland you Swazis, Lesotho you Sothos, Vendas, Zulus, everybody. In the end, only one person is left standing, a San man who, armed with a bow and arrow and ready to explore the wilderness, confronts the voiceover with these words: “I’m not going anywhere. You found us here.” The ad concludes with the voiceover saying: “Real South Africans love diversity.”
This advert in its simplicity articulates a profound idea: that the idea of identity and belonging in South Africa recognises the history of mobilities of peoples that have made South Africa possible, and that remains open to new and ongoing mobilities. It makes the point that people will be coming into this country and leaving; those who come and those who leave would have contributed to our beautiful mosaic which we call citizenship.
We have come to this country merely a few years before others. Despite this we have witness the most dastardly acts against people from other countries who have come to ours for various reasons – as political, social or economic refugees. These people would rather die or drown in oceans than stay in their home countries – so dire is their lot. The acts against these people are acts of criminality driven by an unacceptable hatred. We have targeted people simply because they are different to us (or more successful). Nothing can justify such attacks against innocent people earning an honest living who come to our shores out of desperation. It robs our country of a civility.
These xenophobic attacks are not only against foreigners; rather they attack all we stand for, as victims of apartheid, as a rainbow nation, and our constitutional imperative. The preamble to use constitutions recognises that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity’. Let us embrace this diversity in our daily lives.
Let us begin to meaningfully understand other cultures, religions, traditions and races through substantive engagement so we can all be enriched by our diversity. And let us spare a thought for those who through desperation, and facing death and destruction, leave their homes to seek security and prosperity in our land. In their circumstances we would have done no different.
I end with a prayer for peace, justice, reconciliation, hope and freedom; a prayer I hope all of you recognize:
Lord bless Africa May her glory be lifted high Hear our petitions Lord bless us, your children
Lord we ask You to protect our nation Intervene and end all conflicts Protect us, protect our nation Protect South Africa
Out of the blue of our heavens Out of the depths of our seas Over our everlasting mountains Where the echoing crags resound
Sounds the call to come together, And united we shall stand, Let us live and strive for freedom, In South Africa our land.
To those who have no recognised it, I remind you that this is our beautiful national anthem -penned by Enoch Sontonga – to which we do violence every single day.
I thank you.
16 June 2015