Surviving xenophobia, the long road ahead

Date: January 1, 1970
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This year, toasts to 25 May Africa Day have been very different in southern Africa. Rather than attending multi-cultural music concerts or art exhibitions meant to celebrate African culture and diversity, thousands of immigrants to South Africa were in camps or fleeing with only the shirts on their backs, while the whole region engages in self-analysis to try to understand the horrific xenophobic violence that happened over the past weeks.

Although the crisis appears to be dying down, with less images and stories of violence splashed across the newspapers, and many have stepped up to say no to the violence, for the thousands of displaced, this is just the beginning of their struggle to put their lives back together.  They will struggle long past when this sad period becomes history for the rest of us.
Immigrants from Mozambique and Zimbabwe who had trekked to the region’s economic hub South Africa are in refugee camps, nursing injuries, or mourning beloved ones killed on the orgy of xenophobic violence that started on May 12 in Johannesburg before spreading through out South Africa. Thousands are streaming out of the country.
While Mozambique declared the situation a national disaster, showing government’s concern, what remains on the lips of many victims is the question that will not have immediate answers.
“Who will pay for the goods that we lost in the violence?” asks Joana Mendes, a 37-year old mother of two who had lived in South Africa for four years and considered the country her second home.
Her concern is shared by more than 10 000 Mozambicans who suffered at the hands of mobs and fled leaving all they had worked for in South Africa. Streaming across the border with nothing to show for all of their years of hard work, they face the daunting task of beginning again. For mothers like Mendes, this seems an insurmountable challenge.
While the numbers are astounding, some media reporting 16,000 displaced, they do not tell the whole story of the far-reaching consequences. How will Mendes, and other mothers and fathers, send her children to school with all that they have had destroyed?
“My daughter’s education has always been my first priority,” says Zina Chauke*, “but with nothing, how do I afford to keep her in school? I will stay in Maputo and think about what to do. If she must start again, in Portuguese, it will be difficult for her, as she has grown up in South Africa. She is traumatised, and too young to understand why this is happening.”
The attackers complained of foreigners coming to steal their jobs and offering their services for below normal wages. Although nothing can support their actions, their concerns cannot be immediately dismissed, although the argument does need some analysis.
It is true that South Africa is a prosperous economy, which people from all over the continent and beyond envy. Many consider it as the land of opportunities. Reality only comes after one gets to know more of the real situation.
As someone who has lived in the country’s major cities of Durban, Johannesburg and Cape Town for varying period, I have seen poverty, which is even worse than poor economies like Mozambique. The threat of gangs and violence meant many foreign nationals living in South Africa were frightened to an extent that townships were a no go area. Yet, most people managed to eke out a living and no one considered returning home, despite the fact that life was not easy.
Yet, in Mozambique, while the people struggle, there is little extravagant opulence to remind the poor just how good others have it.  In the South African slums of Nyanga, Khayelitsha, Tembisa, Soweto, etc., one sees real poverty. In stark contrast, in suburbs like Sea Point, Rosebank, and Sandton, one sees a different picture where mansions fit for kings compete for space.
The South African government should analyse this scenario of inequality as it seeks solutions to the wave of violence. Inequality, whether economic, gender, or culturally based, creates unhealthy societies.
The governments of Mozambique and Zimbabwe should also pay attention to the same inequalities. They should see why their citizens flock to South Africa and other countries in search of jobs, while at home there are unexplored opportunities. Television images of mobs destroying houses and chasing foreigners should be enough proof to the leaders that the region can sink into a bottomless pond.
In the case of Mozambique, the war of destabilisation ended a long time ago and it is high time the country should build its industry leading to the creation of jobs for all people.
In the case of Zimbabwe, it is a shame that the country that had been a regional powerful economy has sunk so much. It is high time that the political foes bury the hatchet and start think of building the economy to create jobs.
This will not mean residents of these countries will not go to South Africa but this would not only reduce the number of economic migrants, but also contribute to a healthier region. To the mobs that resort to violence top solve their “grievances,” it is also time that they focus beyond their concerns of today.
The world is fast becoming a global village and people easily move from one point to another. Our economies are also intertwined. The spirit of acceptance should replace the mentality of creating mental boundaries. With improved transport and communication the world is becoming smaller and smaller, and with it should shrink the vast inequalities of our region. 
There is also no need to call another person living on earth a foreigner or “alien” as if they are coming from another planet. These “foreigners” are people – mothers like Mendes and Chauke who just wanted to give their children a better life.
The month of May is supposed to be a celebration of the gains made on the continent.  It is a pity that this year’s Africa Day celebrations are at the same time these violent black on black attacks rewind southern African progress backwards. United We Stand Divided We Fall. In the very least, let this be a wake up call for the region, and the continent. Maybe next Africa Day, we can hold our heads a little bit higher.
Fred Katerere is a freelance journalist based in Maputo, Mozambique. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news.

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