NGUGI: Lessons from xenophobic killings and myths of loving each other to death...

Wednesday October 16 2019

Zulu residents of the Jeppe Men Hostel scream waving batons in the Johannesburg CBD on September 3, 2019 after South Africa's financial capital was hit by a new wave of anti-foreigner violence. PHOTO | MICHELE SPATARI | AFP


President Muhammadu Buhari was recently in South Africa to meet with his South African counterpart Cyril Ramaphosa. The visit followed xenophobic violence that left scores of foreign Africans in South Africa dead or injured.

In 2008, another wave of violence left about 60 foreign Africans dead. The extreme barbarity of these attacks is captured by a picture that did rounds on social media some years ago.

The picture showed a foreign African man aflame in a township street while South African blacks stood on the pavement jeering and cheering.

To the cheering crowd, the man in flames did not deserve even the empathy we show to animals. He was a Makwerekwere, the pejorative term South Africans (and southern Africans generally) use to refer to Africans from other countries.

Makwerekwere is to foreign Africans in southern Africa what the N-word is to African-Americans in the US. Like the N-word, it denotes someone of an alien culture and nature; someone of an inferior moral and intellectual character.

The attacks in South Africa should afford us all an opportunity to have a brutally honest discussion about migration in particular and the way Africans relate to other Africans generally. Unfortunately, we tend to analyse Africa’s condition through romantic lenses.


For instance, we believe that Africans love each other to death (pun unintended) naturally, and mere evocation of the spirit of Ubuntu will resolve all issues of bad blood between Africans. But reliance on mythical beliefs did not save the one million Rwandans slaughtered by their own neighbours.

Neither has it stopped the killing of thousands every year in ethnic pogroms across the continent. The solution is to appraise reality as it is, not as idealized by Afro-centric imagination, and devise practical solutions.

So what would be the discourse markers of a brutally honest discussion on migration? The first marker is an acknowledgement that no human being should be attacked, mistreated or killed for seeking a better life in any country.

Seeking a better life cannot be a crime. No one should be profiled in dehumanising terms because they have run away from poverty or persecution in their own countries. National laws cannot trump over human dignity.

Therefore, South Africa and other destination countries must protect migrant communities with the same zeal they do their own nationals.

There is no genetic, moral or logical reason why the life of a national is more important than that of a migrant. This understanding should translate into speedy and unrelenting prosecution of perpetrators of abuse and violence against foreigners. This must be followed by compensation for lives or properties lost. Lastly, there must be deliberate and sustained community mobilisation around human rights of foreigners.

The other discourse marker is exploration of why so many Africans flood South Africa and Europe?

In an address to the Organisation of African Trade Union Unity in Nairobi recently, President Uhuru Kenyatta conceded that African migrants were being humiliated because leaders had failed to provide conditions at home for them to thrive.

It was a rare admission of failure of leadership by a leader. With the same honesty, we must discuss why, for instance, Nigeria, with all its oil wealth, cannot provide for all her people. In other words, we must discuss the relationship between migration, especially the desperate kind we see to South Africa and across the Mediterranean to Europe, and the kind of leadership we have in Africa.

There are also lessons to be learned. One lesson is that whenever we support tyrants who enrich themselves at the expense of public welfare, the necessary result is desperate, dangerous and uncontrolled migration.

When Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma refused to stand with the people of Zimbabwe and instead gave material and diplomatic support to the Mugabe dictatorship, the result was the fleeing of millions of Zimbabweans to South Africa and Europe.

Similarly, the AU’s support of ousted Omar Bashir of Sudan, Teodoro Obiang of Togo, Denis Nguesso of Congo Brazzaville or Paul Biya of Cameroon contributes to chaotic migration from those countries. The inconvenient truth is that migration is a direct result of negligent and thieving leadership.

African leaders should not only point fingers at the ANC government. Blood of the migrants dying in the Mediterranean Sea or the streets of South Africa is on their hands too.

The other lesson is for the African intellectual class. Repeating myths of natural brotherly love and Ubuntu is not a substitute for sober policies based on objective reality.

Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator.