Nationalism / Protest and Activism / Racism and Xenophobia / Southern Africa

Xenophobia in South Africa: Forgetting the Past in Dealing with the Present

People protesting against xenophobia in South Africa hold placards in front of the South African consulate in Lagos, April 16, 2015. Photo credit of Voice of America. http://www.voanews.com/content/south-africa-moves-to-end-xenophobic-violence/2723255.html

People protesting against xenophobia in South Africa hold placards in front of the South African consulate in Lagos, April 16, 2015. Photo credit of Voice of America. http://www.voanews.com/content/south-africa-moves-to-end-xenophobic-violence/2723255.html

“Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika
Maluphakanyis’ uphondo lwayo
Yiva imithandazo yethu
Nkosi sikelela, Thina lusapho lwayo”

“Lord, bless Africa
May her horn rise high up
Hear Thou our prayers
And bless us.”

With xenophobic attacks spreading in the Gauteng and Kwazulu Natal regions of South Africa, it appears that the instigators of this violence have forgotten the history their country shares with the rest of the continent. During apartheid, it was independent Africa that supported South African nationalists in their struggle for freedom and justice. Before his imprisonment on Robben Island, Nelson Mandela made a trip around the continent, seeking aid for the ANC – and in most cases, receiving it. Zimbabwe, the leader of the frontline states in Southern Africa, condemned apartheid and often called for economic sanctions against the South African government. Now, in an attempt to find scapegoats for the social and economic problems facing the country, some South Africans have turned to “foreign” Africans living in the country as the cause for the high rate of unemployment. Zimbabweans, Nigerians, Malawians, and hundreds of other people who hail from the rest of Africa, have been targeted in the recent attacks.

In so doing, the spirit embodied by South Africa’s national anthem, “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika,” or “Lord Bless Africa,” has been erased. The song became a pan-African liberation anthem in the twentieth century, and was adopted as the national anthem of not only South Africa, but of Zambia, Tanzania, Namibia and Zimbabwe as well. In this way, the song not only embraced differences within South Africa’s borders itself, but also united it with the rest of the African continent and the very countries that had harbored and supported the exiled ANC during the apartheid years. “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” was not just a South African song, but an African one too. Willard Rhodes points out that “the folklike simplicity of the melody and the sincerity and deeply felt sentiment of the words made a direct and instantaneous appeal to all Africans who were beginning now to extend their horizons beyond the limits of their individual tribes.”[1]

This Pan-African sentiment of continental unity has failed to garner an effective response from either the SADC or the African Union. Jacob Zuma condemned the violence in parliament, but police in Durban and Johannesburg have been unable to fully curb the attacks. On April 16, thousands of people gathered in Durban to protest the violence, chanting, “a united Africa!” and holding signs showing solidarity for their fellow Africans. But not all elements in the country realize this, and the violence has continued. This is not the first time that xenophobia has reached this level in South Africa – in 2008, 62 people were killed in riots. South Africa’s struggles have always been African ones, too. And until Africa figures out a way to deal with the problem, together, the violence will continue to flare up.

[1] Willard Rhodes, “Music as an Agent of Political Expression,” African Studies Bulletin 5 (1962): 17.

One thought on “Xenophobia in South Africa: Forgetting the Past in Dealing with the Present

  1. Trishula
    I am so saddened by your peice which is so wrong on so many levels. You appear to have almost no sensitivityto African issues at all but speak like an American liberal based inNew York or London with zero acclimatisation: Let me be specific:
    1. it is true that we Africans supported Mandela but not as foreigners giving foreign aid, we supported him and South African resistance as part of our family. We protected the leadership physically from attacks (not always successfully – my friend Ruth First was letter bombed by apartheid SA ) and provided educational facilties for many.
    2. ‘xenophobia’ arising from immigartion/globalisation is a world wide phenomenon. We have the US where Trump has found great support from among those damaged by or believeing they have been damaged by immigration. In the UK a large part of the Brexit vote was attributed to those feeling threatened by the consequences of uncontrolled immigration, and in France, Germany and Austria anti-immigartion parties are on the ascendant. In France the National Front may well be the main opposition and could win the Presidency. Stiglitz, Nobel economist, has stated that the benefits of globalisation i.e. free movement of people has been extremely ‘uneven’ so that even if it benefits the economy as a whole certain sectors, particular low skilled workers, could suffer disproprotionately. To say ‘In so doing, the spirit embodied by South Africa’s national anthem, “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika,” or “Lord Bless Africa,” has been erased.’ is pathetic and shows little political or economic understanding.
    3. To quote the colonial trained US ‘ethnographer’ stating ‘the folklike simplicity of the melody and the sincerity and deeply felt sentiment of the words made a direct and instantaneous appeal to all Africans who were beginning now to extend their horizons beyond the limits of their individual tribes.” is to show a complete insensitivity to African sensibilities. This ex-neo-colonial US ethnographer had little undertsanding of the spiritual basis of the song and to suggest that Africans were only beginning to ‘extend their horizons ‘ beyond their tribes is patronising and pathetic. African pan -Africanism is deeply rooted in all African cultures. You can see it going back 4,000 years when the Egyptian Pharoah fled south when Egypt was invaded by Hyksos (non-Africans) and regrouped and eventually after many years Egyptians regained control of Egypt with assistance from tjheir African brethren. He had fled South to the Meroitic Sudan as a spiritual home. Under colonialism expressions of Pan Africanism were politically banned. Only a neo-colonial ethnographer could be unaware of that. Only someone without an African sensitivity will not see that Nkosi is a battle song ..you can march to it, however in most circumstances it is played as a spiritual but this is no different than ‘the battle hymn of the republic’ which is a blatant war song but generally played as spiritual… and called ‘Mine eyes have seen the glory..’
    4. If globalisation and immigration are world wide issues what can South Africa do? With rising unemployment among less skilled workers there is a great difficulty here and just dismissing it as xenophobia gets everyone exactly no where. Politically and economically it is a very challenging situation.
    I am sorry to say this but Trishula you are just so un African it may be best to call yourself a sympathetic outsider and identify yourself with your US pasport.

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s