Events over the past three weeks, though have not affected me in a direct tangible way, have had a profound effect on the way i view issues on and around the so-called xenophobic attacks in South Africa.
These attacks have happened around the height of my social and political awareness.
When the attacks spread from the Kwa-Zulu Natal province to Johannesburg and businesses were set alight, some of the most affected group of foreigners were Nigerians.
I have read brilliantly written articles and Facebook posts from people of Nigerian origin on the matter. Some have been very opinionated and even bothered on hate speech.
In the early 1980s Nigeria was at the center of a similar saga (for want of an appropriate word) when over one million foreign Africans most of which were Ghanaians were given two weeks to leave the country during an oil boom which had created a better economy.
Ghanaians had moved into Nigeria to take up jobs that the ordinary Nigerian would not do or did not have the skill to do and mostly for less pay.
Those who had needed skills like the doctors and teachers were also in high demand.
‘Ghana must go’
The foreigners had been blamed for the apparent hardships that the ordinary Nigerian was experiencing and that is the story behind the popular “Ghana Must Go” bag.
Some two decades earlier Nigeria had been at the receiving end of a similar hostilities from Ghana. In the current South African situation many Ghanaians have expressed their condemnation on the attacks and the lackadaisical approach by the South African authority to dealing with it. Some Ghanaians have been so angered that four men attempted to physically assault staff at the South African High Commission in Accra.
Xenophobia invented in South Africa
Xenophobia clearly was not invented in South Africa and South Africans have not been the first people to exhibit aggression related to xenophobia. There are many similar stories from around the world and they appear to be reactions to apparent unfair competition in trade and job opportunities.
What I have however observed in the South African context is quite a worrying thing. There seems to be a subtle but also deep seated dislike for the foreign African among average South Africans.
To have a derogatory word “kwerekwere” as an accepted description for an African foreign national sums it all up. I hope I am not misunderstood because I have had very important friendships with some very well meaning South Africans.
But I have heard some shocking passionate discussions among healthcare staff of some hospitals in which they have that suggested foreigners (who make up around thirty percent of the patient numbers ) must not be allowed to enjoy similar healthcare as South Africans and that they are to blame for the failing local health system.
I am at that point where I find it difficult to explain how I feel. It is a mixture of a lot of emotions.
I am sad because of the thousands of displaced Malawians, Zimbabweans, Mozambicans and Congolese, many of whom have lived seemingly harmlessly with their attackers for decades.
I am angry at how King Zwelithini and Edward Zuma insist that their hate comments that started the violence were mistranslated and have offered no public apology nor retraction of what they said.
I am utterly disappointed at how President Jacob Zuma and South Aftican authorities did not nip the problem in the bud at news of the first outbreak of violence.
I feel hopeless in the unwillingness of the South African justice system to prosecute people who incite violence with hate speech. Hopeless, also because if a journalist had not taken photos in real time during the killing of Emmanuel Sithole i am pretty sure that out of the hundreds of people who have been rounded up by the police, not one would be successfully prosecuted.
I feel scared and unsafe because if for any reason i was being attacked in broad daylight, judging from photos from Sithole killing, people would just stand by and watch as if it were a movie.
Maybe i expected too much from the South African ‘system’ judging from how good an impression Johannesburg as a city made on me during my first visit and from how much quality medicine South Africa tries to practice in the face of its challenges. But given the current events I have had to say “maybe this is Africa after all”. T
he Africa in which we lose touch with our humanity to misplaced anger, political expedincies and tribalism.
Xenophobia and Afrophobia
I am currently on a flight back home. No, I have not been displaced, neither do i have a business that has come under attack.
I intend to return after the dust settles but the thousands in Charleston and Germiston and Alexandria may involuntarily get one way trips back to where they did not intend to be.
Xenophobia, Afrophobia or whatever we choose to call what is happening is wrong.
The roots still exist and the earlier society as a whole decided to deal with the issues the better it’ll be for the continent as a whole.
By: Kwadwo Atobra Antwi
The writer is a Ghanaian medical practitioner, currently in postgraduate training in South Africa.