The challenge of xenophobia in Africa

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In recent years there has been an almost philosophical and academic discussion of the need for a broader integration of the regional, and continental-wide, economies of African States. Sure, the idea of closer economic corporation amongst African countries sounds very noble, and perhaps, even altruistic.  However, there are core mitigating challenges working against the effective implementation of this noble ideal. Chief among them is the collective will to tackle the thorny issue of deeply ingrained xenophobic tendencies within African societies, particularly against citizens of other African countries.

Practically any African who have traveled across the continent knows all too well about this entrenched problem of prejudice against fellow Africans. However, many of Africa’s academics and politicians shy away from addressing this issue. Some dismiss it as mere friendly rivalry, but the truth is that the issue is anything but friendly. Left unchecked, xenophobia can lead to the deaths of innocent African migrants, as seen in South Africa and elsewhere.

The international out roar about the recent xenophobic rampage of South African’s against the non-indigenous Africans living in the country resonated far and wide, and rightfully so. The incident was an appalling act of senseless violence against a defenseless population group whose only crime is seeking to better their economic condition, while contributing their talents to make a more prosperous South Africa.

In the aftermath of the carnage that left several people dead—many businesses looted and properties burnt, a good number of South African celebrities and corporate entities learnt their talent and financial muscles to a series of media campaigns against Xenophobia. Although these are welcomed initiatives, it’s much more important to delve deeper into the root cause of these spats of xenophobic attacks against innocent African migrants, in the first instance, if we are to prevent future occurrences.

In May of 2008, a rampage across the South Africa by marauding thugs, who claimed that other African immigrants were taking their jobs, left about 62 people dead. This dreadful incident, I have to point out, occurred during the presidency of Thabo Mbeki. In that instance, there were public and international outcries.

As is the case with many crisis of conscience in Africa, as soon as the voices of outrage died down, the embarrassing national incident was quietly swept under the rug by South African politicians who would rather wish the problem away than tackle the thorny issue of widespread prejudice against the immigrant population in the country.

xenophobiaWith the problem of intolerance just shoved aside, rather than tackled head-on, it festered in the minds of the minds of the mass of South Africa’s suffering poor. Some unscrupulous politicians in the country—hoping to score cheap political points, quietly, and in some instance vocally, stoke the amber of disdain against immigrants from other parts of Africa. They blame the growing poverty in their constituencies, and their inept ability to create jobs and expand the dwindling middleclass, on the African migrant communities. Of cause, the mass of the credulous poor buys into this divisive narrative.

Suddenly, rumors of thriving African migrant population contributing to the growing unemployment amongst the indigenous South African spread quickly and widely. This caustic narrative stoked the already simmering resentment against other African nationals living in South Africa—who are seen to be prospering at the expense of the indigenous population.

In such combustible environment of recrimination, all that is needed to set off a fire storm is a spark—which can come in the form of an inflammatory rhetorical statement or comment by a notable traditional ruler or politician or perhaps an incendiary incident. Suddenly, carnage ensues—with the destruction of public and private properties. Often, in the aftermath of the devastation, the silent majority of law abiding citizens begin to ask themselves, ‘how could this sort of incident occur in our country?’

Well, the simple answer to that question can be summed up with this famous quote by an eighteenth century Irish statesman, Edmund Burke, which states that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men (and women) to do nothing”. The signs of growing xenophobic sentiments within the broader South African population had been apparent all along, but were unwittingly ignored by the majority of South Africa’s decent and tolerant citizenry.

This recent xenophobic incident in South Africa should serve as a wake up call for the other African countries to start looking at ways to stem the growing problem of intolerance of the citizens of other African nations residing in their country.

We must resist the urge to sugarcoat the fact that xenophobic tendencies are not restricted to South Africa alone. Prejudice is a canker worm that festers in practically all African countries. I propose that all men and women of conscience should rise to confront this dangerous scourge or risk one day waking up to ask the question, ‘how could this happen in my country?’

No one country or region in Africa holds a monopoly on irrational violent tendencies. The problem of violence against the innocent, in Africa, is one that we must all confront together. The evil of xenophobia must be challenged at all fronts, if the continent’s populace are to evolve to their full potential, and the infrastructures that will sustain this emerging vibrant Africa developed to world class standards.

We are one Africa—with a shared destiny. We must be driven by the singular vision of improving the quality of life of the collective citizenry of the entire continent

Written by

Stanley Ukeni

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