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South Africa’s Incredible Amnesia: Forgetting Africa’s Contribution to the Liberation Struggle

IDEA Viewpoint                                                                 April 24, 2015


We at the Institute of Development and Education for Africa (IDEA) are disturbed by the ongoing xenophobic violence in South Africa against African immigrants. Hence we present this viewpoint and reflection so that our subscribers have a good flavor and understanding of the mob action against fellow Africans. We begin with a brief historical note and proceed in analyzing and critically examining the South African wave of anti-immigrant attacks.

Not too many people know about Massavana, the first freedom fighter in South Africa. We like to make a splashy reemergence of this protagonist in an attempt to reconnect South Africans and other Africans to what took place in the middle of the 18th century. Massavana, originally from Madagascar, was captured as a slave captive along with several fellow Malagasy men and put in the Meermin Dutch ship that was heading to Cape Town. In due course of the voyage, Massavana managed to unchain himself in the lower deck of the ship; made a surveillance of their captors on the upper deck and learned that the crew and the captain of the ship were asleep. He seized the moment, unchains his comrades and managed to control the magazine where the rifles were stored, and effectively wrought a mutiny in which the Captain and the crew were put under control by his friends and him. He then ordered the Captain to sail back the ship to Madagascar and set them free in their home turf. The Captain agreed but with deceit he headed toward Cape Town and upon approaching the beaches of the Cape, some of the crew hoisted a flag of distress and managed to get help from the Dutch armed forces on the ground; soon, a shoot out began between the reinforcing Dutch and the Massavana group and the latter lost the battle. Massavana was tried and sentenced to life in prison at Robben Island in 1766. One hundred ninety six years later, Nelson Mandela would end up in the same island.

South Africans and other Africans may not know or remember the Massavana story because it took place so long ago, but that of Mandela and the struggle of liberation is a recent memory and South Africans are cognizant of the sympathy and solidarity extended to them by fellow Africans. At least the South African leadership knows too well about Mandela’s training in Ethiopia, the African National Congress (ANC) base camp in Tanzania, and the support they have enjoyed from Zambia, Zimbabwe, other SADC (Southern Africa Development Community) nations, as well as other Africans.

Ironically, South Africans have forgotten the material and moral support provided to them by their fellow African brothers and sisters. In fact, it looks that South Africans have suffered from an incredible amnesia and soon after they were liberated from the yokes of Apartheid, paradoxically they began attacking immigrant Africans.  What could be the cause for their xenophobic fervor?  We ask this question because we don’t want to blame the senseless mob groupings or the sporadic anti-immigrant zealotry that has now gripped the South African nation, outside the larger picture in which the main problem lies.

We want to focus rather on the root cause of the irrational xenophobia exhibited in all major urban centers of South Africa. Obviously, the root cause for the lack thereof of the control of the economy by indigenous black South Africans has to do with the status quo ante of the former Apartheid regime members, who still have the upper hand in the national economy.  The majority of South African blacks, by contrast, are either poor or maintain an under poverty status, save the handful blacks who in recent years emerged as successful entrepreneurs and few more privileged government officials, who may have betrayed the cause of the liberation struggle.

The second most important cause for the South African xenophobia is the increasing diminishing political consciousness of the present generation of South Africans. Unlike the combatants of the ANC, the PAC (Pan-African Congress), and other civic organizations, who were endowed with political consciousness, the present youth in South Africa have considerably lost the track of the liberation struggle. While the national anthem of the ANC was Wiki Nikosi Sikeleli Afrika (Lord Bless Africa in Xhosa, Mandela’s mother tongue), the rallying cry of the xenophobic mob is Buyelekhaya (go back home) geared against African immigrants. 

The Buyelekhaya movement, though spontaneous for the most part, is nonetheless a relatively cohesive force aimed at destroying the life and property of other Africans and to some extent at other nationals like Pakistanis, but not whites. The question that comes to mind, however, is why did the ANC allow such a gangster culture to evolve and flourish under its watch? Is the ANC now an emasculated party vis-à-vis the new political trend of anti-immigrant psychology or is it simply giving a tacit acknowledgment to the mob action? Without even adequately answering the above questions, the ANC has indisputably failed to educate and mobilize the South African people and rally them around pan-African agenda.

In order to fully grasp the South African phenomenon, our inquiry must be reflective of the scope and range of South African politics. In the post-Apartheid period, that is beginning 1994, there is no doubt that South Africa successfully established a viable political culture with attendant robust constitution, open political debate, and an independent judiciary, but as mentioned above, the post-Apartheid regime(s) did not economically empower South African citizens, in particular blacks.

It is worth bearing in mind that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), court-like proceedings that were held between 1995 and 2002, were too much of a compromise. While the intent and spirit of the TRC was positively motivated, its “religious” overtone was a distraction from a more pressing national problem (e.g. unemployment, poverty etc.)

One of the weaknesses of the charismatic and great Mandela was his negotiated release from Robben Island and subsequently his inability to change the poor condition of his fellow citizens. His successor Thabo Mbeki, likewise, made great contribution for ANC’s external relations during the liberation struggle, but he exhibited weakness in good governance, had misgivings on the prevalence of HIV/AIDS, and he was tolerant to the tyrannical rule of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Jacob Zuma, the current president is a great listener and he successfully reconciled the contradiction between his party and that of Inkhata Freedom Party of the Zulu. It was handy for Zuma to make such a compromise, perhaps because he himself is a Zulu. However, Zuma, almost always presided over xenophobic South Africa and must be held accountable for the violence directed against African immigrants.

During the course of the xenophobic killings of African immigrants, Jacob Zuma has only offered a lip service to the problem, instead of taking a decisive and concerted action against the hate mob. There was a rally against xenophobia in South Africa on April 23, 2015 but such demonstrations would not be enough unless they are supplemented by durable and sustainable government actions. Put otherwise, even the most assiduous measures against the mob violence and crime would be meaningless unless South Africa embarks on a revolutionary socioeconomic restructuring and enable the majority of South Africans to have a stake in the national economy, which apparently is still in the hands of the minority whites. This is an attempt to provide a suggestive model, but the South African leadership knows better.

It is in light of the above analysis that we must now view the narrative of the violence perpetrated against Africans as chronologically discussed below.

In 1998, the Human Rights Watch reported that immigrants from Malawi, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique living in the Alexandra Township were “physically assaulted over a period of several weeks in January 1995”. In the same year one immigrant from Mozambique and another from Senegal were thrown out of a moving train.

In 2000, several foreign nationals were killed in the Cape area, and between 2000 and 2008, 67 people were killed. In the 2008 series of mob violence against African immigrants, 62 people (including South Africans) were killed.

In May 2009, mob attacks flared up due to a government policy of “illegal immigrants as a national threat” and non-South African nationals from other African countries were attacked in the Western Cape, more specifically in Gugulethu, Khayelitsha, and Philippi.

On May 30, 2013, 25-year old Abdi Nasser Mohammed Good was stoned to death; three Somali shopkeepers had been killed in June 2013; on June 7, 2014, another Somali was stoned to death. On April 19, 2015, a Mozambican, Emmanuel Sithole, was ambushed and killed (source: Wikipedia).

Adding insult to injury, the Zulu king Goodwill Zwelthini, who happen to be the son of President Zuma, fomented an atmosphere of xenophobia by his rhetoric against immigrants. While some people attribute Zwelthini’s attitude to business rivalry, at close inspection, we believe that the King and other authorities are trying to gloss over the underlying economic problem in South Africa.

On April 11, 2015, “Ethiopians [were] badly burned in South Africa anti-foreigners violence.” As reported by the AFP and put out by the Daily Mail, “Two Ethiopian  nationals suffered serious burns when their shop was set alight by a mob, police said Saturday. The men were in the shop in Umlozi, South of Durban, when it was petrol bombed on Friday night. They suffered severe burn wounds and are being treated in hospital” police spokesman Thulani Zwane said. (www.DailyMail.com).

The Institute of Development and Education for Africa (IDEA) urges President Zuma to take all necessary action against the mobs that freely and wantonly attack African immigrants under the watchful eyes of the police. The African Union should send a strong signal to the Government of South Africa so that the latter immediately and effectively stop violence against immigrants, and the United Nations and other major powers should also admonish the South African government without compromising their diplomatic and national interests.

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