Ubuntu against xenophobia

Xenophobia means “fear of others”. In
South Africa it has come to mean
“hatred of others”, a peculiar racism
against immigrants from other African
countries.
(Image: Treatment Action Campaign)

Janine Erasmus

The recent brutal attacks by South Africans on foreign Africans living in South Africa have shocked the world. An estimated 56 people from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi, and elsewhere in Africa – including many from South Africa itself – have been murdered. Many more have been driven from their homes, with up to 35 000 packed into makeshift shelters in an unseasonably cold and wet South African winter.

Then there’s Ernesto Nhamwavane, a young Mozambican house-painter who came home every evening to a shack in the Reiger Park informal settlement in the east of Johannesburg – until two weeks ago. Photographs of the 22-year-old Nhamwavane kneeling and dying on the street, covered in flames set by slow-burning wood, have been published across the world. They are terrible images, and only a random document of what has been done to many others.

The world has been horrified. So have most South Africans. Before Nhamwavane was murdered, his South African neighbours in the Reiger Park shackland had urged him to leave, and helped him get out a back way. When he took a wrong turn into the mob, and was stabbed and set alight, the local South Africans sent a young girl to get help. It was too late.

Velda Plaatjies lives in Reiger Park. As David Stephens of the South African Red Cross walked the streets of the settlement a few days after Nhamwavane’s murder, she approached him.

“Velda opened her purse,” Stephens said. “I could see what was in it. She had just R10 but she said, take it, it’s my bread money, but rather use it to help the people. She fished around in her pocket and came up with another R2. That R12 was for me the most wonderful contribution, because it was all she had.”

Plaatjies’s R12 has been one contribution of many.

“South Africans have been coming in droves to help. It’s been overwhelming,” Stephens said. “We’ve received donations ranging from R5 to R10 000 from individuals alone. All over the country people have poured out their hearts, saying emphatically that we’re not all xenophobic.”

“Xenophobia” means “fear of others”. In South Africa, sadly, it has come to mean “hatred of others”, a peculiar racism against immigrants from other African countries.

“We’re not against foreigners,” Stephens said. “We want them to come and live here.”

The violence has been overwhelming. But, according to Stephens, the spirit of ubuntu, the African philosophy of humanity to others, has never been more alive than now. “People have come together to support medical and social interventions. We’ve received assistance from those of all faiths.”

Gift of the Givers

Dr Imtiaz Sooliman, founder and chair of South African Islamic disaster relief NGO Gift of the Givers, says the organisation has so far given over R2-million to victims of the violence.

“We took action on 12 May, the first night of the attacks, supplying 200 blankets and 200 loaves of bread to victims in Alex,” he says. Alexandra township just east of Johannesburg was the scene of the first acts of xenophobia.

“Two nights later we supplied more aid, on a bigger scale, because by then 450 people needed assistance. The next day we brought in food, clothes, parcels, tents, and we were starting to realise that the situation was a lot bigger than we suspected at first. After the crisis in Primrose, we went in with 3,000 blankets. It was chaos – people were everywhere and it was like a war zone.” Primrose, on the east side of Johannesburg, has been one of the hardest-hit areas, with gangs of thugs actively seeking out foreigners in door-to-door searches.

Gift of the Givers expanded its operations to other areas to help those in need. On 18 May, less than a week after the violence broke out, the organisation made R1-million of supplies available to many affected areas, including Primrose, Thembisa, Boksburg, Jeppestown, and others.

“Because the public bombarded us with requests to help, on 19 May we set up a truck at the Village Walk [a shopping centre in the business suburb of Sandton],” says Sooliman.

“The response was phenomenal. This, to me, showed the true spirit of the new South Africa. People from all walks of life, in huge expensive cars and old battered cars, came to contribute. They poured in to help in their thousands, and without exception the attitude was that this is not who we are, this is not what we stand for.”

Other similar initiatives followed at centres around the country, with just as overwhelming a response from a public that is, almost to a person, concerned and disgusted with the criminal acts.

The organisation has also given aid to refugees returning to their countries. ‘We’ve been contacted by the embassies of Bangladesh, Mozambique and Malawi, to help their people wherever possible. We provided food for 2,000 returning Mozambican refugees. We paid for buses to take Malawians home. If they want to go home, we will help them.

“Still there is need for our assistance, and people come forward constantly to ask us what they can give. We will continue to assess the situation and make whatever interventions we can.”

South African business steps in

The Red Cross has also received substantial donations from major corporations. Standard Bank has donated R3-million. Multinational petroleum company BP has pledged R250 000. Mobile services provider MTN has given R1.5-million, airtime to the value of R35 000, and branded clothing worth R700 000.

Retail chain Pick n Pay has donated R100 000 and is collecting food for refugees in all its stores. And, says Stephens, the South African Revenue Service has donated tons of illegally imported clothing it has seized at South African ports.

“From a Red Cross perspective,” says Stephens, “I’m proud to be South African because of the way our countrymen have responded to the crisis.”

The help goes on. The Development Bank of Southern Africa, together with the Industrial Development Corporation, have set up a R20-million fund to support humanitarian relief. Local municipalities will disburse most of the money, with the Red Cross receiving R2-million.

The Development Bank has also funded an inquiry into the violence, to be carried out by the Human Rights Commission and the Commission for Gender Equity. These are two of South Africa’s “institutions in support of democracy”, bodies set in law by the country’s Constitution.

South African Airways, the national carrier, is donating R750 000 to the Red Cross and another R250 000 to Johannesburg’s Central Methodist Church, which has offered shelter to refugees for decades.

Youth mobilising against violence

Thato Moeng of popular youth radio station YFM says listeners phone in constantly to denounce the xenophobic attacks on air. Spearheaded by breakfast DJ Sbu Leope, the station recently added its contribution to the relief efforts by delivering food and blankets to destitute refugees in the Thokoza township in Ekurhuleni municipality, east of Johannesburg. Contributions came from the station’s audience.

“We went to the Thokoza city hall, where about 500 people have taken refuge,” says Moeng. “It was horrid. We heard such terrible stories from the people. Talking to them, we found that some want to go home, but most of them want to stay, because there are more opportunities here than at home.”

DJ Sbu and other celebrities such as Nhlanhla Nciza from award-winning music group Mafikizolo and Tumisho Masha of television lifestyle programme Top Billing, as well as a member of the mayoral committee in Ekurhuleni, gave speeches of hope to the people and reassured them that most South Africans are against the violence.

Earlier in the week the station organised a peaceful protest march against xenophobia, which took place in Wattville, Ekurhuleni. This area is one of many affected by the horrors of xenophobic violence. YFM’s efforts to fight the violence will continue. Throughout the day on the station, which boasts a weekly listenership of more than one million youth between the ages of 14 and 30, DJs voice their own condemnation of the violence and, says Sbu, “We see that our actions are helping, and we cannot stop.”

Condemning xenophobia online

A number of anti-xenophobia groups have sprung up on popular social networking site Facebook, all created by outraged South Africans. One of them is South Africans Against Xenophobia, Racialism and Tribalism, set up by Tshepo Thlaku. At the time of writing the group had over 6.000 members. People visiting the page are encouraged to donate and support in any way they can, and contact details of relevant organisations are supplied.

Michael Moss, a 17-year-old Johannesburg schoolboy, has created a group called End Xenophobic Violence in South Africa. “Something must be done to protect the rights of all people living in South Africa regardless of if they are citizens or not,” he says on the group’s home page, which also provides contact details of aid organisations for those who want to contribute. Moss’s group had over 12,000 members at the time of writing.

With almost 3 400 members, The World United Against Barbaric Attacks in South Africa is another Facebook group denouncing xenophobia. “Xenophobia has no room in our society,” says the group’s creator, South African Kondeon Kondleka.

The nature of comments on all groups varies. Whether positive or negative, many of them are emotional. However, the majority of comments echo the sentiments of the rest of the world in condemning the violence.

A South African website called United for Africa has been set up in order to help keep track of incidents of xenophobia happening in Southern Africa, and as a platform for people to anonymously report them.

“This portal looks to empower each one of us to make a difference, both in terms of keeping each other informed and providing assistance to those who are being persecuted,” says the introduction on the home page. “If you see or hear anything please report it. Through our collective efforts we can force local and international governments to be frank, honest and responsive to this situation.”

The website also works with NGOs and related organisations to verify incidents, and to assist those who need it most. It calls for donations of all kinds, whether financial, food, clothes, blankets and anything else that will be of use, and provides a list of drop-off points around the country. Those who are unable to give material goods may donate R10 by sending a text message, together with their name and area, to 38871.

Working around the clock to help

Relief organisations are working around the clock. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has to date distributed some 2,000 blankets and 2,000 mats to police stations across Gauteng province. Many of the displaced have sought refuge at police stations, community centres, and army bases around the country.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) is working in Johannesburg, Ekurhuleni and Pretoria to provide emergency relief supplies to vulnerable babies, children and their mothers. The agency is also assisting with fortified cereals for young children. Unicef reports that it will help establish playgroups and crèches to help traumatised children find stability.

Municipalities around the country have mobilised their communities to contribute to the relief efforts. Newspapers are conducting campaigns amongst their readers. The humanitarian crisis sparked by xenophobic attacks has united South Africans in a common cause.

Want to help? Contact the organisations below or visit the Wild Frontier blog at The Times, which supplies a list of organisations. Talk radio station 702 also provides an extensive list of organisations involved in relief efforts.

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