Xenophobia on African Shores
By Hwaa Irfan
It is not unknown that to live in a society that is deeply insecure and has a fragile identity unreal fears manifest to make life become even more impossible for that which is feared, and for those who fear. The reality today in this 21st century, is xenophobia is becoming increasingly common both on western and non-western shores, however the term has only been popularly applied in the context of South Africa by the media. Xenophobia is described by dictionary-psychology.com as:
“A fear or contempt of that which is foreign or unknown, especially of strangers or foreign people. It comes from the Greek words ξένος (xenos), meaning “foreigner,” “stranger,” and φόβος (phobos), meaning “fear.” The term is typically used to describe a fear or dislike of foreigners or of people significantly different from oneself”.
The reaction to Muslims since 9/11 and anything pertaining to Islam – more commonly referred to as Islamophobia – is a clear demonstration of xenophobia. In fact, psychologist, Jeffrey Winters referred to it as such in Psychology Today, one year after the 9/11 attack. Unfortunately, Winters also stated:
“In just hours, we can be conditioned to fear or discriminate against those who differ from ourselves by characteristics as superficial as eye color. Even ideas we believe are just common sense can have deep xenophobic underpinnings.”
Can xenophobia be “turned on” just like that, or would it be more accurate to state that the “expression of xenophobic tendencies can be turned on!
Groundwork to Genocide
Prior to colonialism, there was one people, the Banyarwanda, with groups who are the Tutsi tribe (pastoralists), the Hutu tribe (horticulturalists), and the Twa, who lived in relative peace with a small population, land-sharing system, and agricultural output provided for the needs of all the people. They were a people with a common language, Kinyarwanda, and a shared philosophical and religious belief. It was only occupation and physical features that distinguished them. All documented evidence points to the growing violence as being rooted in Belgian colonial rule. And so it was that certain elements conspired reaching a feverish pitch in 1994 against a people.
After the end of World War I, Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanganyika, which had been colonies of the German Empire, fell under the Belgian rule from 1924 to 1962. Under German rule, the White Fathers and the Protestant Christian mission were the means by which the indigenous population was to be converted into useful citizens of Rwanda as a German colony.
The divide-and-rule mentality of the Belgians formulated the idea that one set of people was better than the other. In this colonial setting, the Tutsi (one of three tribes) were elevated to an “ethnically” (ethnicity here is a misnomer) superior position to dominate and rule — on behalf of their colonial masters — the Hutu and Twa, as inferior to the Tutsi. Through a system of missionary education, the Belgians created the means for indirect rule. This was based on the Tutsi feature of being tall, thin, and more European looking. The Tutsi had 60 years to don the robes of their masters, which nurtured seeds of prejudice and internalized racism among the population. The Belgians issued identity cards according to patrilineage and ethnicity, which reinforced the racial concept of superiority and inferiority.
There was a growing population growth that put the food supply and land under stress. Most Rwandans converted to Catholicism, and the church forbade birth control to the extent that church activists would raid and destroy pharmacies where condoms were sold. Those who sold contraceptives were viewed as “demons,” and pro-life activists were compensated in the form of land or cattle.
Rwanda with a massive population at the time was witnessing hunger and malnutrition because of land stress, thus food scarcity. These external influences that were reshaping the land and the minds of the people also instituted a false race classification that put a stop to the once-frequent practice of marriage between the Tutsis and the Hutus. The race classification instituted by the Belgians and upheld by the puppet administration laid the groundwork for social disorder. Llezlie L. Green, author of “Sexual Violence and Genocide Against Tutsi Women” wrote”
“Gender hate propaganda was perhaps the most virulent component of the propaganda campaign. Propagandists portrayed Tutsi women as enemies of the state, used by Tutsi men to “infiltrate Hutu ranks.” Propagandists claimed Tutsi women were more beautiful and desirable, but “inaccessible” to Hutu men whom they allegedly looked down upon and were “too good for.” This characterization led to what one Tutsi woman explained as an indescribable hate. As such, “rape served to shatter these images by humiliating, degrading, and ultimately destroying the Tutsi woman.”
Ready to be torn apart, a colonized people learned to judge itself through the eyes of the colonizer. The first ethnic clash between the Hutu and the Tutsi occurred in 1959. Thousands of Tutsis were killed, while 130,000 Tutsis fled to neighboring countries where Tutsis dominated. National elections were held under the UN supervision in 1961, and a Hutu, Grégoire Kayibanda, became the first president in a country that was to become independent in 1962. The Catholic Church supported the creation of a Hutu identity and nationalism. From then on, there were to be frequent attacks and counterattacks between the Tutsis and the Hutus.
After the Hutu president Juvénal Habyarimana’s plane was downed by a missile and all passengers aboard were killed in April 1994, with no evidence until that day as to who the actual assassins were, the Hutu militia set up road blocks. Within one hour of the death of Habyarimana, the killing of Tutsi civilians began. Within three months, over 750,000 Tutsis as well as 10,000 to 30,000 Hutus were killed, and two million Rwandans were displaced. It has been well-documented that the clergy were involved in the genocide .
The new Hutu government formed in July 1994 made, , a commitment through the Arusha Accords to building a multiparty democracy and to disassembling the system of ethnic classification. It was not until the 1994 genocide that the identity cards issued by the Belgian rule were abolished.
It has been established that the targets to be murdered were male Tutsis, young and old, although in the frenzy, Hutu and Tutsi women were killed as well. Rape and torture were used against women as a means of attacking the very colonial system that had defined them as superior and that they had used to defined themselves. Through a process of devaluing self perception, psychological manipulation, control and discrimination, women were exploited for sex (including forced marriages) or mutilated, especially if they had witnessed torture or killing of their relatives.
The psychological, social, and physical aspects of such appalling sexual violations have unalterably affected the survivors. In a society that has traditionally regarded women as dependents of their male relatives and first and foremost as wives and mothers, sexual violence has particularly devastating effects. Indeed, victims of sexual violence have demonstrated a variety of responses ranging from over-sensitivity and shame to “a form of madness.” (Green)
The raped underwent a second death through exclusion from their own society. With a 4.6 Muslim population, an interfaith commission was launched by Muslims as a tool toward reconciliation. Their work included aid programs, reconciliation among genocide survivors, and release of genocide prisoners and genocide detainees’ families.
After the genocide, 60 percent to 70 percent of the Rwandan population consists of women, and of that 50 percent are widows. The work of Avega Agahozo is primarily psychosocial and medical in support, along with advocacy and rehabilitation.
Avega Agahozo built a village for the survivors in Kigali, away from those who referred to the children born of rape by interahamwe. Forced to live each day as it comes, they know not what the following day will bring. No one knows how the plundered soul lives and perceives reality; everyone makes their own judgment, and on that judgment, that plundered soul may die again.
Just as the situation in Rwanda took time to take shape before the barbaric eruption, so too did the xenophobic wave riding high in the U.S. currently. In fact it began with the inception of the United Stated of America, with the decimation of the indigenous peoples of that land. Again, Japanese Americans were herded off to “camps” after the bombing of Pearl Harbour. And before that to this day, many African Americans are still experiencing the legacy of slavery, with the two ethnic groups (i.e. Asian and African Americans) suffering a psychological impact that manifests itself in the form of cosmetic surgery, and the desire to achieve the “white ideal.” In fact the origins of organized psychiatry in the U.S is in eugenics. Barack Obama’s appointment as president of the nation only reflects what is possible, not what is the reality for many of the non-Caucasian lay person. To use the unfortunate term “to call a spade a spade”:
“Not many of us will admit to having strong racist or xenophobic biases. Even in cases where bias becomes public debate—such as the profiling of Arab Muslims at airport-security screenings—proponents of prejudice claim that they are merely promoting common sense. That reluctance to admit to bias makes the issue tricky to study” – Jeffrey Winters.
The Case of South Africa
With all that Africa has been through, until Rwanda (Uganda cannot really be considered here), the idea of xenophobia is a foreign to that land. Even the expression of it amongst Africans of the Diaspora, regardless of birth and/or claimed nationality since slavery, the closest fear of all things foreign, has been in the form of internalized racism, which takes on many forms. As one South African writer who refers to their self as 6000:
“We, more than many other nations, should know better. We should know better because we have just emerged from more than three centuries of the horror of settler colonialism and apartheid… This madness has to stop. There is simply no justification for attacking people simply because they are not South African nationals”.
There are no official figures, but according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, UNHCR, there are approximately 357,000 asylum seekers and/or those under refugee status in South Africa. Not everyone floods to the West to seek a more secure life. However, the legacy of apartheid means that apartheid for many is still very much present. The world of Asian South Africans and black South Africans are far apart with many black South Africans being disenfranchised.
Xenophobia in South Africa came to the media lime-light with the 2008 killing of 66 people, the displacement of 6,000 non-South African Africans, many of whom were Zimbabweans. In 2010, 55 incidents of xenophobia were reported in the Western Cape alone involving 40 arrests. However, xenophobia in South Africa was apparent after 1994, when the first democratic elections in the country took place, when armed youth gangs destroyed foreign property, and demanded that foreigners should leave.
The South African Institute for Race Relations describe the wave of violence as a product of failed policies, particularly under the Mbeki’s Administration, which pertains to:
• Failure to maintain the rule of law
• Border control
• Slow economic growth
• Foreign policy
• Service delivery
But if this is the simple truth, then we would be seeing what is happening in South Africa on a global scale particularly since the global economic crisis. However, this has been affirmed by other studies, but with greater insight into the expectations of the black South African people. An insight into this arises from their traditions as conveyed by Nelson Mandela in Mandela’s Way:
“The King may have been born to leadership, but he was also seen as the people’s servant. Chieftaincy was treated as a priviledge, not just as a right. The chiefly style of leadership was not about vaulting oneself to the front, but about listening and achieving consensus”.
Anyone from the community could attend and be listened to, and the aim was to achieve consensus. This was not a practice relegated to the distant past; it was the world that Nelson Mandela grew up in, away from apartheid! Democracy was for and with the people in the true sense of the word, with street and area committees on the rise before the 1990 negotiations towards ending apartheid. It was in the transition from 1990 -1994 that participatory democracy was weakened. This was highlighted in the report by the Human Sciences Research Council, Citizenship, Violence and Xenophobia in South Africa: Perceptions from South African Communities”.
Relegated to a worse than second class citizenship in one’s own land by foreigners, the scars of apartheid disempowered a people who were deprived of the benefits of their land., to find themselves post apartheid with the vote in theory, but in practice not much better off.
“There is little doubt that the brutal environment created by apartheid with its enormous emphasis on boundary maintenance has also impacted on people’s ability to be tolerant of difference” – Morris 1998.
Violence was the political norm of the apartheid era not only physically, but psychologically and emotionally; and it has left its mark. Xenophobia and nationalism are violent in nature as the French woman who pulled a hijab off a French Muslim woman in 2010 demonstrated. Xenophobia is also the expression of identity, or the lack thereof, and this phenomenon is spreading aided and abetted by secular governments on all continents whose only concern is their self interest.
Referring to Nelson Mandela, editor at Time Magazine, Richard Stengel, and author of Mandela’s Way discovered:
“Since boyhood he had understood that collective leadership was about two things: the greater wisdom of the group compared to the individual, and the greater investment of the group in any result achieved by consensus. It was a double win.”
Some African leaders have learnt to rule in Western terms, leaving behind the people, and it is this that undermines Africa’s wealth including its human wealth. There is no consensus in polluting those one leads with ideas that serve only political interest. A citizen has the right to be informed of facts, not fallacies, and the right to decide and contribute to a process that, which after all, is on their behalf. The callousness in which governments rule today is the reason for the increasing insecurities, inflated by nationalism, the seed of xenophobia, which is not only affecting South Africa, but the rest of the world.
Cloete, K. “Xenophobia Simmering Just Below Boiling Point.” http://www.ipsnews.net/africa/nota.asp?idnews=52688
Cloete, K. “Xenophobia: Nine Causes of the Current Crisis .” http://www.ipsnews.net/africa/nota.asp?idnews=52688
Der Linde, “HSRC Study on Xenophobia probes Underlying Causes.” http://www.hsrc.ac.za/Media_Release-350.phtml
Duponchel, M. “Who’s the Alien? Xenophobia in Post-Apartheid South Africa http://www.csae.ox.ac.uk/conferences/2010-EdiA/papers/175-Duponchel.pdf
Harris, B. “Xenophobia: A New Pathology for a New South Africa” http://www.csvr.org.za/docs/foreigners/xenopobia.pdf
Morris, A. (1998). ‘Our Fellow Africans Make Our Lives Hell’: The Lives of Congolese and
Nigerians living in Johannesburg. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 21 (6), 1116–36.
NPR Catholic Complicity and Rwanda Genocide http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyid=4615171
Winters, J. “Why We Fear the Unknown”. http://www.psychologytoday.com/node/24504
6000 “South Africa’s Xenophobic Attacks” http://6000.co.za/south-africas-xenophobic-attacks/
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