The attacks on foreign owned businesses in Johannesburg last week and the refusal of many South Africans to acknowledge the xenophobic impulse behind these attacks – as well as the odious justifications for such attacks – are, sadly, not that surprising. After all, the stench of apartheid-thinking (and the false sense of South African exceptionalism that it reflects) lingers on twenty years after the formal end of apartheid.
A few years ago I was sitting at OR Tambo airport, waiting to board a flight when a young man in a well-cut grey suit, impeccably pressed white shirt and colourful tie, came over to greet me. He had been one of my students at the University of Western Cape, he told me, and was now a Deputy Director General in one or other government department.
I was bursting with pride. I always feel terrific when I hear of the successes of a former student.
“Where are you off to,” he asked as we sipped our drinks.
“Addis Ababa,” I said.
“Oh, you are going to Africa,” he replied, raising his left eyebrow and flashing a sceptical grin. “Good luck with that, chief.”
Here we were in Johannesburg – a “World Class African City”, as the slogan would have it – and my interlocutor (who would be classified as “African” in terms of Employment Equity legislation) was suggesting that I was venturing into a scary and dangerous place called “Africa”, a place very different from Johannesburg where South Africans stayed and belonged.
The comments made me feel deflated. I had clearly failed this former student, who should never have graduated without a more accurate and confident sense of South Africa’s place on our continent.
Of course, the attitude that South Africa is not fully part of the African continent and (in its way) is different from other African countries, permeates the thinking of many South Africans.
Driving home from work and listening to the business programme, I often hear this or that CEO of a large company tell us listeners that his company (it is always a man) has an “Africa strategy” and that it is planning to “expand into Africa”. (Imagine a CEO from the USA talking about plans to expand into America.)
This feeling of apartness from the rest of our continent and from its people (exhibited by some, but obviously not all, South Africans) must surely be partly blamed on the political isolation of South Africa during the apartheid years. Those who lived in exile or often met up with family or friends in exile must have had a different experience. But those of us who remained on the southern tip of Africa with our “colonialism of a special type” were taught very little about the rest of our continent and about its people.
When freedom arrived in South Africa many of us knew more about Jan van Riebeeck, Die Groot Trek, the unification of Germany and the French revolution than we did about the struggle against colonialism in Africa. How many knew much about the lives of Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba or Thomas Sankara?
Some South Africans have probably also internalised some of the racist thinking on which the apartheid regime was built. It would be strange if many of our minds had not been partly colonised by ideas of supposed “Western” superiority. No wonder some of our compatriots still fear, hate or despise foreigners from the rest of our continent, while showing no such fear, hatred or scorn for foreigners from Europe or the USA.
Apartheid may be formally a thing of the past, but some of the dangerously destructive and hateful ideas on which that ideology of supremacy was built linger on in the minds of some South Africans. It may therefore not be that surprising that some South Africans have been willing over the past week to excuse or justify the Johannesburg attacks on businesses owned by fellow Africans.
The drafters of our Constitution – many of them having experienced the hospitality of Africans across our continent in years of exile – evidently never shared this fear, hatred and prejudice towards foreigners from the rest of the African continent. On the contrary, perhaps mindful of our past and the role played by fellow Africans in assisting our liberation movements, the Constitution protects foreigners who enter South Africa – regardless of where they come from or how they landed here.
This is so because most of the rights in the Bill of Rights (with the exception of rights like the right to vote and the right to citizenship) are guaranteed for “everyone”.
“Everyone” includes immigrants, permanent residents or those who live in South Africa on temporary work or study permits. In Lawyers for Human Rights v Minister of Home Affairs the Constitutional Court found that foreigners who have not entered South Africa legally are also protected by all the rights in the Bill of Rights which apply to “everyone”. This is so because at the heart of the Bill of Rights is the idea that each individual possesses an inherent human dignity, is of equal moral worth and, hence, cannot be treated differently just because we dislike or fear him or her or have made assumptions or generalisations about a person because of where he or she was born.
In the words of Judge Nugent in the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) judgment of Minister of Home Affairs v Watchenuka:
[Human] dignity has no nationality. It is inherent in all people, citizens and non-citizens alike, simply because they are human beings. And while that person happens to be in this country, for whatever reason, [their human dignity] must be respected, and is protected, by section 10 of the Bill of Rights.
That foreign nationals are protected by our Constitution is not surprising. They are often some of the most vulnerable people in our society, some having fled war zones, economic hardship or political persecution.
The argument that foreigners should be treated differently and deserve to be discriminated against, vilified and persecuted because they do not play their part to build the country, is also factually incorrect. As the Constitutional Court pointed out in Khosa and Others v Minister of Social Development and Others foreign nationals contribute to the welfare system through the payment of taxes (at the very least by paying VAT on all goods they buy). Many also contribute to the economy in other ways, enrich our culture and provide needed skills.
Besides, even when some foreign nationals are poor and contribute little in the form of taxes, the value of Ubuntu enjoins us to treat people equally, regardless of their country of origin. In the words of Justice Yvonne Mokgoro in the Khosa judgment:
Sharing responsibility for the problems and consequences of poverty equally as a community represents the extent to which wealthier members of the community view the minimal well-being of the poor as connected with their personal well-being and the well-being of the community as a whole. In other words, decisions about the allocation of public benefits represent the extent to which poor people are treated as equal members of society… A society must seek to ensure that the basic necessities of life are accessible to all if it is to be a society in which human dignity, freedom and equality are foundational.
The Constitutional Court judgment in Koyabe v Minister of Home Affairs illustrates the general attitude towards foreign nationals demanded from us by the Constitution. Ruling that foreign nationals are entitled to reasons for a decision declaring them illegal foreigners in terms of the Immigration Amendment Act, the Court made the following observation:
In our constitutional democracy, officials are enjoined to ensure that the public administration is governed by the values enshrined in our Constitution. Providing people whose rights have been adversely affected by administrative decisions with reasons, will often be important in providing fairness, accountability and transparency. In the context of a contemporary democratic public service like ours, where the principles of batho pele, coupled with the values of ubuntu, enjoin the public service to treat people with respect and dignity and avoid undue confrontation, the Constitution indeed entitles the applicants to reasons for the decision declaring them illegal foreigners.
It is, of course, easy to blame foreigners for all the ills that beset South Africa. It’s easy to pick on a vulnerable minority and to pretend that all will be well if only we could rid ourselves of the group targeted for attack or extermination. It is easy to conjure up hate-filled stereotypes of fellow Africans to justify their persecution.
But it is intellectually lazy and dangerous. Instead of confronting problems head on, such victim-blaming allows us to stick our heads in the sand. It also endangers the lives of fellow Africans and destroys communities.
But just as important, it demeans us all when we condone the persecution of our fellow human beings. In the words of Justice Albie Sachs in Port Elizabeth Municipality v Various Occupiers “[o]ur society as a whole is demeaned” when action “intensifies rather than mitigates” the marginalisation of vulnerable people in our society.
In short, it reminds us that apartheid-thinking continues to live – like a dangerous virus – in the brains of quite a few South Africans.