Globally, humankind is beleaguered with diverse crises and hostilities in countless unresolved conflicts that have led to wastage of human lives and property. In 2015 alone, around a million people were affected by the earthquake in Nepal, and violence has displaced about 11,4 million people in Syria, 1,91 million in South Sudan, around 2 million in Iraq and 430 000 in the Central African Republic. Over 10 000 people died in the West African Ebola outbreak and at least 1 500 were killed in the Islamist insurgence by Boko Haram, Nigeria. During the month of April 2015 South Africa experienced acts of xenophobic violence that put a stain on the vision of a rainbow nation. In this period of impending violence, war and xenophobia, humankind faces severe dangers, especially in Africa where problems such as overpopulation, unemployment, poverty, violence and terrorism are symptoms of the pervasive atmosphere of crisis.
South Africa made a successful transition to democracy that has been held as an example to nations in. At his inaugural address as the newly elected president of a democratic South Africa on 10 May 1994, Nelson Mandela declared that ‘never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world.’ With those words a curtain was drawn on formal apartheid, and a new era of South African history began that was non-racial, free and democratic. In 1996 South Africa adopted a new constitution that included the Bill of Rights. Section 10 of the bill states that ‘Everyone has an inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected.’
Pursuant to these foundational principles of democracy in South Africa, this country has become a home to many foreign nationals who come to South Africa as work seekers, students, asylum seekers and refugees. After the hospitality shown by other African countries who gave asylum to South Africans during apartheid, South Africa is receptive to foreign nationals visiting or making South Africa their home. Statistics show that 9,2 million tourists visited South Africa in 2013/14. South Africa is a signatory to the Geneva Convention, which protects the rights of refugees and asylum seekers. South Africa has upheld this commitment and in 2012 was the world’s third-largest recipient of individual asylum seekers (61 500), behind the USA (70 400) and Germany (64 500). The xenophobic attacks are not only a violation of human rights and conventions to which South Africa is a signatory, but also unsettle and bring about uncertainty for many foreign nationals and visitors to this country.
As the governments of Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique called on their nationals to return home and China issued a travel warning for South Africa, the country stands to lose not only in terms of tourism and diplomatic ties with foreign governments, it also stands to lose the important skills and intellectual capital that international workers and students bring to South Africa. In a globalised world, it is important that nation states retain independence in nation building and economic development. South Africa’s skills shortage is a well-known issue and because of the local education system’s failure to produce the rights skills, government approved policies for the recruitment of foreign skilled labour to meet the country’s needs. In pursuit of transformation in higher education and institutional culture, government has recommended the recruitment of foreign academics and students, especially from the African continent. These international academics and students have come to teach and learn in fields from which black South Africans were historically excluded. Their presence in these disciplines supplies the expertise required by the South African higher education system, while also performing the symbolic role of demystifying the apartheid ideology of white supremacy. South Africa stands to lose all this richness if it fails to stamp out the tide of xenophobia.
Anecdotal evidence points to a sense fear and uncertainty that gripped even those foreign professionals who appear to be immune to xenophobic attacks. This goes against the Bill of Rights, which guarantees the right to life and security, and to protection from treatment or punishment that is cruel, inhuman or degrading.
The spate of xenophobic attacks highlights the futility of formally adopting policies and signing treaties and conventions without putting systems in place that give effect to those policies and conventions. Government and the general public need to invest in nation building, which includes the requirement that all people must be treated with dignity. It requires foresight, planning, programmes and deliberate actions to realise the ideals enshrined in the founding policies of our democracy.
At present, the focus is more on how African society can be made more suitable for full human participation, regardless of age, gender, race, religion or country of origin. The crucial struggle in society today is between individuals who incline towards conserving the status quo or are satisfied with minimal change, and those who feel that facilitating changes is necessary to create a society that is more open to the needs of the individual. These changes would, however, demand intensive, well-planned action from a government that is not corrupt, as well as the willingness of the people of Africa to rebuild their societies.
Africa needs to examine its heritage and identify the viable elements that will help resolve the present crisis. If African people examine their heritage, deliberately plan the direction of change, and implement that plan, they can create a new social order that is not hostile, but actually promotes human freedom.
Dr Kola Adeyemo is a temporary senior lecturer in the Faculty of Education at the University of Pretoria