The scourge of xenophobia South Africa is currently grappling with was brought to Africa by the colonials and adopted by the apartheid regime to divide and rule black Africans, human rights activists said in a panel discussion in Johannesburg yesterday.
The four panellists were unanimous in their view that now the democratically elected government was implementing xenophobia institutionally.
This, they said, was through corruption and reckless, populist anti-immigrant statements inciting the deeply entrenched prejudice instilled by the apartheid ideology.
Sibongile Tshabalala, human rights activist and chairperson of Treatment Action Campaign, said she had travelled all over Africa and had never experienced xenophobic sentiments.
“When you look at our history, xenophobia did not come after 1994. It came way before that, but because it was perpetrated by the apartheid government, it was never noticed and we never spoke about it,” she said.
Tshabalala added that the apartheid system separated people on the basis of ethnicity, which planted seeds of hate in black Africans because this made it difficult for Africans to unite and fight against the system.
She said that still today in her township of Vosloorus, there were sections for different ethnic groups and this made it easy for South Africans to attack immigrants.
Media expert Faiza Abrahams-Smith agreed that the legacy of colonialism and apartheid was why black Africans hated each other.
“We had bantustans grouping people according to their ethnicity. Basically four countries, in the form of bantustans, in one country,” she said.
Migrant labour expert and activist Janet Munakwane said the borders SA uses as barriers to keep out other Africans were created in Berlin and there was a need for a decolonisation project to end xenophobia.
She said borders became invisible whenever there was a need for Africa to unite on an issue. But when countries wanted to keep out Africans from other nations, then borders were their means of doing so.
“There is a need to rearrange the borders. They are a product of the Berlin Conference and have nothing to do with us. There is a song I love about Azania being from Cape to Cairo, Morocco to Madagascar. That is Africa, without all these lines,” Munakwane added.
In 1885, European leaders held the Berlin Conference to divide up Africa and arbitrarily draw up borders that exist to this day.
Lawyers for Human Rights’ head of the Refugee and Migrant Rights Programme Sharon Ekambaram also said xenophobia was institutionalised, citing the national health insurance (NHI) scheme currently being piloted.
“It says right there in NHI that if you do not have an ID document, you will not get health services in public hospitals.
“How many South Africans do not have an ID? The documentation of immigrants is itself institutionalised xenophobia.
“It took the Guptas just months to get citizenship when other people wait for 15 years for documentation.”