Ways must be found to avoid being Africa’s pariah

getimage (3)I cringe  every time I hear a friend or family member use the term Amakwerekwere.

Without even flinching, this is how many South Africans refer to foreign nationals who live in our townships. It is a derogatory term. And I believe it is no less offensive than the K-word once casually used to refer to black South Africans.

Such words are designed to break down one’s spirit, to devalue one’s humanity. Yet in many homes, schools, playgrounds and even work places, the term Amakwerekwere is regarded as acceptable. It is passed on from generation to generation.

And with it, the unfortunate belief that black foreign nationals are at the very bottom of the man-made cultural hierarchy.

Some say the foreigners have travelled across the continent to snatch from us economic opportunities we have fought so long and hard to attain. This prejudice is too often at the centre of xenophobic violence, looting of shops and lawlessness that erupts in our communities throughout the country.

More concerning for me is that we do not seem to have a plan to deal with what is essentially one of our worst crises since democracy.

The latest wave of xenophobic violence in Soweto exposed yet again how we continue to sit on a timebomb. It reminded us how, unless we firmly stand against this thuggery, the worst among us can so easily lead us back to the destruction of 2008.

I was deeply inspired this week by the people of KwaNobuhle who stood together against criminals and said “not in our name”. These brave men and women chose to fight back, protecting their neighbours who had begun to fall victim to local thugs.

They set up an alarm system, blowing a whistle and calling community members to the aid of foreigners whose shops were being looted.

This is the kind of active citizenship we need if we are to tackle this beast.

It is not enough to condemn xenophobia verbally.

We need proactive and decisive leadership from all sectors, including government, business, the religious community, NGOs and law enforcement authorities.

Most importantly we need to begin seeking constructive solutions that tackle the very real economic and social challenges that come with what is now the landscape of our townships.

The ANC in the region proposed in the legislature this week that all municipalities develop by-laws that regulate trade by foreigners.

Chief whip Mzoleli Mrara further called for a system that protects foreigners from being victimised as well as to have those who carry illegal weapons disarmed.

The jury is still out on whether this call is fully in line with our constitution.

The DA’s feathers have already been ruffled.

However, rather than reducing this debate to name-calling and political cat-fighting, I certainly hope that it can be thrashed out constructively and, if needs be, dismissed on the basis of facts and laws that govern our land.

It would be a real shame for us yet again to miss an opportunity to deal properly with a problem that has the potential to make us the pariah of Africa.

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