Writer: Melody Chironda, Sivuyile Mntuyedwa
“That evening was challenging because Leo had obviously distanced himself from me. As I saw him, I empathised with him because he had gone through so much pain. I wanted to help, but I couldn’t because he had put a wall between us,” says Zipho, a 25 year-old South African.
Leo Nkapembe is Namibian national who came to South Africa to study but he got caught up in the xenophobia attacks that swept through the country in 2008. The attacks almost jeopardised his friendship with Zipho, his first friend in South Africa.
“It hurt because he was now accusing every South African for hating foreigners, but harder still was seeing Leo in that emotional state. At that point, what was I to do?” says Zipho. “Obviously I wanted to reach out to help him, but my fellow South Africans were causing problems in his life and worse still, knowing that a friend is hurting is bad enough”.
In perhaps the most violent period in South Africa’s history since the fall of apartheid, between March and May 2008, attacks on foreign nationals left 62 dead and thousands of others with nowhere to go. Communities were shattered as innocent people were forced to flee, often with nothing but the clothes on their backs, as neighbours ransacked their belongings and many family members lost one another in the desperation to escape with their lives.
The attacks badly affected Leo’s relationship with his friends. “We don’t even go to the townships anymore because we know that anything can happen, and this has affected us socially.”
As a result, many foreigners feel ill at ease about living in South Africa. Most continue to live in fear that they will fall victim once again to angry South African xenophobes. “I never came out of the house during the night. I was afraid of being attacked. My parents want me to come back to Namibia,” Leo laments.
In midst of all this, one has to ask, what happened to the idea of Ubuntu: I am because we are and because we are, you are?
The rainbow nation, it seems, has turned its back on its needy African neighbours and this has made it hard for foreigners to trust locals. “When it comes to trusting the locals, I think there is a line drawn now,” Leo says matter-of-factly; “we just say, you are dealing with a South African, be careful”.
Zipho is disheartened by all that has happened and he resents the negative sentiments towards foreigners. “I am a South African citizen and I don’t have any problems with foreigners. My best friend is from Namibia.”
But Zipho remains scared to speak to his friend in English when they are in public. He is scared that they will be victimised, as a black person who speaks in English is easily picked up for a foreigner, and this can have deadly consequences for their safety.
“We should all strive to help each other. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all go wherever we wanted; to eat and live and love and laugh without causing harm. If we all had one dream, we could live in a happy nation,” says Zipho.
South Africa’s refugee problem is not going to go away. It’s time to find a way to make foreigners feel at home, so that they can contribute to nation building. They can only contribute effectively if they are made to feel welcome.