When P.W Botha’s troopers were mercilessly chopping down
innocent South African schoolchildren with machine-guns, cracking whips over
the heads of peaceful demonstrators and unleashing vicious dogs on fleeing
crowds, we Zimbabweans were undoubtedly enraged. With the memory of our own
struggle against a brutal apartheid regime fresh in our memory, we opened our
arms to those evading the menace of harassment, arrest and even murder.
For the past ten years, we Zimbabweans have sought refuge in
from a new but equally perilous threat in our own country. We acknowledge with
deep appreciation the sacrifices that the people of South Africa have made to
accommodate us as our struggle against dictatorship continues.
Unfortunately, criminal gangs are attacking foreigners in South Africa
and now this wave of despicable xenophobia has reached almost every corner of
that country. Since mid-May, more than 50 people have been killed and over 100,000
displaced, according to various media reports.
Zimbabweans form the largest group of foreigners who live in
South Africa and while news of the violence spread almost as quickly as the
attacks themselves, little news about Zimbabweans’ reactions has been published.
When I checked my email on a sleepy morning last weekend, I
was intrigued to get a sense of the emotions that are circulating in the
Zimbabwean community. I was not shocked to read strong expressions of shock and
anger directed the perpetrators of the attacks. What did surprise me were the
measures being proposed in reaction to this crisis.
I opened a forwarded e-mail that had the subject, “They are
burning us alive in RSA” to see the depiction of a person on all fours burning
in the street whilst surrounding police endeavored to extinguish the all
consuming flames. The author of same e-mail was promoting a boycott of “South
African events and businesses” as a way to make a stand against “these barbaric
Surely, Zimbabweans of all people ought to understand the danger
of perpetuating violent xenophobia. Our history is saturated with examples of fear
and hate of the “other.” From colonial domination, to the current oppressive
state of nationalism in Zimbabwe,
the claws of division have brought our nation to its knees. If such a campaign
takes hold our nation will fall from its knees to the fetal position and draw
its final breath.
Those who would take an eye for an eye must to ask
themselves whether the strategy of attacking South African business is in their
own interest. Moreover, the extent to which that community has the power to
address the immediate concerns of Zimbabweans living in that country is at
Indeed, there is an economic undertone to the attacks on
foreigners in South Africa.
Its people are increasingly becoming impatient with the lack of material
improvements in their lives since the end of apartheid. Again, as Zimbabweans
we can identify better than anyone else with the problem of neo-colonialism. But,
when in our rage we lose sight of history’s lessons, we open the door to
mistakes of historical proportions.
Disrupting the economy and creating a more adverse situation for South
Africans can only compound our own precarious position as guests in their
On Saturday May 24,
thousands of South Africans took to the streets to protest against the violence.
This is the glimmer of hope to which we must not be blinded. Now is the time to
seek out and cling to those who share our revulsion for the emerging abuses in South Africa
for it is through our South African kinfolk alone that our message can be sent
to the political leadership of that country.
We can never forget that the people of South Africa and Zimbabwe have a long history of
shared struggle and that the spirit of unity must be nurtured to kindle the ongoing.
As Gwede Mantashe, the African
National Congress secretary general, recently pointed out on the party’s Web site,
“Our neighbors were collectively punished by the Apartheid regime for
harboring the cadres of the ANC.”
South Africans and Zimbabweans are inextricably bound up by
the ropes of cultural and political history and anything less than fraternal relations
dooms us all.
Abdallah Barry is a radical
Afro-optimist. He lives in Minneapolis.