The violent images from Johannesburg earlier this month, where African immigrants were attacked by violent mobs leading to 12 deaths, were disturbing and upsetting for all Africans.
Yet sadly, they were not surprising. After all, this was not the first time other Africans had been attacked and killed in South Africa. In March, foreign owned businesses were attacked by a violent mob in Durban, killing three people. In 2016 there were anti-immigrant riots in Tshwane. In 2015 there were two rounds of nationwide riots and attacks, in April and October. Need I go on?
With such recent history of xenophobia and violence, it is hardly surprising that other countries are pushing back. The Nigerian government, for example, have been extremely critical of the response of the South African authorities, taking the significant step of evacuating its citizens from the country. Nigeria, alongside other African countries, also withdrew its participation from the World Economic Forum in Cape Town in protest, while Zambia went as far as to cancel a football game it was due to play against South Africa. And who can forget the sight of South African President Cyril Ramaphosa being booed by crowds in Harare while attending Robert Mugabe’s funeral?
For Kenyans, the images from Johannesburg bring back painful memories of our own experiences of inter-communal violence, and in particular the post-election violence of 2007/8. Like in Johannesburg, here too communities were pitted against each other, driven by ethnic grievances, and exacerbated by difficult economic conditions and the struggle for resources – that is, if another tribe (or in the South African case, nationality) managed to increase its economic or political power, that would by definition come at the expense of my group.
Fortunately, in recent years the threat of major inter communal clashes has receded from our immediate horizon. While we cannot afford to rest on our laurels, it does not feel likely that the images we are seeing in Johannesburg will be replicated here any time soon, which was certainly not always the case.
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Lessons from 2007/8 have taught us that unless politicians led by example, improved their relations and preached peace, Kenya would always be a tinderbox, ready to erupt at any moment. What’s more, with this threat hanging over it, Kenya could never truly develop economically and fulfil its abundant potential.
This realisation explains President Uhuru Kenyatta’s deal with former rival William Ruto ahead of the 2013 election, bringing together the two tribes whose rivalry had in a large part led to the bloody clashes. After the divisive 2017 election, itself a virtual carbon copy of 2013, Uhuru realised that a similar ‘peace deal’ with Raila Odinga was necessary as a next step towards Kenyan unity. The subsequent ‘handshake’ immediately lowered tensions, enabling the economy to grow and the President to get on with his Big Four agenda and anti-corruption crusade.
But no agreement between two leaders can truly ingrain peace and harmony. To do that, you need to change the system that causes clashes in the first place. This was the rationale behind the Building Bridges Initiative that emerged out of ‘the handshake’. We must understand that for long as Kenyan politics is a zero-sum game – where only one tribe or group can ‘occupy’ the presidency and others feel they are left with nothing – then every election will lead to tensions and violence.
The ideas coming out of the BBI commission, such as the creation of an executive Prime Minister position to ensure there is more than one centre of power, will go a long way towards improving the overall political and social climate.
Because if we can take one thing from the events in Johannesburg it is that the solution to inter-communal tensions can never be economic.
South Africa after all has the highest GDP per capita of any remotely populous country in the continent, yet it is home to frequent outbursts of violence.
We must learn from this, and make sure that we are doing all we can to promote unity and harmony. Whatever our politics, we should do our bit to make sure this Johannesburg style violence never again rears its ugly head in our land.
- The writer is a marketing expert and comments on topical issues