South Africa attacks and ghosts of the past

In the past few weeks, African migrants have been victims of xenophobic attacks in South Africa. Africans across the continent have been shocked by video footage of violent mobs killing their fellow Africans using crude weapons.

A video that has been circulated widely on social media, shows a woman, said to from Zambia, being beaten severely and her clothes torn apart by a mob. Sexual assault of children and women of women regardless of their age have also been reported.

A very sad state of affairs indeed.

However, xenophobia in South Africa is not new. The violence in Gauteng region targeting mainly Nigerian migrants is, however, unique because the horror meted out on this West African group has sparked an international outcry.

Murder of innocent migrants has been ongoing for a couple of decades though. Sometimes these violent acts were carried out in the presence of police officers who seem to turn the other way as criminal gangs carried out the killings.

I personally felt very sad because, during the apartheid era, African countries strongly supported the independence movements of South Africa. As a child, I remember we could easily sing Nkosi Sikeleli Africa, ANCs freedom song.

While it is justified to feel disgusted over the violence, it is important to understand the psyche of black South Africans who were traumatised by the apartheid for many decades.

Treating people in an inhumane way leaves a lasting mark on the social fabric of the victims, including their descendants. Studies on crime in other countries which had large populations of either enslaved people or those brutalised by their governments as is the case of South Africa shows there is a correlation between how the older generations have been treated and the behaviours of their offsprings centuries and decades later.

Richard Wright's 1940 novel 'Native Son' best explains the impact of racial discrimination on victims. The main character Bigger Thomas kills the daughter of his boss. In the story, the young white woman gets drunk and wants to have sex with Bigger Thomas but her blind Mum walked into her room while they were in the act. Out of fear and psychological trauma caused by the racial discrimination under the Jim Crow laws of America at the time, the young Bigger Thomas pressed a pillow on the face of the poor drunk white woman killing her.

He then incinerates her lifeless body and escapes. Days later he is arrested, charged and later sentenced to death for the crime. Bigger Thomas himself never understood why he killed his lover. But Richard Wright denotes that the character actually represents the psychologically disturbed black population of African Americans. The high rate of crime and poverty is symptomatic of the past. The young woman who is killed in the story represents the affluent and advantaged class and in this narrative Richard Wright depicts the relationship between the oppressed and the oppressor. The oppressed are likely to act in ways that defy civilisation and herein the oppressor ends up paying for his past crime.

In the case of South Africa Richard Wright, if he were alive today, would have written a story about xenophobia that mirrors his book, the 'Native Son'. The black people of South Africa, particularly the poor, are still traumatised. 

According to Julius Malema, leader of the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters party, the horrendous killings of African migrants is just a rehearsal. While looking ashamed and horrified about the behaviour of his countrymen, he also warned it is a matter of time before the unemployed and poverty-stricken youth descend on other races such as Asians, Chinese and eventually the privileged white population.

The problem of South Africa is the not the migrant community, it is the age-old problem of a divided country–the privileged versus the many who have been excluded and brutalised for centuries by the privileged class. Soon the South African tragedy could be replicated in other countries where immigrants are always blamed for everything that goes wrong. Even in Western Europe we have witnessed, even though on a smaller scale, similar acts of violence against migrant and minority communities.

Mr Guleid is the executive director of the Frontier Counties Development Council