Am I my brother’s keeper?

Wednesday, 23 April, 2008 - 10:15

“Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world. Let freedom reign.

“Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world. Let freedom reign. The sun shall never set on so glorious a human achievement.”

These are the words of Nelson Mandela when he was inaugurated the first democratic president of South Africa in 1994. Fourteen years down the line we are experiencing ‘the oppression of one by another;’ South Africans against foreigners.

The assaults have escalated from verbal to more violent attacks. The communities that are carrying out these attacks took the saying that goes ‘sticks and stones may hurt my bones but words could never hurt me’, literally and into heart. Calling them ‘Makwerekwere’ did not get rid of them, so they resorted to ‘sticks and stones’ to do the job.

Violent attacks on foreigners and their properties are on the increase across South Africa. The city of Tshwane has had its share of this kind of attack in recent months where communities of Soshanguve, Ladium and Attridgeville went ofna rampage which led to the murder of two foreigners in Attridgeville.

One may ask ‘what is the reason for these violent actions and behaviour?’ Only one word comes to my mind: xenophobia - the fear or contempt of that which is foreign or unknown, especially strangers or foreign people. Yes these people might be foreign but are they really strangers. Are these people not the same people that opened up their gate in our time of need? Are they not the people that supported us, sheltered us and gave us refuge when we were fighting the apartheid regime? 

I will go as far as to say these foreigners or strangers are really you and me in a different time and different place. South Africa has produced refugees and we continue to produce economic immigrants, with a great number of nurses, teachers, social workers and others leaving our shores headed for the UK and The Middle East in search of a better salary and a better life for themselves and their families. These ‘foreigners’ or strangers are also running away from the wars, the social and political injustice and persecution and the economic meltdown in their own countries that is making it hard to live, let alone make a living, there.

So should it not be easy for us to put ourselves in their shoes because we wore the same shoes not long ago – producing asylum seekers and refugees during apartheid. And we continue to wear them – as economic immigrants. We should remember the saying that goes ’Motho ke motho ka batho ba bangwe’, meaning a person is only human with the help of other people; and practice the saying ‘Matsogo a tlhatswana’, hand wash each other. So let us return the favour, stand up and shout with a unified voice of Ubuntu: ‘I am my brother’s keeper.’

This opinion article was written by Thandi Addo from the Refugee Rights Organisation

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