On 25 May, the continent, along with Africans all over the world, celebrated Africa Day. In most corners, it is an opportunity to celebrate the diversity and richness of African culture. In South Africa, Africa Day is taking on special significance as the nation prepares to ‘welcome the world’ to the FIFA World Cup.
Yet, reports in the United Kingdom's The Guardian and another in South Africa's Mail & Guardian about the possibility of post-event xenophobia in the country should remind us that two years ago the nation came together with a rallying commitment to say ‘never again’.
On Africa Day two years ago, South Africa was still struggling to cope with the aftermath of xenophobic clashes that left 62 people dead, including 21 South Africans, and resulted in mass displacement of men, women, and children. The country marched, held vigils, collected food and blankets for the displaced, spoke out against the violence, and lamented about how this could possibly happen in a country so proudly deemed the rainbow nation.
The Guardian report says that dozens of Zimbabwean women interviewed in Hillbrow in downtown Johannesburg say they face daily intimidation and threats by their landlords and groups of men gathering outside their homes at night. Organisations such as the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants and the Forced Migration Studies Programme at Wits University corroborate their fears, saying this is not the first hints of possible violence.
Meanwhile, other organisations all over Southern Africa have stepped up efforts against the potential of human trafficking, especially trafficking into the sex industry to feed the perceived increased demand for sex services that comes with mega-events such as the World Cup. Women and girls from poorer countries are especially vulnerable, since promises of opportunities and a chance to earn a living are hard to pass up.
Southern Africa has long been a region of porous borders, with people seeking better lives on the other side - migrating from South Africa to countries like Mozambique and Zimbabwe during the apartheid years, and more recently into countries like South Africa and Botswana where stronger economies mean more jobs.
Traditionally this migrant movement has been mostly male, but times have changed. Economically, women across the continent are at a disadvantage. Social stereotypes and cultural practices reduce opportunities for education, work, and entrepreneurship for women. Yet at the same time, there are increasing numbers of female-headed households, especially resulting from HIV/AIDS, and more women responsible for the family's daily bread.
Families often now expect their daughters, almost as much as their sons, to help provide for the family. And with limited opportunities in many Southern African countries, migration becomes the not so-easy solution. And it seems that migration is becoming even riskier business than ever before.
Celebrated since 1963, Africa Day is a commemoration of African unity. In celebrating the continent's diversity and achievements, there is also a need to keep stressing that unity is the only way to continue developing and progress further, and this includes unity against all forms of xenophobic or gender violence. Perhaps it is fitting that much of this year's celebrations are taking on a football theme - after all, the only way to win is if all members of the team pull together.
Zimbabwe has even themed this Africa Day ‘Promoting Peace Through Sports’. In South Africa, President Jacob Zuma will address to the nation, followed by a music concert featuring a range of artists from the famed "6-Pack" (the African nations that have qualified for the World Cup tournament) at Ekurhuleni's Dries Niemandt Park on 29 May. The celebrations even go as far away as Taiwan, where African students are organising a soccer tournament, and Ireland, where groups of Africans are mounting sporting and cultural activities.
There are Africans all over the world, on every continent and in every country. Patterns of migration may change, but the movement of people never will. Unfortunately, except when there is a shocking event - xenophobic riots or a particularly horrific media report of human trafficking - making migration and migrants safe just does not seem to be a priority for most governments.
Two years ago, many expressed outrage at lack of action despite signs and warnings, while for others the violence came as a complete surprise. But, nobody can ever again say they did not see it coming. Everyone knows that xenophobia is a problem, and for all the promises made two years ago, how much has changed?
So, as we celebrate this Africa Day and enjoy the afrobeat from Nigeria and soukos from Congo, dance Mozambican passada, and sample Ghanaian fufu or Moroccan couscous, remember that unity is more than celebrating.
Few migrate by choice, and there is a need to make migration safer, taking into account the particular vulnerabilities of women and girls. Whether it is saying no to human trafficking or raising our voices loudly to say "never again" against xenophobic violence, 67 years after the idea of African unity was first introduced, it's more than high time.
- Deborah Walter is the editor of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service and Director of CMFD Productions. This article is part of the GL Service that provides fresh views on everyday news. It is republished here with the permission of Gender Links.