SA needs the rest of the African continent as much as it needs us

Fred Khumalo Columnist
Protesters from various hostels march along Jules Street in Johannesburg. Carrying weapons, the men sang, 'foreigners must go back to where they came from'. Alon Skuy
Protesters from various hostels march along Jules Street in Johannesburg. Carrying weapons, the men sang, 'foreigners must go back to where they came from'. Alon Skuy

Threats of violence were the last thing on my mind as I got up to deliver, at a small community centre in Cologne, Germany, a speech condemning xenophobia and racism in modern society.

The year was 2016. My hosts, the Academy of the Arts of the World, had asked me to speak about xenophobia in light of the fact that both Germany and South Africa had recently experienced upsurges of this social illness.

At the end of my speech I sat down to a long round of applause. But joy was soon replaced by fear. Voices raised in anger suddenly exploded from the back of the room.

The confusing thing was that the voices were not coming from white Germans but from black people.

In due course I began to learn that the black men were from different parts of Africa, and they were disgusted by my presence in Germany.

"You South Africans are killing your fellow brothers," one voice rang out. "Go back to your shameful country, you haters of black people!"

The organisers explained to the protestors, many of them from West Africa, that I had consistently spoken out against xenophobia, through numerous articles I'd penned and the speech I'd just delivered. I therefore was a "good guy". Peace was finally restored. But the incident left me quite shaken.

I found myself thinking of this incident when I flew to Nigeria two weeks ago to attend the Ake Literary Festival in Lagos.

The timing of the festival was risky. Weeks before the festival, there'd been an upsurge of xenophobia-related violence that left a number of people dead or seriously maimed in different parts of the country.

At the height of the violence, hundreds of Nigerians fled South Africa for the safety of their native country.

Calls were made to boycott South African companies operating in Nigeria, including MultiChoice, MTN, Shoprite and Stanbic (part of the Standard Bank group).

The South African High Commission in Nigeria also shut down operations out of concern for the safety of its employees.

Calls were made for the closure of Nigeria's High Commission in South Africa, and for the expulsion of all South Africans from Nigeria.

Similar calls were made throughout the continent as Africans sought to punish SA for its xenophobia.

But I still went to Nigeria, nervous as I was.

I felt warm tears of shame at the warm reception I got from the Nigerians.

Wherever I went - at the airport, at shops, at bars - people immediately recognised me as a South African, probably from my dress sense and accent. But there was not an iota of rancour on their part.

I stewed in my own embarrassment and guilt. I came from a country that had so demonstrably divorced itself from the rest of Africa, a continent that continues to embrace us.

It has been said that many locals are frustrated by the fact that they have to compete for scarce resources with foreign nationals.

But it doesn't excuse the violence.

We tend to forget that hundreds of thousands of South Africans work and run businesses in the very African countries that have been at the receiving end of our violence.

While foreign nationals from the continent run micro-businesses in our country, the South African presence north of the Limpopo is massive.

The budgets of those South African companies are sometimes bigger than those of some African countries.

Focused action against our companies there would hurt South Africa in a big way, and put even more pressure on the local economy.

It will take proactive leadership for these lessons to be drummed into our people's heads so that they can understand that we need the rest of the continent as much as it needs us. We have to co-exist.

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