[Letter from Lutz van Dijk – One of the directors of the Home for Kids in South Africa, a home for AIDS affected children in Masiphumelele. Cape Town]


The Dream is over
Experiencing South Africa’s Outburst of Xenophobia overseas

While on a fundraising tour in Germany and Holland for a township housing project in one of the poorest communities in the Western Cape the recent outburst of Xenophobia in South Africa became breaking news all over: Beyond shock, sadness and anger the overall reaction is here that nothing since the days of Apartheid has damaged the international image of South Africa as much as these daily horrible pictures of hateful masses killing, burning and chasing innocent foreigners.

It is not that people in Europe don’t understand the desperation of millions of poor South Africans around jobs and housing. Their huge disappointment grows by the day as the present South African government not only still avoids to take full responsibility for the long predicted violence because of extremely bad service delivery to the poor and unresponsible talks of “millions of illegal foreigners”by the Minister of Home Affairs. And even now in the moment of highest emergency: Where are the leaders, cabinet ministers as well as the ANC leadership, while houses and people are burning ?

It is not enough to send in the police and army while shifting the blame around and arranging a panel. Clear, undoubtful and symbolic actions of a personal commitment beyond words are urgently needed. Everybody knows that refugees from South Africa were welcomed by most neighbouring countries during Apartheid. What happens now is unforgivable. It betrays the dream of a just society which respects human rights for all. As Nelson Mandela said on 14 May 1994: “Never, never, and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.”

But read well: The dream ! Don’t call it “promises” and blame Madiba for what is a continuous task to realise for all citizens! A country without a dream is a poor country. South Africa lost more the past three weeks than any donor money can pay. It lost the trust of the international community to show the serious will at least to try hard to realise this dream. In a historically shortest time it lost most of its moral leadership to guide other parts of the African continent out of poverty and bad governance. If the South African government and ANC leadership is not waking up very soon we all should fear for the worst.

So far it were – like in Apartheid days – mostly organisations and individuals of the civil society who grew up to the challenge by organising shelter, medical aid and spiritual support for the victims. This can’t be valued enough.

During my recent meetings with European donors – private people and businesses, donor organisations and government agencies – I tried my best to explain some of the background of these horrifying pictures of hate against poor foreigners (the rich ones still seem to be safe or are maybe just better protected by expensive security). I insisted that our township of Masiphumelele will not follow the bad examples as with only 30.000 residents it is a relatively small one and most people know each other, even the refugees from Somalia and Zimbabwe.

Since two days ago I am proven wrong. Also in Masi poor foreigners were chased away, women with children running for their life while on-lookers laughed or threw stones. The colleagues and friends I phoned said that they couldn’t do much against the mob, but meetings in churches and the school will be held soon. By now, a committee has been formed which – together with the police – will demand the stolen goods back and will visit the refugees in their shelters to apologise and assure them of a safe return. Is their still trust possible ? The effort is crucial, as well for the foreigners and their families as for the community itself known as peaceful for a long time.

In less than a week I will be back in the country I started to call “home”. In the 1980s I was refused entry to South Africa as a human rights activist. In 1997 I experienced first hand the work of the TRC and decided, as many others, to support the peaceful nation building with my modest means. In 2001 we moved from Amsterdam to Cape Town to help children and youth affected by HIV/Aids and since 2006 I also work as a volunteer for a housing project in the same community. Maybe the next round of Xenophobia is against all foreigners ?

As if it is not enough: One day before the hate exploded also in Masiphumelele officials of the provincial housing department informed our residents’ team that the urgently needed MEC’s final approval for our more than R 60 million housing project for about 350 poorest of the poor families can’t be given, because the “department’s agenda is still to full” and a first new chance to put it on the agenda can be earliest on 9 June. It is known to the officials as to the MEC, Minister Dyantyi, since months that an offer of crucially needed R. 11 million private donor money will expire by the end of May, the new delay endangering the whole project to collapse.

Which message shall I give to our new potential supporters for more millions of Rand before returning to South Africa ? Maybe there is only one: The dream of a new South Africa seems to be over. It became an ordinary country where the new elite of black millionaires do equally not care for the poor majority as the old white ones. Poverty is growing, instead of being eradicated. Most politicians are looking after themselves and their “political friends” and only a few are left who care for the poor and the future economic stability of the country.

But even if all this is true: I keep telling our potential supporters in Europe and anywhere else: Don’t give up on the dreams of Steve Biko and Chris Hani, of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu as their dreams have been universal ones. Don’t give up on those who form the silent masses like anywhere else in the world. Those who look on and don’t think they have any power to change anything. And even those who are vulnerable to populism and violent “solutions”. Words will be not enough anymore. The dream is not lost yet, but has never been so endangered since Madiba made his commitment exactly 14 years ago. We owe it to him and his generation.

Dr Lutz van Dijk
Amakhaya ngoku Housing Organisation, Masiphumelele

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  1. 1 Mandla

    First it is important to repeat that xenophobic violence is unequivocally unacceptable. It cannot be condoned or defended. It is criminal, racist and is a crime against humanity.

    Having said that it is important to say that those involved in xenophobic attacks were never in exile, never experienced Apartheid, and must be understood within the context of current world events and what is happening in South Africa and elsewhere in the world.

    Having been a South African refugee myself, I never went to exile with my family to make a living. I never competed with the host country citizens about resources. South African refugees were mainly in military camps and were received within structured systems that kept them under control and focussed about the South African struggle.

    What we see in South Africa today is world phenomenon known as transnational migration. Those with money in Africa go overseas to Canada, US , UK , Australia etc. It is a vote of no confidence in African leadership elsewhere in Africa where non-existent governance, corruption, poverty and lack of human rights drives all people away from their countries. I am yet to see any African government that is committed to infrastructure building in its cities and towns and a human rights culture. South Africa in this context presents a once in a life time opportunity for refugees from all over Africa. Everyday thousands of people from more than 50 African countries come to South Africa for a better life and an opportunity to be human again. They want to be responsible citizens and they want to live decent lives. They are not political refugees. They are total refugees because they run away from all sorts of holistic problems: economy, corruption, politics, collapsed agricultural sector, poverty, fiscus theft… it is a kind of 21st century Exodus; a massive undocumented movement of people in search of life.

    Europe and the US experience do this phenomenon. Others die in containers by suffocation, others drown in the sea, others walk the desert and die etc etc. It is the 21st century story of epic proportions.

    South Africa is a country with a very violent historical legacy. Our problem solving skills are based in violence. Even a poor farm worker gets fatally dragged behind a truck and dies violently because of a minor offence. Our peaceful civil marches end in violence and death and police shoot to kill. Students protest on campuses must end in violence. This is as a result of our long history of seeing violence as a solution. Starting from colonial rule, moving to Shaka’s conquest of Southern Africa, Apartheid rule, the struggle for freedom , it is impossible to tell the South African story without violence being the centre piece of the way we mediate life and try to grapple with political and socio-economc problems. Even our churches teach a violent theology: a kind of fire and brimstone God who will come and sort out the heathens by violence and burn them forever in some perpetual violent inferno helped by state troops of angels just to make sure no one escapes.

    This is the background from which Mandela made his humble far reaching contribution. The magnanimity to live and let live and to be reconciled with your foe. I have not seen this in the western world: a great country lost only about three thousand people in an unprovoked act of terrorism but every day its leaders talk violence, have killed by now about 100 000 innocent people and even in elections they try to surpass each other by pledging that they will outdo each other in meting out blind violence to perceived , mind not real enemies, but potential and perceived enemies. So we are not alone in this violence-obsessed and violence-ridden world. In one country in Europe there is a spate of fatal knifings of teenagers by teenagers.

    In South Africa we must learn to affirm the cultural diferences amongst ourselves. We must look inside ourselves to find answers to problems of co-existence and tolerance and acceptance. The world has changed since the year 2000. We need new religions and belief systems that help us to deal with integration. Even the political state as defined by national anthem and flag and language, that artificial entity born in the 17th century is gone. In Greece there are Pakistanis and Romanians and they want to integrate, they dont care about outdated concepts of national states They simply want space to live.

    South Africa has 11 official languages but in 14 short years since 1994 in Joburg there is a cacophony of languages to rival the biblical Babel. These are positive developments because from a human gene pool and cultural points of view we will have a better and genetically and culturally superior African. But we fear these things, we respond by violence to that which does not fit into our understanding. We fight change, we resist change and we crucify change and celebrate our fears as we elevate them to a religion and genuflect in mea culpa.

    It is clinically safe to drop a cluster bomb from the stratosphere in an airconditioned cockpit at a press of a joystick but in the end we all are participants in a violent game of fear and insecurity and killing of those we see as enemies.

    I dont defend our violence and I dont even have the money to emigrate from Africa but I hope the similarities will help you realise our common humanity even in dispensing violence. I dont have the answers and I dont condone xenophobia. We need in South Africa to expand the vision of Nelson Mandela for a free and forgiving world. Our freedom does not lie in better and more accurate weapons and more military bases abroad, they lie and relearning not to fear, to accpet again, to trust, to give, to help, to listen, to learn again. Homer spoke of a cyclop whose eye was blinded by Ulyusses, its an allegorical story of cyclopic world powers with a tunnel vision who chase shadows and kill entire neighbourhoods in one fell swoop: they are tormented, at war with themselves, and uttelry destructive of everything. Perhaps we need to teach also Europeans that there is more power and peace in reconciling, forgiving, and helping one another. And we need to expand this vision to Africa where greed, personal ambition and corruption has blighted entire countries. We need to remould human beings and teach them to be new men and women.


    hoh says:

    Thank you so much for this

    The Buddhist philosopher, Daisaku Ikeda says,

    “Let’s extinguish the flames of hatred with a flood of dialogue”

    Also a brilliant phrase I love,

    Peace through trust, trust through friendship.

    By becoming friends we will protect each other from harm
    To deeply respect the other person – that’s the challenge!
    And of course if we don’t respect ourselves how on earth can we respect others

    Listening, listening, listening, till there is no more the other person wants to say – that’s a difficult one for me!
    Usually i want the other to think like me – control issues i know….

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