An overwhelming sense of betrayal
As reports of the escalating xenophobic violence in South Africa trickled into East Africa last week, a growing sense of betrayal was engulfing the region.
Like many countries across the African continent, the East African nations of Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda provided sanctuary to South African liberation movements and ordinary refugees fleeing the repression and discrimination meted out by the apartheid government for decades.
That contribution bred the belief among East Africans that their South African counterparts owe the rest of the continent for its role in the anti-apartheid struggle. As such, the attacks on foreigners have infuriated both ordinary East Africans and officials in their governments.
“The [South African] locals may try to justify their reasons, but they forget that the whole continent rallied behind them and hosted them during the apartheid era. Is this how to show their appreciation?” asked Sheila Waithera from the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.
The sentiments of ordinary Kenyans like Waithera were also captured in Kenya’s corridors of power by that country’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Moses Wetangula.
He said: “The behaviour of the South Africans is a betrayal of the liberation struggle the continent jointly fought for alongside the African National Congress. It beats the dream of having a United States of Africa.”
In Kampala, a legislator in the Ugandan Parliament, Betty Olive Kamya, described the xenophobic violence as an attempt by ordinary South Africans to mask their own incompetences by laying the blame for the limited opportunities available to them at the feet of foreigners.
“It is very sad that people think foreigners are taking their opportunities. But the truth is that even if the foreigners leave, poor South Africans are unlikely to take advantage of the opportunities the foreigners have abandoned because they may not have the skills that the foreigners possess,” Kamya said.
Fears are now growing among some East Africans that the attackers could start targeting black African expatriates employed in South Africa.
“Once the South Africans have succeeded in getting rid of the unskilled labourers, they could decide to turn against the skilled labourers and try to chase them away too,” said Daniel Ekisa, a hotel manager in Tororo district, 211km east of Uganda’s capital, Kampala. The hotel Ekisa runs was built by his uncle, a medical doctor employed in Johannesburg.
Authorities in Kampala say there are 15Â 900 registered Ugandans working in South Africa, while the Kenyan Foreign Affairs Ministry estimates the number of Kenyan nationals resident in South Africa to be at least 20Â 000.
With many of the East Africans in South Africa remitting some of their earnings to support extended families in their home countries, any attacks on the expatriates would mean a loss of livelihood for many of these families in the region.
The chairperson of the Ugandan parliamentary committee on foreign affairs, Loi Kageni Kiryapawo, believes South Africans should learn to co-exist with foreigners and profit from the diverse talents they bring into the country rather than drive them away.
“There is no single country in the world where you find that all its citizens are in their country. Even South Africans are all over the world and they are employed, they are studying, and they do business in different countries,” she said.
To Kiryapawo, the apartheid era should have provided sufficient lessons for South Africans not to behave the way some of them have in recent weeks.
“South Africans should reflect on the period of apartheid and ask themselves whether it would have been morally right for them to have been treated the same way by the people in whose countries they had sought refuge,” she said.
Some officials in the East African region are, however, calling on their governments to take stern action of their own. Kenya’s Medical Services Assistant Minister, Danson Mungatana, was quoted by the local Daily Nation newspaper of May 27 calling for the expulsion of the South African high commissioner to Kenya if the violence against foreigners continued.
“I am not convinced the South African government is doing enough to end the attacks by gangs of armed youths,” Mungatana reportedly said. “A more drastic action should be taken to demonstrate that Kenya is more concerned about her citizens there.”