/ 27 May 2020

Xenophobia chips away at the African notion of ubuntu

The immigration debate in South Africa is framed around whether foreigners can benefit the economy.
In recent weeks the xenophobic discourse from the ANC has worsened and there has been an uptick in reports of xenophobic violence. (Paul Botes/M&G)


Although Africa can boast many achievements, it also faces myriad challenges. With its diverse political and socioeconomic landscapes, blend of cultures and traditions, no two countries on the continent are the same. Whereas important advancements have been made in many areas, societies are still plagued by discrimination, racism and inequalities. The multifaceted and complex issues facing Africa can only be tackled effectively through inclusion. 

The African proverb “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” can be translated to mean that to be human is to recognise the humanity of others. The notion of ubuntu is developed from this proverb when discussing problematic situations and appealing to individuals to be humane, caring, helpful and to ensure that human dignity is always at the core of people’s actions, thoughts and deeds when interacting with others. 

Ubuntu is the hallmark of inclusivity, a symbol of tolerance and solidarity in ordinary life. It denotes brotherhood, neighbourliness, benevolence, human dignity, equal treatment and respect, solidarity, human rights and tolerance towards outsiders. 

In April 1998, Thabo Mbeki addressed the United Nations University, where he called on Africans to appreciate their importance and equip themselves for development shaped for equal economic activity and good living. With a superior insight into the importance of brotherhood and neighbourliness, premised on the African renaissance, Thabo Mbeki warned Africans against intolerance towards outsiders. He said the following:

“I owe my being to the Khoi and the San whose desolate souls haunt the great expanses of the beautiful Cape. I am formed of the migrants who left Europe to find a new home on our native land. Whatever their actions, they remain, still, part of me. In my veins course the blood of the Malay slaves who came from the East. I am the grandchild of the warrior men and women that Hintsa and Sekhukhune led, the patriots that Cetshwayo and Mphephu took to battle, the soldiers Moshoeshoe and Ngunyane taught never to dishonour the cause of freedom. I am the grandchild who sees in the mind’s eye and suffers the suffering of a simple peasant folk … I come of those who were transported from India and China. Being part of all these people, and in the knowledge that none dare contest that assertion, I shall claim that I am an African!” 

These wise words and the concept of ubuntu of Africans, however, stands in stark contrast to the bout of xenophobic attacks and violence seen in South Africa in recent years.

Regardless of the European concerns of people coming across the Mediterannean, most migration occurs within the African continent itself and it is a known fact that South Africa’s sophisticated economy is an attractive pull force for many other poor Africans. 

The assumption that these migrants have come to “take the jobs” of South Africans has subjected many African nationals to xenophobic attacks, resulting in the deaths of 12 people in 2019. Thousands of migrants, mainly from Somalia, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, found themselves displaced and their shops looted and vandalised. The violent attacks were soon followed by refugees and asylum seekers protesting xenophobia and staging months of sit-ins on the streets of Cape Town from September 2019. A makeshift camp quickly grew on the pavements of one of the city’s main tourist attractions, Greenmarket Square. Another camp sprung up outside the District Six Museum. These protestors were demanding relocation to any other country.

The language of fear and intimidation has become embedded in our national dialogue and has often dominated news headlines, both locally and globally. President Cyril Ramaphosa emphasised that turning on foreign nationals can never be justified. He said: “We want foreign nationals here to obey the laws of South Africa. They must obey the laws. They must live in accordance with our protocols, laws, and regulations. If they are committing crime, they are criminals like any South African would be a criminal for doing the same thing.”

In response to the violent attacks on foreign nationals, the African Union and African countries have criticised South Africa, threatening economic sanctions. South African embassies were attacked and the South African ambassador to Nigeria was summoned. The attacks saw the withdrawal of the Zambian soccer team from a match and the cancellation of a concert by Nigerian Afrobeat star Burna Boy — all in protest against the attacks. South African businesses were also under threat. 

In response to the attacks, the government launched a national action plan to combat xenophobia, racism and discrimination, in order to address the widespread human rights abuses arising from xenophobic and gender-based violence and discrimination.

The action plan, however, has glaring gaps and fails to address the lack of accountability for xenophobic crimes. With virtually no convictions, perpetrators of such violence seem to have got away, setting the stage for similar attacks in the future. 

Xenophobia is a threat to the idea of the African Renaissance — the ideals of harmony and diversity are in danger. It seems that South Africa soon forgot about its own struggles and attempts to overcome the injustices of the past and its many projects of social cohesion and inclusive nation-building, all premised on the idea of ubuntu.

We are therefore faced with uncomfortable questions as South Africans — why are we treating people so inhumanely? How is it that 26 years after the first free and fair elections, coupled with our own struggle for human rights and the need to end discrimination, we support the displacement of communities and watch the destruction of the lives of many?  

South Africa has taught the world many lessons about forgiveness and reconciliation. As violent anti-immigrant rhetoric sweeps through Europe and the United States and many other parts of the world, perhaps this is another opportunity for us to teach the world about how hatred emerges and how it can be stopped.

We need to remind ourselves again of the principle of ubuntu — our attitude of benevolence and tolerance towards foreigners or strangers before xenophobia.

Dr Nitha Ramnath is deputy director of communication and marketing at the University of the Free State. She writes in her personal capacity