African Unity: A Work in Progress
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African Unity: A Work in Progress
May 25 was Africa Day, a day on which millions of people around the world celebrated African unity.
But for more than 25,000 immigrants displaced by South Africa's worse violence since the apartheid era, African unity is a bitter dream.
The violence began as mob attacks against immigrants in the Alexandra Township, north of Johannesburg in the Gauteng Province. It has shocked Africans, as well as the rest of the Diaspora. The attacks are not only on foreigners, but, as categorized by the African National Congress, is also "an assault on the values of our democratic society."
The Congress of South African Trade Unions has condemned the violence and is working with the NGO Doctors without Borders to identify hotspots and to provide staff to accompany doctors.
We have seen the violence spread quickly throughout Gauteng into the provinces of Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal. TransAfrica Forum's contacts in South Africa have told us of surreal and frightening scenarios. They have reported that four million Zimbabweans are there, on top of the Mozambicans, Nigerians, and Somalians.
Governments and organizations are scrambling to determine the genesis of the violence. Many of us remember this type of politically motivated violence in South Africa before 1994. In addition to spontaneous episodes of mob violence, and coordinated criminal gang activity, we are now seeing that some attacks have been systematic and well organized. Officials have likened the violence to the third forces of the apartheid government operatives which were found to be responsible for much of the apparently black-on-black violence before the first democratic elections in South Africa in 1994.
The violence represents the intersection of two major unresolved issues. First, there is the case of Zimbabwe's economic and political crises, which has resulted in the creation of millions of economic refugees, many of whom have fled to South Africa.
Secondly, despite the early promise of South Africa's majority government, it has been unable to adequately resolve the economic legacy of apartheid. Millions of South Africans are unemployed, impoverished, and live without access to clean water, electricity, or health care. Migrants are seen as further threats to their ability to achieve an adequate standard of living.
Zimbabweans, the largest immigrant group, have born the brunt of the recent violence. Horrific attacks have seen victims burnt, hacked, and stoned. Many victims have been injured and there are widespread reports of rape. Migrants from other African countries as well as some South African nationals have been caught up in the violence. Thousands have now fled their homes and sought sanctuary in police stations, churches and premises used by aid groups.
In Durban, a Nigerian-owned tavern was attacked by a mob of 150 men who, in addition to beating patrons, also ransacked the tavern and stole cash, liquor, cell phones and jewelry, pointing to the criminal element engaged in the riots as well.
To date, at least four "community leaders" have been arrested for inciting the xenophobic attacks and a total of 400 people have been arrested country-wide for participating in the attacks.
South Africa's leading organizations, including the African National Congress, the Congress of South African Trade Unions and its affiliates, the social movements, and faith-based organizations should be applauded. Their quick mobilization efforts to condemn the violence and to offer shelter to the victims have saved countless numbers of lives.
It is tragic that following centuries of fighting colonial rule, neo-colonialism, and now corporate-led globalization, some in our communities continue to see enemies instead of allies: allies in the ongoing struggle to overturn the systems and global rules of inequality that keep the majority of us in economic poverty. Africa can, and will one day, celebrate Africa Day in the glory and tradition that makes the Continent great, but only when Africa's children throughout the Diaspora to stop the needless killing of each other, and turn a keen eye to the global forces that created the conditions we fight about.
Nicole C. Lee is the Executive Director of TransAfrica Forum