A Little Context
First off: I am safe in my village and things out here are calm.
In case you have not heard the news coming out of South Africa, here is a brief summary. Last week, violence erupted in townships around Johannesburg targeting foreign Africans in South Africa (both illegal and legal migrants). Mobs raged through shanty towns burning buildings and people, beating, looting, and killing. In response to these attacks a few groups of migrants organized gangs to protect themselves or exact revenge and soon the violence spread to areas all over Gauteng and to other urban areas in the country. The violence has been mostly one way though with the poor migrants getting the worse end. South Africa is home to millions of migrants (literally about 3 million Zimbabweans who have fled their ruined country), they come from all over Africa, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and China looking for opportunity and working hard to make a living and support family back home. Many blame these foreigners for the increased crime and for the high unemployment rates (both can be pretty much have no real quantitative support, but alas, word of mouth trumps reality). Now the army has been deployed, the police are out in force, but the violence still continues. The unions have even pledged to get involved on the ground to protect the migrants. The whole thing is a thorough embarrassment for the ANC, many of whose leaders found shelter in neighboring African countries during the apartheid regime.
Still a Rainbow Nation
Even as xenophobic attacks continue to rock the urban areas, demonstrations were held in many cities today against the violence. As I watched the news today I was struck by the scenes of the protestors: white, black, brown, and every shade in between. Though the violence is present mainly in cities, xenophobia is pretty widespread, especially in poor areas (rural villages and townships). No matter what the American pundits may say, whenever a government fails to deliver, those that economically suffer do get bitter. And when they get bitter, socially entrenched positions, good or bad, often help them lay blame, whether its race, religion, gun rights, or what-not. Out here, it is nationality. Nigerians are drug dealers. Mozambicans are thieves. Zimbabweans are stealing jobs. Bangladeshis and Pakistanis are scrooges. And perhaps most ironically, Chinese are xenophobic. Despite these prejudices though, for the most part all these people coexist with South Africans. In my village, the Chinese shop owner couple just had a baby and my host aunt and her daughter went to see the baby. Some of the South Asian shop owners have girlfriends in the village. The Tanzanian priests get visits from other South Africans on the weekends. I feel welcomed and accepted by the vast majority of people. As I walk or bike anywhere, I’ll always hear several people call out, “KB!” my seTswana nickname. This in a village about half the size of the town I grew up in in South Dakota and a lot more isolated and rural. It’s certainly not perfect, and the lack of trust for outsiders can be stifling at times. Nevertheless, the good parts are impressive. Still, what is it that feeds those prejudices and fans the flames until they explode?
E Pluribus Unum
What is it that leads people to say they won’t vote for Obama because he is black, or for Hilary because she is a woman? What is it that leads to fences being built from places as different as Texas and Israel? Xenophobia and prejudice of all shades is not confined to South Africa. But neither, on the other hand, is Ubuntu. It is a choice that lies before us all, continually presenting itself to us throughout our life. When I think back on the warmth I was shown as a child growing up in South Dakota, I smile. Despite those who judged me without knowing me, there were those who respected me and trusted me even though I was non-white and non-Christian. They saw me learning about their culture, their religion, their lives and they were curious about mine. E pluribus unum, out of many, one: it is stamped on every coin in the US. It is a testament to the fact that our nation was founded out of the peoples of many different countries, indeed different continents. It is a reminder of the 13 different colonies that united to create their own freedom and dignity by recognizing that of each other. And if you read it one way, it sounds a lot like Ubuntu. One exists because of many. In seTswana: Motho ke motho ka batho. One is a person through people.
One Love, One Choice
I have a good friend in Belize with whom I sometimes am lucky enough to catch online. After sharing our struggles and successes, he often closes the conversation with a simple expression: One love. It is a love of people that I’d like to believe is more universal and more fundamental than the xenophobia and prejudice that make the headlines.
Over ten months ago, I got off a bus with over 90 other Americans, from all walks of life who had left loved ones and certainty behind for two years. We were greeted by over a dozen South Africans, who had left their homes for two months to share their language and culture with us in preparation for our service. Ubuntu certainly is not dead, neither in the U.S. nor in South Africa.
Rather than become cynical about Ubuntu, I think it’s important, especially for us as PCVs, to realize that the concept is not uniquely South African. Ubuntu is about more than just South African pride, it’s about human dignity. It’s not something inherent in each human; it’s a choice - a choice to recognize and honor the humanity of another. So in this time of outrage and shame, rather than fault South Africa, the failure of Ubuntu, or even demonize the people perpetrating the terror, let us challenge ourselves to recognize the dignity in all humans despite all our faults. Hopefully this recognition will help those blinded by prejudice to see their own self worth and thereby realize that of others.