Migration is an often discussed issue but in the last weeks it dominated the headlines. As the British public tried to make up their minds ahead of the General Election, with immigration one of the key issues, thousands of people from the Middle-East and Africa, desperate for a better future, lost their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean, forcing Europe’s Ministers of Foreign Affairs into ‘crisis talks’. At the same time, ‘xenophobia’ raised its ugly head again in South Africa, with the government sending in the military to protect migrants from violent mob attacks by locals.
Mike Batley from the Restorative Justice Centre in South Africa writes that sending in the military, although perhaps necessary to restrain violence, will not fix the problem: “What is needed now more than ever is the understanding from the field of conflict transformation that incidents of violence cannot be understood in isolation from the deep historical, structural, cultural, relational and personal contexts within which they occur. It is only when these roots are identified that a horizon of the future can begin to be imagined. Such an approach goes beyond negotiating solutions and builds towards something new, to quote John Paul Lederach, a pioneering thinker in the field. This approach indicates the need for reflective inquiry, for opening up spaces for debate, dialogue and conversation.”
Talk to each other
At a symposium held by the Institute of Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) in South Africa, participants acknowledged that South Africa is still a deeply traumatised nation that needs the kind of leadership from government, private and public sector that will help it to find healing. Another important outcome was the call for engagement, “to begin to have difficult conversations”.
South Africans, IJR says, “need to honestly and openly talk about race, racism, white privilege, xenophobia and the social capital of a white skin. We encourage you to talk to each other and not to use online platforms to share your opinions about these topics. And not to talk about the issue from the outside – but have debates and engagements in township communities. It is easy for outsiders to propose solutions if they stand outside the lived realities on the ground.” Engagement also “actively contributes to up-skill less fortunate communities through engaging with local community and culture groups. And understand your country – act not only when things happen but be involved consistently and participate on an ongoing basis to contribute to change in South Africa.”
Not to be trusted
Talking to each other and engaging with the issues together with those are who affected by it most are all tools for building trust and strong relationships. Sociologists Heribert Adam and Kogila Moodley go a level deeper and argue that it is the lack of relationships that has fueled the kind of violence South Africans and their foreign guests have witnessed in the last weeks.
“The breakdown of family cohesion in mostly fatherless township households has eliminated shame and neutralised moral inhibitions. Overburdened mothers, often without maintenance payments by the absentee fathers, are unable as sole breadwinners to provide the emotional intimacy and security needed by youngsters. Gangs function as family substitutes and identity enhancers. Underqualified township teachers have utterly failed to instill in pupils the political literacy that would help them comprehend global migration.
South Africans of all hues cultivate the exceptionalism of being in Africa but not of Africa. Newcomers from the alien, dark continent are not to be trusted. Well-qualified foreign science and mathematics teachers could function as role models, besides raising standards, but the teachers’ union does not welcome cosmopolitan non-nationals into its ranks, let alone being lectured on political education.
Competition for jobs by unemployed youth amounts to a cliché. Looting schoolchildren are not yet in the job market. Neither does alleged inequality between foreigners and locals explain the antagonism. Somali tenants mostly start from scratch with loans from relatives; they frequently employ locals, extend credit to customers and pay their rent on time. They work longer, harder and sell cheaper, because of the small profit margin and an ethos of “collective entrepreneurship”.
Self-hate by locals fuels envy of successful foreigners. In economic terms, societies around the world have benefited from the skills and hard work of newcomers. Yet such reasoning does not persuade losers in the competition for scarce resources, which is perceived as a zero-sum game.
Why can’t locals emulate the foreigners and learn from them? Why can’t they also buy wholesale and introduce smaller mark-ups? “We don’t trust each other,” answered many local respondents in our research. In an atomised space of marginalised people, mutual trust of responsible citizens amounts to a delusion. The very notion of community is problematic. At the most, an exclusionary solidarity exempts local shops from being looted, but not equally poor blacks from outside being attacked.”
Although very complex in some communities, to counter the ‘fear of foreigners’ (which is what ‘xenophobia’ amounts to), there needs to be a concentrated action on building trust between people, a foundational aspect of any relationship, whether it is in Africa or in Europe.
Question: Is there anything you can do to build trust in your family and community?
Image of South African flag from the Constitutional Court by arboresce, Wikimedia