By John Ekongo
The recent burst of xenophobic-related violence south of the Namibian border is a rude awakening on how xenophobia can quickly translate itself into a major catastrophe.
The spate of attacks against foreign nationals in South African townships has sent shockwaves throughout the country and the continent, and has dealt a serious blow on Southern Africa, often described as a haven of tolerance and acceptance of other cultures because of the region’s nationalism liberation history.
The attacks, which originated in the township of Alexandria, an impoverished suburb in the city of Johannesburg, have left an estimated 42 foreign nationals dead.
With globalisation and the ever-increasing awareness of cultural and global integration, chances are that more contact with people of various cultures and nationalities becomes unavoidable.
This contact is made possible through an influx of people into neighbouring countries for reasons like seeking economic opportunities and political turmoil.
In some countries nationals view such foreigners as a threat and in direct competition for jobs and living space with the poorest of citizens.
Bishop Zephania Kameeta of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Republic of Namibia (ELCRN) warns on what xenophobia can do to a society and comments on the South African situation.
“We cannot condone and take things for granted and think that peace will always be with us,” said Kameeta.
The clergyman stressed that governments in Southern Africa must continuously address the issues of peace and violence and warn people against violence.
But most of all “we must not only be seen talking but also act to uplift our people as not resort to this kind of attitude,” said the Kameeta.
As for the ongoing South African crisis, he said that it is a “bad situation for Southern Africa, we must remember that the then South African government bombed capitals of our fellow African countries, because they harboured us and they died because of us and now we are attacking them,” announced Kameeta.
He added, “We cannot afford to forget it is not so long ago that we returned from exile and not that they had a lot of money, but they saw us as fellow Africans suffering and they accommodated us. And we were not attacked. It is a very shameful situation. We hope that it will be contained as soon as possible.”
Zimbabwean arts and craft seller, Good Bopoto, said Namibians are hospitable people even though there are pockets of those who are xenophobic.
“So far we have not received any ill-treatment and this is how it should be done. We appreciate what our Namibian brothers are doing, this kind of thing is reciprocal, given our histories,” pointed out Bopoto.
Although xenophobia is not a big issue in Namibia, Namibians cannot, however, pretend to be immune to this heart-wrenching phenomenon, according to experts New Era spoke to.
“Oh yes, Namibians are xenophobic, we are xenophobic from a cultural point of view,” said National Society for Human Rights (NSHR) Director, Phil ya Nangolo.
He pointed out that in Namibia a perception is created that we are superior to anybody who is a foreigner and as such, “we tend to act unbecomingly towards them – more like a-them-against-us mentality”.
Ya Nangolo maintained that this problem is particularly rampant in South Africa and Namibia.
While Ya Nangolo admits that Namibians are xenophobic, he says of late a xenophobic attitude against Chinese nationals has been brewing and he has expressed his worries over the development.
“There is an anti-Chinese sentiment of late in SADC, we have heard of Uganda, Zambia, Namibia and even the issue of maltreatment of labourers by Chinese nationals.”
He is of the opinion that the issue of economic survival is likely to be the biggest contributor to xenophobic sentiments.
This, Ya Nangolo maintain, puts Namibia at the threshold of a South African style revolt against Chinese nationalists.
Chinese sticking to their reputation as adaptable working people, some according to the NSHR have found themselves eking out a living in the informal and micro business sector, an area of economic opportunities always reserved for the poor.
Ya Nangolo believes this can only be redressed if Government puts mechanisms in place to limit the participation of Chinese nationals in small and medium entrepreneurial activity.
“A balanced approach needs to be in place to protect small businesses from an influx of Chinese nationals. This sudden influx of Chinese nationals and allowing them to engage in micro activities might create the impression that Namibians are overshadowed in what could have been their domain for economic survival,” said Ya Nangolo.
On this score, Professor Yang Ganfu, a resident expert on intercultural communication agrees that the Government must regulate certain business activities, in order to safeguard the survival of the poor.
What he did not agree with, however, was the growing anti-Chinese sentiments.
“It is not a good issue and it must not be acceptable. Namibia is young and this hampers economic development of any country,” revealed Yang.
Yang opines that in as much as foreigners are not in their own country, they too contribute just as much to the upliftment of this country.
“Chinese nationals create employment, they pay taxes like all other Namibians, and they also improve the infrastructure of the country.”
He took a swipe at what he described as a political driven propaganda against China, spearheaded by civil societies.
Instead of focussing on socio-economic upliftment, they are chanting democracy.
“There is nothing wrong for a country to be democratic; the civil societies must focus on economic development, with this in place everything can fit in peacefully,” said Yang.
“When you are hungry and with no work how can you focus on democracy? First, you need economic development then prosperity and sustenance to participate fully in accordance with the democratic principles of your country. You can’t be democratic on an empty stomach,” said Yang.
Unemployment is very high among the youth. Government statistics indicate that 35 percent of youths in the 15-24-age bracket are unemployed.
Furthermore, labour researchers are saying that youths are three-and-a-half times more likely to be unemployed than adults.
Head of Department of Public Management at the Polytechnic of Namibia, Dr Andrew Niikondo, says that it is worrisome.
He highlighted that the South African example can easily be manifested in Namibia, seeing that those perpetrating the violence in South Africa are unemployed youths who have a growing resentment towards their Government’s inability to create jobs.
According to Niikondo, escalating cost of living, coupled with unemployment and fewer economic opportunities, could have been the trigger of violence in neighbouring South Africa.
He stressed that given xenophobic attitudes in Namibia being more rampant and widespread among the youth, he fears that these tendencies in young Namibians can result in violence as well.
“Xenophobia is in Namibia but this is especially among the youth. The people that come from an era of liberation struggle are less xenophobic because they know the pain of being a host of someone.”
Dr Niikondo, continues, “Among the youth it is difficult to convince young people not to adopt a xenophobic mindset, because they only know the current situation. They cannot lay claim to any other society other than that of being Namibian, that is what they have grown up with,” said Niikondo.
Niikondo, whose recent doctoral thesis addresses migration in Southern Africa, maintains that the obstacle in rooting out xenophobia lies in the continent’s inability to move towards an African unity.
“We speak one voice, but we act different. When at conferences we speak Southern Africa or Pan-Africanism, but when we are back home it becomes an issue of us and them.”
The scholar is of the opinion that Government policy on immigrants should be harmonised and this should be translated to a continental level.
He cited an example of a recent agreement signed between Zambia and Zimbabwe to respect the right of citizens and ensuring protection to both nationals whether in Zimbabwe or Zambia.
As to whether it will address the mindset of xenophobic inclined individuals, Niikondo opines that it will call for education and informing people “xenophobia is a disease and a crime against humanity, if it goes to an extent where people are killing each other”.
It should not happen, it is wrong, concluded the academic.