“To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedoms of others.” Nelson Mandela.
If you ever visit South Africa, do yourself a favour and spend a day at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. The beautifully designed building provides a spectacular historical timeline of apartheid’s birth, life, and eventual death. When one walks through the hushed corridors, one is deeply moved, disturbed, as well as incredibly fascinated by the surrounding photographs, museum pieces, newsreels, audio clips, posters and props – all snapshots of what it was like to live under an oppressive social system.
As one reaches the end of the museum, one is faced with a large plaque with a list of about 30 written items. When I visited the museum last year, I looked at this list in silence for sometime before leaving, because one can argue that the entire struggle against apartheid was for the realisation of this very list. It is for these few bulleted points that many anti-apartheid activists stood their ground, and as result were beaten, victimised, held without trial, and sometimes executed.
This list is South Africa’s Bill of Rights
The end of apartheid brought democracy to South Africa, and for the first time an all encompassing Bill of Rights was enshrined in law, ensuring the equality of every individual, regardless of race, gender, age, religious belief or sexual orientation. Various basic rights – such as equality, human dignity, as well as freedom of belief, religion, speech, and association – where for the first time awarded to everyone in this country. It was a magnificent achievement for a nation which at one stage was on the brink of a bloody civil war. I think a common element in the South African psyche is a sort of pride regarding this fact: that we achieved a peaceful revolution through the ballot box; that we are somehow the torch bearers of human rights and democracy. After all, we made it work in circumstances where many others had failed.
But I’m now convinced that South Africa has no right to carry this torch any longer. Over the last few months, townships and informal settlements have erupted in violence, as mobs of South Africans have purged their neighbourhoods of immigrants. This chaos, aroused by a widespread belief that non-South Africans are stealing jobs and are responsible for crime, has resulted in many deaths and thousands of displaced foreigners, and has sent shock waves through South African society, and the world.
One is left wondering in despair: as South Africans, we should know better! Most South Africans should know what it feels like to be singled out and dehumanised because of some personal attribute, let it be skin colour or gender. Most South Africans should know what it feels like to be forcibly removed from their homes, and beaten. As a nation, one would think that we would have learnt from apartheid what the horrors of intolerance can do, and how it can destroy. But it seems as if we have learnt nothing.
I know that the causes of xenophobia are complex, and that many have suggested various reasons to why this has happened. But as I watch the violence unfolding in the news, displaced families – who have lost everything – seeking refuge at police stations and churches, I cannot see how South Africans can be proud of their democracy.
I’m ashamed of calling myself a South African.