A man looks at cars that were burnt during the latest spate of xenophobic attacks, at a car dealership in Johannesburg, South Africa, September 5, 2019. Picture: REUTERS / SIPHIWE SIBEKO
A man looks at cars that were burnt during the latest spate of xenophobic attacks, at a car dealership in Johannesburg, South Africa, September 5, 2019. Picture: REUTERS / SIPHIWE SIBEKO

The world watched with shock and horror as South Africans attacked those from the rest of the African continent in a wave of some of the most heinous acts of violence carried out against foreign immigrants that began in Pretoria and spread to Johannesburg’s CBD and surrounds more than a week ago.

The evil and senseless acts of violence not only saw foreign-owned shops looted and burnt to the ground, but also people losing their lives through the worst form of hooliganism the people of this country have unleashed against the “other” in recent memory.

But as the country continues to reel from these deplorable acts, one is forced to wonder whether Pretoria should remain deafeningly quiet, move on and pretend as if nothing happened — or whether it has the moral obligation to offer an olive branch to victims of xenophobic attacks and the continent at large. SA must first, in the interests of humanity and continental unity, recognise and appreciate the gravity of its errors by offering an apology, however diplomatically unprecedented and difficult that step may be.

The retaliatory looting of SA companies such as Shoprite, Pick n Pay and Mr Price in Nigeria, Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are telling signs that Pretoria, sooner rather than later, will face continent-wide diplomatic isolation that will translate to its companies being ordered to “pack up and go”.

If the governments of these countries do not issue such decrees, the people will, and they sure will make their sentiments known and felt in what will be the first for the continent for both vox populi, vox dei as well as “wokes” populi against the seemingly arrogant, stuck-up and imperialistic SA —  all depending on how sustained and ferocious these revulsions from below become. 

The contempt with which South Africans treat African immigrants relative to foreign nationals of other races is a function of the country’s troubled identity, which has never been addressed sufficiently

Economic imperatives aside, the annals of history remind us of how the country attained its democracy and the extent to which it owes a great debt of gratitude to the continent for standing by the oppressed black people of SA during the dark days of apartheid. President Cyril Ramaphosa, in a thinly veiled and half-hearted condemnation of xenophobic attacks, alluded to this fact, invoking the preamble of the constitution that “SA belongs to all who live in it”.

But his reaction could not have been more untimely, as it came days after the damage was done — after lives and livelihoods were lost, and after the country’s reputation and confidence in its leadership, both at home and outside, sunk to levels never seen before or since the advent of democracy.

An apology will not only serve as a mark of contrition for standing on the pedestal of infamy, but as a self-reflective moment that accepts the depths of the country’s struggles of belonging and identity, and the desperate cry for help to embrace its African identity as it has never fully accepted itself as a constituent part of the continent.

Doubtless, the contempt with which South Africans treat African immigrants relative to foreign nationals of other races is a function of the country’s troubled identity, which has never been addressed sufficiently enough from the very top of government.  The country’s current leadership seems to have reneged on former president Thabo Mbeki’s African renaissance agenda, which is canonised in his 1996 “I am an African” speech.

The hindsight of historical truths

Indeed, the current leadership carries the baton handed over to them by their predecessors, who equally failed to inculcate the vision of African renaissance — that is, one Africa, one people — within the national psyche and social fabric of post-apartheid society. And with the hindsight of historical truths, SA must apologise for pissing on the continental solidarity of yesteryear that worked tirelessly to free the country from the shackles of apartheid bondage; for proving itself worse than the evil white minority regime it toppled in 1994;  for turning so quickly from oppressed to oppressor — worse against its own African people; for failing to liberate the minds of her citizens from the chains of mental slavery; and most pressing of all, for forgetting too soon.

At the broadest level, an apology will most definitely atone for these shortcomings, not least because it is the country’s only saving grace if it is to continue it collegial relations with other African countries. Regaining the trust of the leaders and people of the continent and healing deep wounds that are on the verge of festering and putrefying beyond a point of recovery.

Similarly, it is important out of respect and sensitivity for the unnecessary loss of life, and breaking the trust of African immigrants in the SA government here at home. If anything, the spectacular fall-out between Pretoria and the continent as a whole, which saw four African countries withdrawing their attendance from the World Economic Forum gathering in Cape Town, is a clear indication that they have had enough of this nonsense. Pretoria had better take heed before it is too late.

• Phaahla teaches comparative politics and international relations at the University of Cape Town.