Clear leadership is needed to move South African society so that the recent xenophobic violence is addressed in ways that build peace for the long term. On the 15th May the Innovative Leadership Programme at Durban University of Technology focused on lessons from the violence.
A highlight was the report of a group of three students working on a Migrants Project, that had started shortly before the violence. The group, mentored by ICON Director, Crispin Hemson, had been the first to report the attacks to the media, and had then carried out a survey of the first group of refugees, to understand the nature of the attacks and the response to them by authorities.
The members working on the project had developed an understanding of the difficulties of assisting in a crisis, and in particular the challenges of carrying out research in a situation of confusion and fear. Perhaps the most striking learning, though, was that of Siyanda Mthembu as he struggled to communicate with refugees, and then found a group who said that they should speak to him in his home language, isiZulu. They were from Mozambique. At that point he remembered that his grandfather, who also spoke isiZulu, had come from Mozambique, and his sense of distance from the refugees vanished. ‘I felt as if I was also a victim’, he said.
These issues were further addressed in a panel of three South Africans and three from outside the country. Participants from outside South Africa reported experiences of xenophobia in other countries also but also their desire to migrate for learning and for economic purposes. One South African spoke of the hostility she has experienced as a Xhosa woman who has moved to KwaZulu-Natal. It became clear that what we have encountered is a deep-seated hostility to other Africans, not just to foreigners. One participant said, ‘How can people make friends if they cannot accept themselves?’
The discussion that followed probed the layers that underlie the explosion of violence and anger. What emerged very clearly is that building peace needs leadership – leadership first to think its way through this situation, and then to hold out a vision of a society based on acceptance of the self and the other.