2nd DUT Dialogue questions the experience of xenophobia

A DUT Dialogue: Storytelling of our African journeys, focused first on people’s experience of migrancy – their reasons for moving, their experience, whether positive or not.  This revealed unexpected commonalities and unexpected differences.  For example, hearing a Zimbabwean woman speaking of her interest in coming to KwaZulu-Natal because it was here that many of her ancestors came from, or hearing a Zulu man talk about suddenly realising that the Mozambican refugees he was meeting was so similar to him in terms of their histories.


As we moved from experience to hearing people’s analysis of the events, some clear patterns emerged.  These included the fear and anxiety of South Africans who felt that they were potential targets of the hostility to strangers, perhaps marked by accent or skin colour.  Others were the role of consumerism in distracting people from facing up to the real challenges of the society, and the lack of opportunity for dialogue and development of mutual understanding.

Further dialogues will target such issues across and beyond the DUT community.

ICON drives dialogue on xenophobia

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.

Gabriel Kanyangoga, Mlungisi Mtolo and Siyanda Mthembu, members working on the Migrants Project

Gabriel Kanyangoga, Mlungisi Mtolo and Siyanda Mthembu, members working on the Migrants Projects

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.

Participants on the panel

Participants on the panel

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.

Siyondla Sithole speaks on what he termed 'our broken society'

Siyondla Sithole speaks on what he termed ‘our broken society’

The Bill of Rights and engagement with students

The South African Bill of Rights is a marvellous document – recently a film by Abby Ginsburg Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter, highlights Albie Sachs’ major role in developing what we now have as part of our Constitution.

Art for Humanity (AfH), based at Durban University of Technology, has developed an excellent exhibition on the Bill of Rights.  We had a public event there today, which Crispin Hemson chaired as Director of ICON, at the university’s Art Gallery.

This was an event that pulled together different areas of work – collaboration between AfH and ICON, students from the new Cornerstone module (ICON has been central to this) presenting their creative work, and people who came and then asked if they could present poetry on the issues.  Students started with a great song on challenging the stigma directed against people who are HIV+.  This was followed by discussion in groups.

Students sing to challenge stigma related to HIV/AIDS

Students sing to challenge stigma related to HIV/AIDS

Some of the groups, in discussion

Some of the groups, in discussion

The discussion went to the current issues we face in developing a society that truly reflects the rights of the Constitution.  We then had a poem by two students against xenophobia.


There was some impressive thinking.  One student spoke about the xenophobic violence as a way of people trying to express what is wrong in the lives of South Africans, like a cry of desperation. One student pointed out how we could decide to understand each other, and how irrelevant race is to ourselves as humans.

Others spoke about the need to think before you accept cultural practices. The final point was a student who pointed out how apartheid had been able to reproduce itself down the generations – if so, a positive culture of democracy could also reproduce itself.

This is one of the events that ICON will work on in the build-up to the major conference on nonviolence, in September 2015.

Some impassioned statements came for participants

Some impassioned statements came from participants

Students take leadership on xenophobic violence

On the frontlines of those responding to the xenophobic violence: three students on the DUT/ICON Innovative Leadership Programme.   Gabriel Kanyangoga, Mlungisi Mtolo and Siyanda Mthembu had formed a project group focused on issues of migrants, just before the statement by King Zwelithini and the violence that then erupted.

While discussing the project with Crispin Hemson, Director of ICON, on 30th March, Gabriel received a call from a shopkeeper to say that he was being attacked. He immediately notified The Mercury, who had no knowledge of the attack, and the group then went to Isipingo to meet people affected.

The next step was to formulate a survey to collect information on the nature and timing of the attacks, and on the response by police, officials and NGOs. Undertaking the collection of data was made difficult by the conditions.

Mlungisi Mtolo, Gabriel Kanyangoga and Siyanda Mthembu

Mlungisi Mtolo, Gabriel Kanyangoga and Siyanda Mthembu

On the 15th May the group will report back to the next session of the Leadership Programme on their experiences, on the findings of the survey, and on what the three – a Rwandan and two South Africans – have learnt in the process. For example, as Siyanda struggled to communicate with the refugees, and then found that with some isiZulu was easiest, he realised how close he was to them – they were Mozambican, and he then remembered that his own grandfather was from Mozambique. He began to see himself as someone who could easily himself have been a victim of the violence.

Such situations push students into taking leadership, demand new skills and bring important learning. ‘If we are to deal effectively with such breakdowns of the social order, we need leaders who can realise their own capacity for effective leadership,’ says Crispin Hemson.

What is being learnt from this project will be presented by the students at the international Journeys to Peace conference at DUT in September 2015.

How xenophobia threatens us and the future

From The Mercury, 13th April 2015

Most Mercury readers, I guess, are those unlikely to feel directly threatened by xenophobia and have a sense of distance from the issues. My warning is that xenophobia is a danger not just to African foreigners, but to all of us. It is a way in which violence is condoned and even celebrated, and we are all potentially the victims of such violence. It is a knife at our throats.

In the debates over Rhodes and his legacy an element has not been touched on – that the colonial powers and Rhodes himself fixed borders and determined boundaries between African people. African states, at the end of colonialism, felt that they had little choice but to accept these borders as given. What we are not compelled to do is to emphasise the differences created by these largely artificial borders.

Once this is done, populist politicians can easily blame foreigners in the country for their own failings, or make a name for themselves based on displays of aggression against foreigners. This has happened in Nigeria, Ghana and Ivory Coast. In some countries, laws that deny full citizenship to those whose parents were born elsewhere have been used against political opponents.

Why do I think the current attacks are damaging to all of us and not just to the immediate casualties?

First, the xenophobic attacks are displays and celebrations of criminality. When South Africans complain about crime but are complacent at seeing acts of assault and theft, we are not truly committed to end crime. If you can justify criminal action against others, then on what basis do you challenge it when you are the target?   Further, if people who are openly involved in attacking foreigners and looting from them are not charged, it weakens the credibility of policing.

Secondly, the attacks reinforces the belief that violence is the way to resolve conflict and undermine the democratic institutions set up to resolve conflicts.

Thirdly, this is a systematic process of undermining the culture of human rights central to our Constitution. South Africans know that the Constitution confers rights on us. I think they do not know that it goes further, it ‘enshrines the rights of all people in our country’, South Africans or not. These rights should be advanced both through legal structures and people’s everyday conduct. Instead, we are witnessing the direct violation of our rights.


Fourthly, xenophobia entrenches racism. This is creating a new racial category, with its own stereotypes, its own racist names. It affirms the logic of racism that has continued to divide our society and create enmity and exclusion.

Finally, the civic leader in New Germany Road informal settlement who said that foreigners must go, because ‘their businesses are thriving and ours are not’ captured an important point. By implication, success is threatening and the successful must be punished. Leave us to be a nation of losers.

Migrants bring skills and initiative. Remove the migrants, and you remove elements of innovation that the economy and the society need. The civic leader thinks this ‘our businesses’ will thrive in the absence of migrants, not realising that businesses run without skill and hard work will fail, competition or not.

We have a lot to learn from foreigners who set up businesses with little capital and no government support. South Africans could be going into business with them, but this requires a climate of mutual trust that is currently being undermined.

One must tackle the justification of xenophobia based on the criminal behaviour of some migrants with contempt. We South Africans would be hugely offended if we were all judged internationally on the basis of the well-known criminal activities of some our compatriots. The same applies to foreigners: apprehend the criminals, support the law-abiding.

Those who demand the removal of ‘illegal’ foreigners should first insist that processes are followed to legalise the presence of those who are legitimately here.

Given these dangers, what needs to be done? One element is highlighting the experiences of South Africans in exile. I interviewed one who spoke of the remarkable hospitality he received in Zambia while in military training. Beyond hospitality, there were those foreigners who harboured South African exiles and died as a result.

Finally, we are witnessing a shocking failure of leadership. We need clear and unequivocal statements from leaders – political, civic, traditional – backed with systematic and impartial policing. It was heartening to hear the eThekwini Mayor’s representative on radio, spelling out the issues around foreigners – their rights, the difficulties they face – and to read of local and provincial leadership’s positive interventions. It was heartening to hear Mangosuthu Buthelezi denouncing the attacks, and reminding us of our role in the African Union. There has though been silence or worse from too many other leaders.

Crispin Hemson is Director of the International Centre of Nonviolence, Durban University of Technology.

ICON takes strong stance against xenophobia

Statement by the International Centre of Nonviolence

This is a response to the comments made by King Zwelithini about foreigners and the subsequent events.

Having listened to the actual recording of the speech, the International Centre of Nonviolence (ICON) expresses its appreciation to the media for the coverage of the speech and of the violence at Isipingo. It commends the work of the Mayor of the eThekwini Metro and of the MEC for their readiness to respond and bring assistance to those affected by violence.

We have a sense of shock at the comment that foreigners should pack their belongings and leave.  The statement was deeply hurtful to many. It has been followed by violent attacks on foreigners by people who claim to be following the lead of the King.

Many South Africans go to other countries for reasons of business, tourism or study, and benefit greatly from the hospitality they gain.  We believe that foreigners in South Africa should receive the same benefits on the basis of mutual respect.

We think in particular of the hospitality that was provided South Africans in their struggle against apartheid, and remember with gratitude and respect those foreigners who lost their lives as a result of the support they provided us.

Migrants have historically been a source of vigour and enthusiasm in the societies they enter.  Our society has benefitted from the contribution of many migrants.   In any country there will be a minority of migrants who abuse the hospitality of the host country, and should be dealt with according to the law, while authorities should work closely with migrant communities to ensure that migrants and local people live under conditions of security and peace.

Many migrants have set up businesses that offer South Africans excellent service. Those who are upset by the business success of foreigners should find ways of learning from them; both South Africans and foreigners need to comply fully with the framework of labour rights.

ICON appeals to the King to use his authority to speak clearly on the need for South Africans to protect the legitimate rights of foreigners, and to handle any conflicts in the spirit and practices of nonviolence.

“ To discuss whether I come from the north and you come from the south or east is, in the long run, academic. Quarrelling about the past is irrelevant. That we are all here is the main point. Let us try and evolve a way of life” – Chief Albert Luthuli.