By Letepe Maisela
Much has been said about the scale of xenophobia that has engulfed our country. What perhaps needs to be said by those of us who spent time in exile in the service of our struggle is that we can never forget the hospitality and warmth of our hosts in many African countries.
Those of us who spent time in Angola will remain indebted to the people of Angola. Who can forget the 1970s, when Angola was under attack and being destabilised by apartheid South Africa and imperialist nations? At a time when Angola was being bombed to smithereens, President Agostinho Neto and other Angolan liberation party MPLA leaders declared the country the “firm trench of the South African revolution”. At the time, Angola was suffering near-famine.
During the mid-1970s, there was hardly any food in Angola. Shops and supermarkets were nonexistent. Shortages were the order of the day and money had no real value.
We South Africans were in a better position. Thanks to the solidarity of donor countries and the socialist bloc, we could eat, smoke and were clothed. We bartered our surplus with the locals for beer or potent Portuguese spirits. Those who fell ill went to the military hospital in Luanda. The ordinary Angolan did not enjoy such luxuries.
Despite all our benefits, the Angolans never displayed any anger, frustration or hatred towards us. They embraced us as brothers and sisters. Angola was our home. We enjoyed the protection of its security services and our residences were donated to the ANC by the people and government of Angola. When Neto died in 1979, we also wiped away our tears.
Those of us who stayed in Zambia enjoyed the same hospitality. In Zambia, some of our comrades married and lived peacefully in the suburbs and townships of Lusaka, Livingstone and other towns. The ANC conducted most of its administrative activities from Zambia and the Zambian government ensured the ANC was comfortable.
Zambia was a warm and friendly country and Kenneth Kaunda made sure we were well looked after and safe. Even with raging inflation that caused the price of goods and services to escalate, the friendship did not diminish.
Those who stayed in Mozambique can tell the same story of warmth, hospitality and security. Wherever we went, we saw and experienced that friendship and solidarity. Samora Machel ensured that his people understood our presence and welcomed us as brothers and sisters.
Even with the shortages they experienced, the locals watching trucks delivering food and other necessities to our residences displayed no resentment towards us. People were friendly and, again, we bartered our surplus.
When Mozambican migrant labourers returned home from South Africa, it was a celebration not only for the families involved, but for us too.
They readily shared the bread and other necessities that were offloaded, and we would relish eating bread from “home”. So, in 1986, when Machel was killed, we also shed a tear because he was our revered leader.
Tanzania became our home for many years. The government even offered us a place to build a school for young people leaving South Africa. We were given land for military training facilities. Many of us came to regard it as our home.
The same applies to Lesotho, the hospitality of its people and the support and hospitality from the government in Swaziland. Botswana also played a central role against the apartheid regime.
When Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) soldiers had to leave Angola to facilitate the peace process in Namibia, Uganda received our fighters with open arms. President Yoweri Museveni was personally involved in ensuring that our organisation was comfortable and warmly welcomed in his country.
The front-line states, Southern African Development Community, Organisation of African Unity and its liberation committee assisted the struggle and constituted a united front against apartheid and other colonial regimes in Africa.
Several of our leaders and cadres were issued with passports by other countries.
South Africans were offered comfort by the very people they now spit on and kill.
Perhaps this story is not told well enough for our people to understand. African solidarity contributed immensely to the freedom that is now being defaced by dastardly actions.
The ANC, as the principal beneficiary of international solidarity and African support, needs to teach our people how we benefited from Africa. Some of us have written books about our service in MK. These could be used in various forums to educate our cadres, young and old. Perhaps if that were done, we could have saved ourselves this wanton destruction.
Ngculu is former chairperson of the ANC in the
Western Cape and an author
South Africans must not just accept the xenophobic or Afrophobic label pinned on them by Africa and the world. They don’t understand what is really happening in our country.
In the midst of these xenophobic accusations, South Africa has more foreigners and refugees from the continent than anywhere else. Though it was disturbing to see African foreigners being persecuted by fellow Africans in recent weeks, I still believe South Africa is doing enough for Africa.
I’m grappling with the notion that we owe our liberation mainly to African countries that supported our exiled leadership during the struggle. This is what motivates the demands from some African countries, who believe we must be forever indebted to them. What I know and remember is it was not only Africa, but the world, that helped our cause.
Without sounding ungrateful, one can acknowledge the help and sacrifices of countries such as Mozambique, Lesotho, Zambia, Swaziland, Tanzania and Angola, who supported our cause materially and morally. But the armed struggle they supported played a small role. The apartheid military machine was just too strong.
What is being airbrushed out of South African history are the contributions of those inside the country. What really turned the corner was the mobilisation by the internal mass movement led by the United Democratic Front, the black consciousness movement and others, who solicited world support to isolate South Africa, leading to, among other things, sanctions and sports boycotts.
These weakened the government and made apartheid ungovernable and unsustainable. The anti-apartheid movement abroad pricked the world’s conscience and Soweto 1976 ignited the eventual implosion of the regime.
At this moment, more than 6 million African migrants are in the country, enjoying our hospitality. They include people from countries that did not help during apartheid. Some of them, like Malawi, continued to sup with Pretoria at the height of our suffering. This can also be said of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Today, they have also tendered their letters of demand.
Anchored in democratic ideals and ubuntu, we acknowledged our debt to the citizens of Africa. Border fences were brought down and immigration controls relaxed. A call was made to Africa to join us and enjoy our newly acquired spoils.
So, we are not a xenophobic country. We employ thousands of African migrants in senior corporate and public sector positions. No similar situation exists elsewhere on the continent. Top South African corporations such as MTN, MultiChoice, Old Mutual and Vodacom are headed by black Africans who are not indigenous South Africans. Our hospitals are full of expatriate Africans who work as doctors and specialists. Tertiary institutions are bursting at the seams with migrant African academics. Others are plying their trade as soccer players in the Premier Soccer League. All of them continue their business without any pressure.
Most menial jobs in hospitality, security, domestic service, gardening and car guarding seem to be reserved for African migrants. Locals who once performed these jobs are now the ones we pass on street corners daily. Some industries no longer employ locals, hence our 36% unemployment. This is because they are not prepared to pay them a living wage.
Industry during apartheid enjoyed abundant cheap labour. The new democratic government forbade this. But the arrival of African immigrants in droves was like manna from heaven to counter this. Industries resumed their slave wages under the watch of a democratic government.
Migrants definitely come cheaper than locals, who are unionised and toyi-toyi at the drop of a vuvuzela. Today, black South Africans are dismissed as “lazy”, even though it was their cheap labour that built our infrastructure.
As South Africans, we share the collective guilt of what has happened to fellow African migrants. But we should have protected the most vulnerable from our communities.
Preferential hiring of people in unskilled labour categories over migrants should have been the norm. That is the main cause that led to recent violent protests.
South Africans now find themselves competing for menial jobs and scarce resources, such as housing and healthcare, with African migrants they feel should not be here in the first place. Empathy with them is required more than pious condemnation. If we fail to listen to their plight as a nation, we might eventually become the next targets of their wrath. Revolutions are made of such stuff.
Maisela is a management consultant and author of the novel The Empowered Native and children’s story book Thabo, the Computer and the Mouse.