Thursday, April 23, 2015

Xenophobia through the eyes of children of the inner city of Johannesburg

TRAUMA DEBRIEFING GROUP SESSION                                              21 APRIL 2015
ISSUE: XENOPHOBIA (Violence and Attacks)

The session was done with the inner-city children who come to our center (JPCCC) for boxing at the gym and the Life Skills programme on a weekly basis after school hours. As we know that Johannesburg city consists of many immigrants from different countries in Africa such as Zimbabwe, Angola, Botswana, DRC, Mozambique, Malawi, Nigeria, etc. who come to South Africa to find a better life. The inner-city population is diverse and multicultural including people from various places or provinces across South Africa to also find a better life. It is a place where everyone comes from their homes of origin, the city of gold, to dwell in the inner city to find jobs and make a living. Some people decide to work while others decide to start businesses, create jobs and feed many by providing for their families. The inner-city children are enrolled in many different schools in the city which are diverse, multicultural and multilingual.

These children walk to school together, play with one another and live in the same neighborhood. This is just a background to have an understanding of where these children come from. The issue was noted in the gym during their training session as the older boys spoke about Xenophobia and appeared to be affected by the xenophobic violence and attacks taking place in the inner-city.

In the session we had with the children, we first asked them their understanding of the concept Xenophobia. Some of the responses which were stated are the following: “Extreme hatred of foreign nationals; unreasonable dislike of people from other countries; people killing others to get out of their country”. This process was very intense and uncomfortable.
There’s a myth about the Zulu men killing people and burning foreign nationals by putting petrol, bombs and lighters. Another myth which emerged throughout the session is Nigerians sending Boko Haram soldiers to South Africa to kill all South Africans and bomb the country. This indicates the fear of the consequences of xenophobic attacks and violence. These children also expressed fear of what could happen next, they appeared to be concerned about what will happen next.

The group consisted of both local and immigrant children and it was overwhelming as a facilitator to be caught into the situation. Many immigrant children expressed anger, pain and fear for their own lives and the lives of their family and friends. They expressed their anger by stating how xenophobic violence and attacks are affecting businesses, the country’s reputation and the economy. Laziness and crime was stated as a cause of xenophobia according to some of the children. They expressed that people who come to South Africa work very hard and create jobs for many people and Zulu men think they are stealing their jobs, but in reality they are actually lazy. One of the boys stated that: “I blame the Zulus and I feel bad because they are taking advantage of the situation, thugs too to get some money because they are lazy to do any job’. Another important theme which stood out was that these children’s school teachers are trying to campaign against xenophobia and encouraging all the children in the school to be against it and stop it. Even though the children felt that it was not enough. 

Reflections on the hidden face of Xenophobia and effects on women and children of the inner city of Johannesburg

Reflections of the Hidden Face of Xenophobia
1.       In my view xenophobia presents itself in many ways- only one of which usually draws the attention of the media and of state officials. This is the overt violence and looting which we have seen over the past two weeks, resulting in serious injury and death, and making headlines all over the world, which then galvanizes some level of action on the part of the governmental and non-governmental sector.

2.       The hidden face of xenophobia, on the other hand, shows itself mainly to women and children in

·         The intimacy of their living spaces- perpetrated mainly in the forms of ongoing threats by SA neighbours and co-tenants
·         In schools- perpetrated both teachers and learners, but also more subtly in the adoption of (illegal) exclusionary practices
·         In health care facilities in which medical and clerical staff refuse to treat foreigners, often openly utter xenophobic threats, and/or make access to health care impossible by (illegally) charging huge amounts of money
·         The social media through which un-confirmed rumours and threats are spread like wildfire, seemingly planned and intended to frighten foreign nationals into either complete resignation and paralysis or a determination to leave- in effect, this is “murder by whatsapp”.
·         The harassment of women informal traders by both the metro police and SA customers

3.       Women and children are particularly vulnerable to this hidden face of xenophobia because they have already been multiply traumatized by violence in their home countries as well as in South Africa. The exposure to repeated and/or ongoing trauma has a cumulative effect on cognitive functioning and when subjected to threats (even if these are never carried out) a cognitive and emotional paralysis sets in which then makes it impossible for victims to rationally assess threats and explore reasonable ways of protecting themselves. We see this especially in women and children who were victims of the 2008 xenophobic violence.  When confronted with the current violence and threats these mothers and their children lose all sense of agency, and feel that they have no option but to wait for death by gunshot, fire or knife.

4.       Most of the families we work with in the inner city are headed by single mothers whose only source of income is some kind of informal trading, mainly in the CBD. The xenophobic violence and the continuing threats of further violence result in women not feeling safe to continue trading and thereby losing the only source of income that secures the roof over the head- a roof which already shelters far too many people who cannot afford the rent for accommodation that provides them with at least a measure of dignity and protection. We expect that by the end of this month many more families will be homeless and very hungry as a direct result of xenophobic violence and threats.

5.       Xenophobic attitudes, threats and exclusionary practices in schools and health care facilities in effect remove the only (constitutionally mandated) spaces in which women and children can expect safety, protection and care. This means that women don’t get treated for manageable conditions such as diabetes for hypertension and that children’s progress at school is severely jeopardized. We have seen children being orphaned by conditions which could easily have been managed, and our high school learners tell us that if they miss an exam because of the violence on the streets in their homes, they are simply failed.

6.       These are just some of the effects of the hidden face of xenophobia. Each one of them obviously has serious long-term implications for the physical and emotional well-being of women and children in all spheres of life, and therefore the progress and well-being of our country, our continent and our world.

7.       We therefore appeal to all South Africans who are genuinely committed to social justice and the fight against xenophobia to look the hidden face of xenophobia straight into the eye, and to declare with their actions- here, too, in these intimate spaces of home, school, pavement trading, and health care, we shall uproot you, never to show yourself again.

Johanna Kistner

23 April 2015