Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Who are "their own people" anyway?

You may be aware of the horrific things going on in South Africa at the moment.

For years, the South African unemployment rate has been sky high. Few of the local people believe the official figures and most believe the real figure to be at least 40%. For some time, Zimbabweans have been streaming in to South Africa, to the point that some sources say that there are more Zimbabweans outside Zimbabwe than inside (although the DFID gives a somewhat less extreme figure).

With violence, poverty and famine spreading across the rest of the continent, a growing tide of refugees is flooding in to South Africa from all over Africa, some from as far north as Somalia.

Forgetting that many of them are themselves the offspring of migrant workers from neighbouring countries, some South Africans have begun perpetrating the most astonishing crimes against immigrants. Some have taken to dragging refugees out into the streets and setting them alight.

As with many South Africans abroad, I increasingly find myself on the receiving end of a barrage of questions. As if I should have some insight into this sort of behaviour. I do not. But do people not realise the extent to which it betrays bigotry to ask (as far too many do), "How can they do this to their own people?"

In what way are these "their own people"? If there were to be an act of violence perpetrated by a gang of English thugs against a German family, or an American gang attacked a family of Canadians, would we ask how they can do this to "their own people"? I think not.

Simply because both perpetrator and victim happen to be black does not make them one another's "own people". In the western world, there seems to be this perception of Africa as a single nation. It is not. It is many nations, within which there are many, many tribes. These tribal bonds are often stronger than the national ones.

When discussing the British Empire's role in the slave trade, many people will mitigate the blame by pointing out that it started with Africans selling "their own people" into slavery. Once again, it was not "their own people" who were being traded, but the members of conquered tribes and nations.

I hate to sound as if I'm lecturing (perhaps I am), but the phrase "their own people" is not a million miles from "they all look alike to me".

I am not for a moment condoning or excusing this behaviour. Quite the reverse. But when deploring the violence, let's have an informed debate and not undermine our position by demonstrating bigoted ignorance.

I'll get off my soapbox now.

1 comment:

Dave Ferguson said...

i think many people when pressed become tribal (in an anecdotal sense); we're almost prewired to make categories, and one of the easiest is "us" versus "them."