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There was a flashpoint of violence against African immigrants in South Africa over two weeks in May 2008. At 135 locations, the violence resulted in 62 deaths, 670 injuries, dozens raped, more than 100,000 displaced and hundreds of thousands of dollars in looting and damage. One-third of the victims were South African nationals.

Many scholars, politicians and humanitarian organizations have written on what came to be called “xenophobic violence.”

A recent report from the Forced Migration Studies Programme (FMSP), an interdisciplinary Africa-based center for research and teaching, sheds new light on the violence.

“May 2008 Violence Against Foreign Nationals in South Africa: Understanding Causes and Evaluating Responses” is the title of the report. It found that most of the proclaimed causes of the violence – economic inequality, poor access to sanitation, healthcare and housing, rising food costs, high unemployment, public acceptance of violence – were necessary but not sufficient for indicating where violence had taken place.

Many of the townships with the most dire conditions and highest unemployment did not see the violence that neighboring townships did.

The primary indicator of violence or nonviolence was the local leadership.

Two Johannesburg townships – Setswetla and Madelakufa – did not experience this violence.

These communities are composed of many diverse groups of immigrants – living side by side.

Community leaders were afraid that if neighboring agitators came to attack the “foreigners,” which they wanted to do, that South Africans would be beaten and killed in the mix.

As one South African respondent living in Madelakufa explained to FMSP interviewers, “If they burn one shack, the whole place catches fire.”

It’s true: Many fires, once lit, rage out of control.

As an American and a Christian, living and studying in Johannesburg at the University of Witwatersrand (Wits), I pay close attention to how my nationality and my faith are being represented and talked about here.

One of the recurring stories on the local news the past few weeks has been the story of the Florida pastor who planned to burn Qurans on Sept. 11.

As the conversation about Islam, America and the world continues to evolve, South Africa has valuable lessons to contribute to the conversation.

Think of the pivotal role of Muslims in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa or the Muslim Students Association at Wits that holds a food drive in the center of campus every year the week before Ramadan, with students of all faiths and none, from around the world, participating.

This project was started in 2004 and in past years has collected almost $150,000 and 150 tons of food and supplies for shelters.

South Africa also has challenging lessons, like images from the “xenophobic attacks” mirroring those from apartheid, of mobs who place a burning tire around someone’s neck as a public, political execution, sending a message to all that “X” will not be tolerated.

The world is not short of burning effigies, even sacred or living ones.

The truth of America is the truth of Madelakufa. We, too, live close together. We go to school, share meals, play on sports teams, study, debate life’s meaning and serve together.

The danger of burning a sacred book, here in South Africa or at home in the United States, is that we live too close together to prevent the fire from spreading.

The May 2008 attacks in South Africa were perpetrated by many who wanted a scapegoat for their frustration, to legitimate their power as leaders or to minimize the business competition. All this, masked in the name of nationalism and anti-foreigner sentiment.

If you rub two sticks together long enough, you get a spark, and someone is always standing by with a fan for the flame.

One last word about leadership.

Leadership was the difference between violence and no violence in many of South Africa’s townships in May 2008. Where the official political leadership had no sway, it was the locally elected or self-appointed leadership and block leaders that were either directly or indirectly supportive of the violence against foreigners or prohibited the violence in their community.

As an American Baptist, I am proud of Roy Medley, our general secretary, for his contribution to the Sept. 7 interfaith summit hosted by the Islamic Society of North America. He stood in solidarity for religious freedom and an ethic of Christian love.

There is power in leadership, albeit fragile and temporal. Whether claiming to represent one’s people or one’s God, we have a choice around what we will use to galvanize our community. We must remember: It only takes a spark.

Becca Hartman is a master of arts student in the Forced Migration Studies Programme at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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