With Attacks on Foreigners, South Africa Exposes Its Anti-Africa Bias

Some call it Afrophobia—the denial of African heritage and history by black South Africans that has led to violence. Now there’s a growing opposition by a new generation that is embracing its African identity.

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Students in Cape Town, South Africa, cheer after the statue of British colonialist Cecil Rhodes is removed from the University of Cape Town April 9, 2015. The statue was removed as a result of a monthlong protest by students saying the statue glorified someone “who exploited black labor and stole land from indigenous people.”  

Charlie Shoemaker/Getty Images

South Africa is struggling with the diplomatic and economic fallout from a recent episode of xenophobic violence that saw seven foreigners killed, scores wounded and thousands of people displaced.

Several African governments have sharply criticized South Africa’s tardy response and sent buses and planes to repatriate their citizens. Some threatened to retaliate against South African businesses operating in their countries. Nigeria recalled its ambassador, and a human rights group in Lagos filed a complaint with the International Criminal Court in the Hague against Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini, whom many blame for sparking the recent violence in a recent speech telling foreigners to pack up and go home.

The African National Congress ruling party responded first by deploying troops and police in the black townships to arrest perpetrators of the violence; and more recently it has been using the soldiers in a crackdown to deport undocumented immigrants.

The government has resisted the term “xenophobia” and blames the violence on poverty and economic competition with foreign-owned businesses. This was also its reaction in 2008 to violence against foreigners that left 67 people dead and displaced tens of thousands of migrants, amid mass looting and destruction of foreign-owned homes, property and businesses across the country.

However, critics of the government response point to deeper historical reasons as the cause of what they believe is “Afrophobic” sentiments among black South Africans, rather than “xenophobic.”

“You don’t see Australians and Brits being hunted in the streets,” one local commentator noted.

Newly arrived African Americans to South Africa are often amused to find many black South Africans ask, “Have you to been to Africa?” Centuries of colonialism and apartheid have persuaded many black South Africans that Africa is someplace else, and Africans are somebody else.

It’s what they were taught.

Under apartheid, history teachers had two choices: the version of the Afrikaners—the descendants of German, Dutch and French Huguenots—or history as written by the descendants of British settlers. In both accounts, Africans, when mentioned at all, were treated as if they didn’t exist at all before being conquered and subjugated by whites.

This history as taught in South African schools and universities is little changed because of the continuing tremendous resistance of the white academic establishment—in South Africa and internationally.

When Mongane Wally Serote was helping to establish the Freedom Park, a national monument that is the government’s leading attempt at cultural and historical redress, he said in an interview that he was surprised to find “strong opposition” from some of the leading white American and European international academics.

“They feel threatened by it. For many of them, the very phrase ‘African history,’ or ‘African historian,’ is a contradiction in terms,” he suggested. “Their view of the African role in history is as cargo. But we can’t go on being told that architecture was founded in the West and that we were living in trees and didn’t design any shelter. We can’t be told that we made no substantial contributions to science, medicine and the arts. We have to liberate ourselves from this thinking. The same kind of leading intellectuals and philosophers who distorted our history in the past are the very ones who are objecting to an African voice today.”

The South African government has failed to transform an education system that remains firmly Eurocentric, which might explain why South Africa may be in urgent need of a Black History Month.