In recent weeks my mind has been much occupied by the question of human migration and its causes. From the borders of Ukraine to the streets of Diepsloot in South Africa, from the lands of South Sudan to the western parts of Myanmar, millions of displaced people search for hope and a place where they can belong. A recently published report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) asserts that almost 80 million people around the world have been forced from their homes, with about 26 million of them having refugee status. Here in South Africa, of course, we accommodate millions of migrants, and the country has the highest number of unresolved asylum cases in the world.
On 23 March the Nelson Mandela Foundation hosted the launch of a new song for refugees titled Homeland. Not surprisingly, the invasion of Ukraine by Russia loomed large in the conversation so adeptly facilitated by Iman Rapetti, as did the challenges of what are called xenophobia and Afrophobia here in South Africa. Underpinning the dialogue were often very different understandings of belonging, sovereignty, the nature of boundaries between nation states, the ethics of hospitality. In 2022, for instance, what do we make of the Freedom Charter’s assertion that South Africa belongs to all who live in it?
What is happening in Ukraine has been instructive at so many levels. We condemned the invasion and called for the war to be stopped. But we have also condemned a dominant global discourse which uses double standards to sanction certain invasions and certain interventions designed to protect spheres of influence. And we have condemned the ways in which countries of the global north have welcomed Ukrainian refugees with open arms after decades of resisting migrations from Africa, Syria and other parts of the world which are home to Black populations and to people of colour. White lives are valued in ways that others are not.
No surprise that we see this manifestation of white supremacy playing out in South Africa as well. White immigrants continue to be welcomed into our country and made to feel at home. Operation Dudula isn’t about to mount an intervention to check their permits and other paper work. Those who are at risk are Black populations and people of colour, especially those who have migrated from other countries on the African continent. Not only can this not be right; it is also a sad manifestation of apartheid and related logics.
Long histories – from before European colonisation – and shorter histories – apartheid and early democracy – are invoked to determine who belongs and who does not. South African identities are mobilised, notions of indigineity weaponised, and law enforcement agencies stirred from their inertia, to support going out and identifying those who do not belong and must therefore be removed. In the rhetoric of Operation Dudula, it is not those in uniforms – self-styled or official – who are the invaders of residential areas. Instead, it is certain categories of non-national who are invading South Africa.
Whether we are talking about Ukraine or about crises in South Africa, when the rule of law is cast aside and strategies of violence adopted, the biggest losers are always communities of the weak and the vulnerable. A young man singled out in Diepsloot this week as not belonging, hunted down and murdered in the most gruesome fashion, becomes emblematic. It is imperative that channels for peacemaking, negotiation and dialogue always be kept open. Here in South Africa, the Nelson Mandela Foundation will be reaching out to both the Minister of Police and the leaders of Operation Dudula to explore ways of finding just and sustainable solutions to the intractable problems confronting us