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The South African Series

How South Africa’s Xenophobic Attacks Have Revealed Ghanaians Own Superior Attitudes

In a chorus there are many voices, and indeed there are millions of people speaking up both for and against the attacks on foreigners living in South Africa. There are numerous South Africans, frustrated youth primarily, who believe that all foreigners who have come to “steal” their jobs should leave the country immediately. Then there are those who recognize that the problem doesn’t lie with a foreign influx, but rather with the lack of education and opportunities that plague a large swathe of South African youth. In general, these disadvantages render them less desirable candidates for open positions from potential employers and have also failed to provide them with incentives (or knowledge) to begin businesses of their own. Education reform has been abysmally lacking in South Africa, and this is the great shame of the ruling ANC who instead of elevating education standards, recently lowered the threshold for student passing grades in order to artificially churn out more “qualified” graduates. How many of us want to be operated on by a doctor who only got a 30% passing grade in med school?

Of course in this chorus are those whose voices have been cut short, whose last utterances on this Earth were screams of anguish after having been burned by fire or hacked to death. While the images are real, and they are horrific, they are sadly nothing new. When I visited the township of Qolweni in 2011, I was introduced to a Ghanaian who had opened up a small hairdressing business in the township because there was none. Customers flocked, money rolled in, and jealousy blossomed. He showed me the stab wounds inflicted from angry young men who accused him of “stealing their jobs”. They burned down his shop and tried to kill him. Twice. He survived to tell the tale.

Mandela visits Ghana During the Rawlings regime.

Mandela visits Ghana During the Rawlings regime.

And then there are the sympathizers who see the madness in this all. We click our tongues and go on Google scavenger hunts to dig up long forgotten ideas and manifestos from African leaders now long dead, who gave blood, support, ammunition and funds to help South Africans in their fight to end Apartheid. How easily and quickly they’ve forgotten how it was other Ghanaians, Zimbabweans, etc that they kill today that helped them yesterday! In that refrain lies a more sinister group who have asked a question I’ve seen pop up in social media again and again. It chills me to my core.

“How would they like it if we did that to them?”

What an idea. So now we are to condemn the violence of others by proposing violence in return? What a singularly stupid idea! I have only heard this proposal from other Ghanaians, so I cannot say definitively that a Kenyan or a Somali has not said/thought the same. Right now, I can only speak for Ghana and hope to point out our own hypocrisy and minimal understanding of the South African plight.

South Africans – as we all know – experienced colonialism in a way that was unique from the rest of Africa. The English never came to South Africa with the intention of setting up permanent residence…but the Boers did. In a time when they were also escaping their own ethnic cleansing and religious persecution in Europe, South Africa represented their version of the “promised land”. They convinced themselves that the land belonged to them. To wrestle the land from the natives meant they had to employ the sort of subjugation tactics that we north of the Limpopo have never had to grapple with or imagine. While we dealt with the scourge of slavery – and even actively participated and profited from the sale of our brothers and sisters – native South Africans were massacred where they proved inconvenient, enslaved on their own land for convenience, and genetically modified to create a new caste system to further divide. They have never fully healed from that psychological and physical abuse. Coupled with an abysmal education where they have not been taught to see themselves as partners in a Pan African vision, it only makes sense that they would see another African thriving on their land as a throwback to an invasion. I’m not condoning their actions in the least. I pity these misguided souls who carry out these disgusting attacks. They are confused and crazed. But their confusion and insanity doesn’t make a Ghanaian better…and this is a sentiment I’ve seen frequently all over social media.

“At least a foreigner can come to Ghana and feel safe.”

“Our murder and crime rates are WAY lower in Ghana than in South Africa.”

“We in the rest of Africa are just BETTER HUMAN BEINGS than they are in South Africa.”

(These are actual quotes I’ve seen in Twitter. I’m not linking the accounts because I don’t want these guys trolled.)

Let’s first address the foreigner in Ghana. Foreigners feel “safe” in Ghana because we values foreign life far above our own. This plays out in many ways in everyday life. A foreigner will be served at a restaurant or entertainment attraction before a Ghanaian will. When my friends and I went to Fanta’s Folly in the Western Region, for example, the porters saw us approach with our luggage and let us walk to the front desk unaided. We were all Black women. An hour later when the boyfriend of one in our group met us there with only a backpack, two men leapt from their seats to help the scrawny white American man with his 10 lbs bag. We were shocked, but we shouldn’t have been. Look around Osu today for evidence of the same obsequious behavior and you will find it.

A Ghanaian would never dare attack a foreigner in Ghana because he knows (or thinks) that they foreigner is the key to his economic well-being. The foreigner brings jobs and investment. Just this morning, a user left a comment on Joy Online stating that “Ghanaians are good, and that is why the World Bank has come to help us!”

How can we compare our murder/crime rates to South Africans when we don’t even have the mechanisms to track those rates? Look at rape, for example. We can’t even decide as a nation what actions “qualify” as rape, let alone track it. Add to that, our crimes are horribly underreported in our country. Some tried to challenge me on this on Twitter. I asked him to name to official database that houses our crime statistics. He could not. Instead he hit back with “you think every crime in South Africa gets reported? SMH.” Of course not. But at least they have a baseline for projection and estimates. With our penchant for Fa ma Nyame (give it to God) and accepting GHC100 in recompense after a girl has been sexually assaulted by a neighbor or uncle, we can’t say with all honesty that we are “better” or “less violent” than the South African population. Instead, we are more diligent about concealing our lawlessness and offenses.

How then does that make us better human beings than our South African brothers and sisters? We’re better because we do our deeds in the dark, whereas they do theirs in broad daylight for the world to see? There is a reason that just 2 years ago, Ghana was West Africa’s golden boy, whereas today we are a pariah to our development partners. It’s because we are frauds, and our façade has crumbled. We have deluded ourselves and continue to think we can fool the world. We are not better. We are just as corrupt as the South African. Just as violent as the South African. Just as mentally enslaved as the South African. The only difference is that our chains rattle to a different tune.

My husband and I made friends with a Boer man named Henne in Plett a few years back. We had a potluck dinner and he regaled us with all sorts of tales. One of the stories he told me both fascinated and saddened me. It was about a movie he had watched, whose title has long escaped me.

It was about the Boer British War in 1899, where both sides committed horrific atrocities against each other. The war ended with British gaining administrative control over the Trasvaal, while provided several concessions to the Afrikaners.

“I tell you, I cried when I watched that film,” Henne said. “Two see those men fighting like that…ach! But at the end of the film, the two sides looked at each other and promised that no white man would ever fight each other like that again…and they never have since.”


Think about that.

As Henne tells it, to this day, English South Africans and Boers really don’t ‘like each other’, but they have learned to get along for the benefit of their common ambitions: to succeed in SA. What are we doing, people? What are we doing to ourselves? We have to unite as Africans, and these supercilious attitudes and false assumptions about our individual/national superiority is not going to foster that. We will continue to be defeated if we don’t extend our hands in cooperation right now.


This article has 5 comments

  1. Gyamstar

    Why cant we all just get along? Great piece and lots to ponder. We really need to stop dwelling on what divides us and think of what we have in common. At the end of the day we all bleed. Sad times we live in. May God help us bridge the gaps we have created.

  2. Akos

    “May God help us to bridge the gap” indeed. This is a great and insightful piece. A lot to ponder on and digest. I remember a Ghanaian proverb that says “when you see your neighbor’s beard on fire, you should have water next to you” I know the translation wasn’t great. And I will also quote Chinua Achebe “they put knife on the things that held us together”. We as Africans need a deep healing but we always seem to cover the past up and live in denial.

  3. Sam Kargbo

    The bravery shown by the author in her incisive interrogation of the issues of xenophobia and superiority complex should challenge us to respond to the tragedy in South Africa with circumspection. The horror of the genocide in South Africa should engage and propel psychologists, psychiatrists and sociologists to lend support to Governments on the continent by providing them with templates on how to make their citizens cope with economic challenges.

    • Malaka

      Thanks very much, Sam. Your comments are appreciated.

      I always give any new reader of my blog fair warning, however: Give it time. I will eventually say something that will offend you.

      Until then, thanks for dropping such a kind note!

  4. Nsoromma

    Hi Abena…I’ve been quietly lurking on your blog for a while (I hail from Adventures…). I knew if I did get pulled in I would go ON, so apologies for my post in advance…

    The South African situation is a sad state of affairs, as is the Ghanaian one. I find the contempt with which different countries and regions discuss each other in Africa to be ridiculous oftentimes. Ghana has so many deep-seated societal self-image issues that I don’t see how we ever feel ‘qualified’ enough to speak with such superiority. Ignoring a queue of Ghanafuo to serve a random obroni who just walked in is no better than hating all foreign ‘intruders’, which is my understanding of the South African problem. Both are mentalities caused by post-colonial hang-ups linked to poor education and poorer life chances. The difference is in the way it plays out…Ghanaian’s see foreigners as a source of wealth, but South African’s see them as a threat to wealth creation.

    And I think it’s frankly insensitive the way I have seen some Ghanaian’s react on social media. To a large degree the reason many other African’s see South Africa an a place of opportunity is that what they see as ‘opportunity’ only exists because of the legacy of negative experiences Black South Africans suffered at the hands of the Boers. I’m not in anyway condoning the violence but some cultural sensitivity wouldn’t go amiss from those discussing the situation.

    In response to the above comment, I don’t know that I think there is a template way that professionals can ‘make’ the citizen’s of SA respond in a different way. I’m not sure I even like that as a viewpoint, it’s still superior domination from ‘other’ to enforce conformity…which is the whole reason WHY they feel so angry and disenfranchised. How about the view that the Government are essentially to blame for allowing economic insecurity to become so entrenched in such a large community? How could we possibly trust the Government who has overseen it to this point to be able to calm their citizen’s down? This violence has been going on for a very long time, it is only recently gaining international traction and the Government has done nothing before it came to this.

    Also, pet peeve-it’s NOT genocide. It’s horrible and it has strong racial elements, but that doesn’t in and of itself make it genocide. Words have meaning. Genocide has a very specific meaning and this does not constitute genocide.

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