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What's left of Nelson Mandela's gratitude to Africa?

Benita van Eyssen | Thuso Khumalo
February 11, 2020

Nelson Mandela's release from prison was due in part to the combined support of African countries. The recurring violence in South Africa today makes one wonder how their role in ending apartheid could be forgotten.

Residents walks past murals of late South African former president Nelson Mandela in Soweto, near Johannesburg
Image: Getty Images/AFP/C. de Souza

When he walked out of Victor Verster Prison outside Cape Town, Mandela had served 27 years out of the life sentence the apartheid regime imposed on him for conspiring to overthrow it.

The lawyer and anti-apartheid activist went on to become South Africa's first black leader in 1994 and a world icon. "Never! Never! And never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another," Mandela told the world.

On February 2 1990, South Africa's then-president Frederik Willem de Klerk gave a speech that shocked and angered the white ruling minority and triggered a wave of excitement among the millions who had been denied their rights. "I wish to put it plainly that the government has taken a firm decision to release Mr. Mandela unconditionally," de Klerk told parliament.

That decision put the country with a decades-old record of violent oppression and resistance on a new trajectory. Bans were lifted on liberation movements, including the dominant African National Congress (ANC). Political exiles began making their way home from around the world. Many arrived from places such as Tanzania, Zambia, Angola, Nigeria, Ethiopia, the then-Zaire and Burundi.

Many ordinary citizens of those countries soon followed. South Africa was on a path to equality, multi-racialism and peace and Africans  wanted to share in the euphoria and opportunity. A pan-Africanist would be president and opportunities would abound.

Read more: South Africa: From the ashes of apartheid

Mandela thanked Africa

Within months of being freed, Mandela began his a six-week world tour in Africa. He thanked the people of Zambia, Botswana, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia for their help. These were the countries that had been a source of refuge, support and solidarity to activists from the ANC and other South African liberation movements at the height of apartheid. Tanzania and Zambia hosted ANC training bases. Botswana and Mozambique were transit points for liberation fighters fleeing or secretly re-entering South Africa.

Nigerian civil servants had paid a so-called "Mandela tax" to support the ANC in fighting the system. In pre-independence Zimbabwe, freedom fighters from the Zimbabwe People's Revolutionary Army and the ANC had a joint command and fought side-by-side against soldiers from the apartheid regime.

Nelson Mandela and Winnie Mandela give black power salutes as they enter Soccer City stadium in the Soweto township of Johannesburg, South Africa
Nelson Mandela's release from prison and subsequent election as South Africa's first black leader prompted waves of euphoria across AfricaImage: picture alliance/AP Photo/U. Weitz

In April 1994, Mandela was elected as South Africa's first black leader. He made one thing clear.

"Never! Never! And never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another."

ANC veteran Pallo Jordan was one of the hundreds of activists who were living in exile in Zimbabwe when word of Mandela's release spread in 1990. He recalled in a DW interview how the excitement sparked by de Klerk's largely unexpected announcement reached him.

"They hung the telephone that they were using out the window in Johannesburg, saying listen to the people in the street," he said. "And there was this ululation and cheering in the streets, so we knew the reception of the people inside the country was quite exceptional."

Read more: Xenophobia has 'no place' in Africa

Danger in a promised land

In the immediate afterglow of apartheid, South Africa became a promised land of sorts to people from the rest of Africa. The country had averted major bloodshed, its economy was in top form and opportunities seemed abundant to people from conflict-torn or poorly developed countries such as Nigeria, Burundi or the former Zaire. Even those living rough and without documentation in an inner-city slum remained hopeful amid the euphoria of a nation that had won a hard fought freedom.

Victims of xenophobia in South Africa in a transit centre in Boane, Mozambique
Hundreds of Mozambican citizens were repatriated in 2019 following ongoing xenophobic violenceImage: DW/L. Casimiro Matias

But the cracks began showing in the 1990s, as many South Africans distanced themselves from the Nigerians, Mozambicans, Zimbabweans or Congolese living among them. Derogatory statements about "illegal aliens" from elsewhere in Africa, horrid name-calling and stereotypes went largely unreported and unchallenged. In the late 1990s Africans were being actively targeted and sometimes killed, but authorities turned a blind eye. The killing of more than 60 African migrants by mobs in May 2008 made international headlines. The public debate swirled around whether jobs, business or education opportunities should go to apartheid victims in need of redress or to foreigners.

Violent bouts of xenophobia involving mobs armed with rudimentary weapons have since become common in many parts of South Africa. Locals insist that fellow Africans steal their jobs and disrupt society, pushing for them to be sent packing. The argument that Somali shopkeepers and Ethiopian traders are often employers in a country where jobs are scarce is rarely well received.

Read more: Nigeria's President Buhari visits South Africa amid tensions over xenophobia

Denial and word play

Ruling ANC politicians regularly deny that such sentiments or attacks are xenophobic in nature. In the wake of the most recent spate of attacks in September 2019, which largely targeted businesses owned by African migrants, top government officials continue to speak only of "criminality."

President Cyril Ramaphosa strongly condemned the violence that month, but avoided words such as "xenophobia" or "Afrophobia." 

"As much as they have certain grievances, I have said that taking action against people from other nations should never be allowed," Ramaphosa told business leaders at the World Economic Forum in Cape Town. "[South Africa] is a home for all."

Nigeria and Zambia are among the countries pressing Ramaphosa to intervene to ensure the safety of their citizens. Hundreds of Nigerians were airlifted home late last year, many more Zambians, Mozambicans and Zimbabweans exited the country, and other migrants are still holed up in shelters.

A demonstrator holds a banner through in Johannesburg on April 23, 2015 during a march gathering several thousands of people to protest against the recent wave of xenophobic attacks in South Africa.
While ANC politicians continue to deny the rise of xenophobic attacks in South Africa, Africans living in the country are growing increasingly fearfulImage: Getty Images/G.Guercia

But Africans living in South Africa, human rights watchdogs and social activists all agree — South Africa still needs to face up to its problem with xenophobia.

"What we are saying is that even if it's 10 people who are attacking and the target is a specific group of people who are not nationals, then it should be viewed as xenophobia and action should be taken and emphasis should be on how to protect individuals and to ensure that there is non-recurrence," said Dewa Mavhinga, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Maman Salissou Oumarou, who is from Niger, recalls growing up with the knowledge of apartheid, which led he and his peers to get involved in the freedom movement. "[At school], our teacher told us what was going on in South Africa and later we started to protest for the liberation of Nelson Mandela and to abolish apartheid," he told DW. 

He views current attitudes in South Africa towards foreigners as a betrayal of-sorts. "Now when I see the xenophobia in South Africa, it's like a big deception," he says. When Mandela was free we felt [like we were] part of the fight. And now to see what is going on in the same country is really a deception."

Read more: South Africa struggles to combat its problems with violence

Return the favour

Zengeziwe Msimang, the daughter of Oliver Tambo — a contemporary of Mandela and former ANC president -— was born in exile in Zambia. She remembers the cross border raids by the army of the apartheid regime and the economic sanctions Zambia endured for steadfastly harboring South Africa's freedom fighters.

When the apartheid regime wanted her father dead at all costs, Zambia's president at the time, Kenneth Kaunda, permitted him to live in the state house. Msimang also recalls how Zambians rushed to volunteer as blood donors for the South Africans injured in the cross border raids. Zambians are today among those targeted in attacks in a country that they helped to free, she told DW. "It's heartbreaking because these are people who sacrificed life and limb for us," she said. "And people don't know. We have not taught them what the frontline states meant and what they did, which is soul destroying, because we are literally turning against those who sacrificed so much so that we could be free."

One far-left opposition politician has used every opportunity to remind South Africans that it is time to return the apartheid-era favor to the rest of Africa. "There is no Mozambique here! There is no Swaziland here! There is no Lesotho here! There is no Botswana here, Zambia or Namibia! There is no Zimbabwe. There is Africa, the continent of our ancestors," said Julius Malema, leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters.

Many of the country's African migrants welcome his views that it may be time to remove the borders that separate Africans, stop the hate and live in peace.

South Africa's struggle against Xenophobia

Benita van Eyssen is a digital content planner, producer and editor@benita_v_eyssen
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