An open letter to “My Fellow South Africans”: JE SUIS KWEREKWERE - Danai Pachedu

Thus far, President Cyril Ramaphosa has done a fantastic job at dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic having pledged billions to economic and social relief efforts. He has increased the child support grant by R500 and all other grants by R250. The president has even gone as far as to introduce a new social grant for people who were not receiving any type of social grant that have become victims to COVID-19 through lockdown measures.

Regrettably, however, the President’s efforts have only been extended to his “fellow South Africans”. In his addresses, he has outlined how the government is providing support primarily through social grants and food parcels- measures that many immigrants (both legal and illegal), refuges and asylum seekers are unable to access. Simply put, the government has left at the very least 500 000 people impoverished. 500 000 lives unaccounted for, wondering how they will continue to put food on the table and a roof over their heads. Illegal immigrants were already one of the most, if not the most vulnerable groups in our society… the pandemic exacerbated this factor. During this pandemic, South Africans have shown enormous amounts of generosity and compassion for those who are less fortunate- they have personified the true meaning of Ubuntu. Unfortunately, this generosity has not been extended to the thousands of refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants who call our country their home despite their status. So, is Ubuntu an ideal that we believe ought be shared with all people regardless of their origin, or is it a term we use to assert that South Africa is past it’s days of inequality to say that we are equal while we accept that equality is only granted to our, ‘’fellow South Africans?”

Have we forgotten the car guards that treat us with absolute respect and help us with our groceries every time we go shopping? What about that waitress who smiles at you politely behind her frustration even when you are less than polite? The gentlemen who cuts your trees and does your gardening? The lady that does your hair and nails so beautifully? Are you thinking of the men that helped you paint and build your house or about the man who sells fruits at the market? Have we forgotten them because their passports do not say, ‘’South Africa,” under, ‘’Place of Birth”? Like most individuals, these people have families, they have innocent children that depend on them- children who probably consider themselves South Africans, yet find themselves excluded during this pandemic. Are we willing to turn our backs on these communities at their darkest hour?

The reason people (specifically the Africans who fall victim to xenophobia in this country) immigrate to South Africa is because they are running from situations far worse in their home countries than the degradation and inequality they face in South Africa. They are pressured into leaving their homes because they fear war, starvation, prejudice and economic exclusion, they only seek to survive and feed their families. These are people that come to seek an honest living- this is why only 7.5% of people in South African prisons are foreigners. They contribute significant amounts of employment and revenue to our economy as 52% of the immigrant population is likely to start their own businesses which in turn increase employment opportunities for locals.

While more than 500 000 have been left stranded and desperate, you have at your disposal R500 billion. In a Spar near one of the epicentres of the virus, Houghton, “My Fellow South Africans”, complain about how they wish the government would allow the sale of alcohol, because for them, this would make lockdown bearable. I listen to people complain about how their only concern is that they can no longer walk their dogs as they fill their trollies with luxuries. They stand in neat queues, calm as ever, while the staff of the store hand out free water and sanitise people’s hands as they enter the shop. They are calm because they know that they’ll be able to survive the lockdown, even if their job security has been threatened by recent events, they have a contingency plan. The privilege of being a South African citizen entitles them to social grants and food parcels- and that, is in their worst case scenario.

A visit to Yeoville, a community consisting of mainly foreign nationals reveals the huge contrast between the two communities, although they are separated by only a single avenue. In Yeoville, there is no social distancing in the queues for the shops, people stand only centimetres apart. You can see the desperation on their faces- the uncertainty. Their faces are heavy with concern and the hustle and bustle of Rocky Street is long gone. I see people leaving the grocery stores, mostly with not much other than maize meal and vegetables. Scores of homeless people remain on the streets, although the government promised all homeless people would be put into shelters. Fights break out on the pavements, and it seems many have left their homes for everything but to access essential services. The lack of personal protective equipment in use makes me think that to live in Yeoville during a pandemic can only be described as involuntary suicide. I wonder, “where are the 70 000 extra soldiers Mr. Ramaphosa has deployed?” We drive a distance of at least 10km through foreign communities and not a single law enforcement officer is in sight. Perhaps this is South Africa’s way of getting rid of the foreign nationals they detest so much. To let them perish, whether it be from hunger or from disease. We have, however, forgotten one thing: if there is an outbreak in Yeoville or any other foreign community for that matter, it will inevitably spread to other, non-foreign communities.

In suburbia, it is evident that the African immigrants who work in our restaurants, homes and hair salons are suddenly painfully absent from the shops and streets. I see the desperation in the faces of those who have been brave enough to defy the lockdown and continue trading goods like fruits and vegetables informally or guarding cars as I greet them on my way back home. My heart is broken as I realise that my street which is usually filled with immigrants trying to make a living can now only be described as a ghost town. I have known and lived amongst these people for my 16 years and now I wonder how they are surviving and to make matters worse, no one seems to care. I turn on the TV and the radio and search the internet hoping to hear something about the foreign nationals whose lives have once again been rendered invalid, but unsurprisingly, there is no news on them and how this crisis has impacted their lives. It seems to me, that in South Africa, the life of a foreigner, is no more than a number in a refugee or repatriation camp

Mr. President, as someone who was raised in South Africa, I have led my life with one guiding principle that “umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu,” knowing that I am what I am because of others. When I think of others, I include all human beings in my definition, regardless of their race, gender, nationality and class. This definition is guided by the principles in our constitution. I must ask you, first as a human being, then as an African, whether this is the correct time to look at the legitimacy of those in our country by setting out policies that leave clear and uncomfortable distinctions between those who are legal in our country and those who are not. Policies that are alienating people when they need a home and security, now more than ever. Were you simply waiting for the opportunity to abandon South African values and assert that the lives of South Africans during this pandemic, are the only ones that ought to be considered important? Now is not the time to act based on borders that were drawn by the same people who oppressed us. How then, do you distinguish these actions from the actions of those who captured the African continent while using the very same methods they used of economic exclusion and alienation through claiming that as people who had no legal binding to the land our lives were worth nothing? What example does this set for your “Fellow South Africans,” many of whom look desperately for more reasons to exclude foreigners? I urge you to stop and think about your, “Fellow Human Beings?’’ Portugal, for example has granted all migrants and asylum seekers in the country full citizenship rights during the pandemic, showing true leadership and Ubuntu in the war against the invisible enemy. Their actions are testament to the fact that COVID-19 is a war against all human beings

Together we will conquer this pandemic and divided we will fall. The same foreign nationals who’ve been alienated during this crisis are the people who are arguably closest to the epicentres of the virus, and the government’s lack of inclusivity has made them desperate. The restrictions are lifted they will flock to the Epicentre of the disease in search for survival. It is likely that they will then get infected or are already infected and spread the virus like wildfire. There is no incentive for them to act responsibly or even report that they have the virus. Their sole goal has now become to win the war against hunger and they are willing to take their chances with the virus. The bigger question Mr. President is, have we forgotten where we come from, what make us African and how together we won our respective freedom, are you willing to neglect that these are foreigners from the same countries who helped you achieve freedom in 1994? I refuse to celebrate Freedom Day because while I can hide behind my privilege, I know that my foreign brothers and sisters are being held captive by exclusion. During international genocide month, we should be cognisant now more than ever that every life is equally important. If regaining the value of Ubuntu means abandoning being placed under the comfort and privilege of the term, “My Fellow South Africans,” I will do it. Foreign nationals in this country are under fire and it is just a matter of time before Xenophobia’s ticking time bomb that I spoke of in 2015 and again in 2018 explodes. I will not stand by and watch as at least 500 000 people are ignored. Will you?