SOUTH AFRICA, Sarah-Leah Pimentel •
The last few weeks has seen the best and worst of South African society. Unfortunately it’s the worst side of us that has made headlines all over the world. The South African media also highlighted the wave of xenophobic violence that has swept through the country — mostly targeting foreign nationals from other African countries, many of whom have been living and working in South Africa for years. The authorities were slow to react, only doing so after condemnation from other African leaders.
Despite the criticism that our media received, it was necessary to tell these stories of unspeakable horrors — of people chased away from their homes, beaten, stabbed, their small shops looted and burnt — because segments of our society have refused to believe that it’s been happening, to a greater or lesser degree, since 2008. The journalists’ dogged commitment to this story is what has painted us in a terrible light all around the world.
The good news: South Africans standing together against xenophobia
But the international media only picked up on one part of the story. Despite the hatred of some, there were many more standing together in solidarity, using different resources and words to echo Jesus’ words to his followers two millennia ago: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Irrespective of whether he is your brother or an immigrant from another country.
Multiple broadcast, newspaper and online campaigns proclaimed anti-xenophobia messages. One independent broadcaster dedicated hours of live coverage to solidarity of South Africans to those who have become the latest victims of xenophobia. Marches and rallies were held throughout the country calling for an end to violence against foreigners. Celebrities launched campaigns to provide basic goods to those displaced by the violence and create anti-xenophobia awareness campaigns. In some of the communities most plagued by xenophobic violence, the residents formed street patrols, often facing armed mobs in an effort to protect the foreigners living in their midst. Solidarity.
Schoenstatt on both sides of this human drama
The Schoenstatt Family also found itself on both sides of this human drama. Some Schoenstatt members from Burundi who have been living in Durban — where this particular spate of xenophobic violence broke out — said that “no-one can help us- the police cannot protect us. The only one who can help us now is God and Mother Mary and prayer.”
Sr. Joanne, who has been working closely with this group explains their despair: “They are feeling very isolated and afraid – for many of them they do not know where to go – Burundi is experiencing fighting due to the upcoming elections so they cannot go back but equally they feel they have lost their home here. Some have been here for 12 or 14 years. Their children are South African citizens and were born in SA. They feel homeless and devastated and very alone.”
Sr. Joanne added that “it is going to be very difficult for the immigrant community now because they barely eke out an existence anyway and now in this hostile climate it will be doubly difficult for them to make ends meet.”
In an effort to help, the Schoenstatt Family in Durban is planning to start home visits in the immigrant community and to assist with money for basic groceries.
One of the members of the Girls’ Youth in Johannesburg, who was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo but has lived in South Africa most of her life, posted on her Facebook page one night last week that “our area is under attack. Guys please pray for us and our families.” She has also been involved in awareness campaigns at her university and is working hard to change perceptions about foreigners in this country she calls home.
The spread of the violence to Johannesburg started a Whatsapp conversation among the Schoenstatt Women’s League group. They felt that prayer, although an important part of their solidarity for all those caught up in the violence, was not enough. Dawn commented that “as the Women’s League we must also decide on what help we want to offer. It’s all good and well to say ‘no to xenophobia’ from the comfort of our couches while people have nowhere to sleep. Real love is in actions not just words.”
Before the end of the day, many of the women had committed to collect food and blankets and to take these to a police station where many foreigners were camping out in the cold night, feeling that it was safer there than in their homes. Others suggested assisting the Jesuit Refugee Services that is helping people, sponsoring an initiative to hand out educational pamphlets on public transport, providing transport alternatives for foreigners to get to work until the violence has died down.
Thope remembered that solidarity in time of crisis is good, but also spoke about the need to for ongoing solidarity to help the foreigners who find their way to our country, often to escape terrorism, wars or extreme poverty in their own countries. She reminded everyone about the Schoenstatt-inspired home for refugees, Mercy House, and invited Women’s League members in providing long-term help for the children — assisting with school work or donating academic material.
In covenant solidarity we dare to risk freeing ourselves from our prejudices
The National Director for the Schoenstatt Movement in South Africa, Sr. Connie, reminded us all to pray for the victims of xenophobia, highlighting that “deep seated prejudices have surfaced yet again since these prejudices have not been confronted and dealt with.” Our life in the covenant of love can serve as an example of how we can overcome the things that divide us. Sr. Connie writes: “In Schoenstatt we speak of solidarity in the covenant and in and through this covenant we may dare to risk more in freeing ourselves from our own prejudices, thereby releasing graces for the many who have not experienced a ‘Mother who genuinely cares for all her children’ irrespective of race, gender or whatever other difference. Mary is our uniting heart and in this moment of our country’s history we pray for the grace of inner transformation for all.”
The Schoenstatt Family in South Africa invites the International Schoenstatt Family to pray in solidarity for this spirit of true transformation, so that our society, which is so divided, may find a way to overcome deep-seated hatred, mistrust, and anger. Transformation not just in South Africa, but in all those places where prejudice has prevented us from seeing one another as a brother, a sister, a human person filled with the same dreams, hopes and aspirations as us. We pray for an end to nationalist, ethnic, and religious violence in Burundi, South Sudan, Yemen, Iraq…and in so many other places.