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Together in Peace: United against Xenophobia in South Africa

A public meeting of Sant'Egidio in Pretoria offers the way for a new culture of living together

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On 27 May 2015, the Communities of Sant’Egidio of Pretoria and Johannesburg gathered in a meeting themed Together in Peace: United against Xenophobia. Every month at least 10.000 immigrants come to Johannesburg from all over Africa. This people come from Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, RDC and other countries: they seek for a better future but this immigration it is not welcomed in South Africa. The meeting was held in response to the tragic wave of xenophobic violence that swept over South African Cities. The violence has since ceased; however these acts of vandalism and violence are symptoms of deeper societal problems, and foreigners are the scapegoats of these social and economic injustices. There is a need to understand the problem better, and to explore the response of the Community of Sant’Egidio when faced with this situation. These attacks were not isolated or unique as similar attacks took place in which more than 60 people were killed and thousands, displaced. During the more recent attack, shops were looted, thousands were displaced and four refugee camps were erected. Many people chose to leave South Africa, and those who remain continue to live in fear.

Elard Alumando from the Community of Sant’Egidio in Malawi, addressed those present. He discussed the realities of migration, and affirmed the response of the Community in the face of this senseless violence. Alumando, also briefly explained the situations people from many countries face, and that the solution to the influx of migrants, in the eyes of many is to seek an enemy. “The way of the world is to seek an enemy, to divide. If there weren’t migrants, society would have looked for another enemy, often the poorest and the weakest are the victims. The enemies would be the one of a different race, tribe, region, etc.” He used the Rwandan genocide as an example, to explain that division does not have limits, and seeking an enemy is always used as a scapegoat to social problems. Similar to the European migration, the migration to South Africa, appears to many poor and desperate people in Africa, to be an opportunity for a better life.

The responses and examples received from the members of the Community who were present, were moving. Examples where given, of how the Community changes the lives of those who help and are helped. The children of the School of Peace and the homeless understand through their interactions with the Community, that Xenophobia is unacceptable and nonsensical. Those who the Community interact with understand how to be more human, and not to see the other as an enemy. Furthermore, there were also testimonies of the widening gap between the rich and the poor in South Africa, the social and economic inequalities which are contributing factors in xenophobic attacks.

Many who attended were surprised to discover that Jesus was a foreigner too, and that the Bible makes reference to “the foreigner” many times. One such inference is included in the Gospel of Matthew 25, “I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger (foreigner) and you welcomed me.”
In the life of one who belongs to the Community of Sant’Egidio, living together and seeking what unites, is a refreshing certainty. In our School’s of Peace, in Pretoria and Johannesburg who meet every Saturday, we offer a family like environment for the children and teenagers. Many of them, who are foreign, learn and play together despite their different nationalities or origins.

The service to the homeless is another example of breaking down “borders.” The Community of Sant’Egidio in Johannesburg and Pretoria give food to the homeless, on a weekly basis. Food is given to all, irrespective of race, nationality or creed. The beauty is that in our acts of love, service and gratuitousness we not only learn how to be better people, but the people who we help learn too, and this makes our cities more humane.. An instance was noted in which a homeless friend said to, “Xenophobia is stupid, and we can’t understand it. Here you are foreigners and South African’s giving us food and are our brothers and sisters. Many people are telling us, that foreigners are bad people, but we cannot see it.”  The homeless, who are considered by many to be losers, possessed greater wisdom in that moment than the many perpetrators of the senseless violence on the streets of South Africa.

During this meeting, the tragic attacks and the response of Sant'Egidio was understood more clearly. One of the ideals of former President Nelson Mandela were highlighted once again, “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.” 

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