Xenophobia – An Apocalypse that Defies God’s Diversity

A horde of angry South African black youths break into a shop owned by a foreigner in Durban, descending upon him with all manner of weapons, looting all the merchandise in the shop, and leaving the helpless man in a pool of blood, barely hanging on to life. More than five hundred kilometres further north, a four year-old boy is left with a gaping hole on his forehead as another mob targets foreigners in Johannesburg. Another foreigner is clubbed and set alight by youths chanting expletives and enjoying the spectacle as if they are having a barbecue.

These are the images that invaded our sight and mind over the last few days, in a bloodletting reminiscent of what we saw in May 2008. These are not just criminal acts in a nation with one of the highest crime rates on this planet, but these are clearly xenophobic attacks. How ironic that these attacks should start from a city that hosted the United Nations World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance (WCAR) in September 2001. Fourteen years later, the horrors that the conference was supposed to confront are still with us, exposing the worst that sinful depravity in man is capable of, and shredding to pieces the innocent idealism of the continent’s pan-Africanism. Is it not a shame that blacks are killing fellow blacks on African soil simply because they are from another country?

It is an undeniable reality that the movement of people within and across boundaries of nations has become a feature of modern societies. Migration has become a salient dimension of modern globalization. As someone has observed, borders have become bridges, not only barriers. Globalization implies not only the transfer of financial resources, products, and trade, but also the worldwide relocation of peoples, of human beings who take the difficult and frequently painful decision to leave their kin and kith searching for a better future. In the global society, states can no longer live in isolation from one another.

It is this movement of people across boundaries that brings about the problems between nationals of recipient countries and non-nationals because of competition for scarce resources, ignorance and prejudice. Writing in the March 2009 issue of African Ecclesial Review (AFER), Rev. Stan Chu Ilo, who then was completing his doctoral studies in Systematic Theology at the University of St. Michaers College in Toronto, Canada, said that the May 2008 uprising of South African blacks against black migrants was a crisis in the making. Rev. Ilo takes note of three fault lines that have developed since the end of apartheid and the introduction of Black majority rule in South Africa:

1.  The first is the internal crisis and conflict of identity among the Black South Africans themselves. Many young Black South Africans, especially those who were born in the late 60s and early 70s, never had an opportunity to develop their skills or attain any level of educational or professional competence. Most of them were sired in the revolutionary anti-apartheid movement of the 70s characterized by militancy and rebellion. With the end of apartheid, these young men were left in the broken lower ranks of social progress, stifled as persons in the choking economic dungeons of poverty and existential carefreeness. The victorious elites of the ruling party, the ANC, who took the reins of power at all levels failed to address the needs of these young people and the burgeoning black families who were waking up from the long night of depersonalization and cultural asphyxiation. So these marginalized poor and hapless black South Africans are left to bear alone the pain and tragedies which they have experienced personally or via a memorial re-living of the sad events of the past. They are cut off from the community because they do not share in the society’s abundance nor in its emerging multi-racial values.

2. The second fault line in South Africa is the real anger among frustrated young black South Africans. In the days of the post-apartheid era, the black South Africans turned against themselves in what many thought would play into the white bifurcated vision of the black personality as vaunting, aggressive, violent, and resistant to order and good governance. So they turned against each other in an orgy of violence and bloodletting. Their passion and hope for a new and prosperous country was not balanced with a delayed gratification that demanded the necessary sacrifice and enduring the inevitable pain that comes with moving from hope to achievement.

3. Another reality that prepared the grounds for the crisis is the violence. South Africa is a very violent country, and arguably the most violent country in Africa. I was a victim of that violence and thuggery two years ago when five armed men robbed me at gunpoint, leaving me only with the clothes that were on my body. Only God protected me from ending up as a bullet-riddled corpse and returning to my grieving family and friends as cargo in a casket. There is ready access to guns, machetes or various forms of deadly weapons. These weapons are easily made by the many blacksmiths and local manufacturers who in the immediate past, secretly produced and armed black South Africans in the liberation battle against the white supremacists.

Thus, lacking any education, fuelled by crumbling social structures, deprived of any sense of purpose, and with no clear signs of progress or self or group transcendence over the mounting social and economic challenges of the day, the young black South African of today is understandably angry. A biting absolute poverty always leads to violence, but poverty does not legitimize violence. These angry but vibrant young South Africans reveal a thin tipping point of the searing tinderbox on which the Rainbow nation has been sitting for a long time.  

Finding Hope in the Gospel  
At the root of what we have seen in South Africa is the problem of sin. It is the problem of depravity. The root of all division and tension, all violence and prejudice, all hatred and selfishness is sin. Jesus came into this world to deal with sin. To show us that the people of God will no longer be defined in an ethnic way. A new people that Christ is calling to Himself is defined not by race or ethnicity or political ties, or nationalities, but it is a people transformed by His grace and belonging to the global family from every ethnic group and nation on the planet. “You were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.” (Revelation 5:9). 

In Christ alone can the phobia of the others unlike you be killed in one’s heart. You begin to see the other ethnic group or nationality, not as impoverishing you or threatening your own fulfillment, but as widening your humanity and celebration of God’s diversity in a rich and infinite manner. John Piper, in his excellent book, Bloodlines, writes:  

The fame and greatness and worth of an object of beauty increases in proportion to the diversity of those who recognize its beauty. If a work of art is regarded as great among a small and like- minded group of people, but not by anyone else, the art is probably not truly great. Its qualities are such that it does not appeal to the deep universals in our hearts but only to provincial biases. But if a work of art continues to win more and more admirers not only across cultures but also across decades and centuries, then its greatness is irresistibly manifested…Thus the true greatness and beauty of God, in the display of his grace through Christ in the gospel, will be manifest in the breadth of the diversity of those who perceive and cherish this beauty. His excellence will be shown to be higher and deeper than the parochial preferences that make us happy most of the time. His appeal will be to the deepest, highest, largest capacities of the human soul, awakened by the Holy Spirit. Thus the diversity of the source of admiration will testify to the incomparable glory of the God of grace.

The seemingly impregnable wall of apartheid crumbled, humanly speaking, as a result of the cumulative indignation and activism of Africans everywhere supported by men and women of goodwill all over the world. Today, those of us who want to see God's incomparable glory of His grace magnified, should join hearts together and pray that God would rain righteousness upon the Rainbow nation and uproot this evil of xenophobia.