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Is democracy at stake in South Africa? A personal reflection

Akanimo Akpan
September, 2019

Xenophobic attacks are not new in South Africa. There are records of violence against foreign nationals as far back as 1986. But the recent attacks, in parts of Johannesburg and Cape Town, have propelled me to seek possible interventions to these acts of violence that are an affront to democratic ideals.

As a Nigerian who has lived in South Africa for the last six years, I have witnessed this violence at varying scales. While I have never been physically attacked, I have experienced different forms of aggression that leave me feeling unsafe, scared, and disheartened.

On three different occasions while travelling in a minibus taxi, which is what is used by the majority of people in the country, I have been asked whether I was “doing drugs”; a question that stems from the stereotype of Nigerians as peddlers of drugs. This question is usually followed by an instinctive bodily response of the interrogator shifting away from me. While I struggle less with this kind of question these days, because I now have the means and the resources to avoid certain spaces that might endanger me, I’m still worried that many migrants and immigrants lack the “privilege of options” and still endure this and other forms of aggressions brought about in how they move around, where they live, and what work they do.

Also, this violence is not absent in the corporate world or in the universities; it just takes on different shapes and forms. It remains a constant struggle to find ways of navigating through the various manifestations of this violence, but a greater struggle I usually face is how to explain the reasons or the root causes of these all too common acts to family and friends back home.

Making room for multiple perspectives

What is clear is that there is no shared understanding of what causes these outbursts. Some explicate them as an aftermath of apartheid, which was so vile and violent and the contours of which are replicated in the attacks. Others think it’s a result of the government’s failures to address people’s socio-economic conditions post-apartheid, as unemployment broadens, poverty deepens, and inequality widens. Linked to this is another view: that politicians encourage anti-immigration sentiments by blaming foreigners as responsible for crimes and “embezzling” the economic opportunities of local people. There are many more explanations but what has become disconcerting is how people present these views as either this or that. Disconcerting because the “either this or that” narrative leaves people stuck and unable to move forward in a meaningful way to solve the problem.

Since joining Reos Partners in January 2019, I have learned how to hold competing narratives in a healthy tension, to allow room not just for a systemic understanding of a particular phenomenon but also to give room for alternative narratives to emerge. But what alternative stories about the possible future can we draw from the xenophobic attacks? How can we think about the future differently? My concern is how to transform and influence the future in ways that further the democratic ideals for everyone. But this future cannot be transformed unilaterally; politicians, policy makers, community leaders, social media influencers, journalists, and civil society organizations would need to sit together and wrestle together to transform the future.

Imagining the future, and moving mindfully forward

One Reos methodology that could be helpful in thinking about and transforming the future is the
transformative scenario process (TSP). TSP can help us imagine and influence the future by bringing together diverse stakeholders to imagine possible futures and work towards bringing to life the best one possible. What emerges from these engagements is usually shared strategies of how to move forward with more certainty in addressing high-risk social challenges.

In my experience, scenario planning values and allows for people to hold and express their views, whether popular or not. Rather than the “either this or that” narrative, scenario planning weaves this and that into a story of a possible, plausible future. Maybe the first step towards addressing the issue of xenophobia is for people to really listen to views that they might not agree with. This is what will create a shared understanding of the future and allow us to influence it in ways that are inclusive and holistic, collective and constructive; that activate agency and lead to a sustainable, lasting solution.

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