It is no secret that South Africa views itself as somehow “outside” the African continent. The country’s National Development Plan, a roadmap for the next 15 years, concedes that even the country’s policy makers lack knowledge about the continent. They also, the plan’s authors say, “tend to have a weak grasp of African geopolitics”.
Over the years, South Africa has had a bad reputation as a hot spot for xenophobia, much of it directed against people from elsewhere in Africa who are part of the large immigrant population in South Africa – about 2.2 million according to the 2011 Census.
People may think that university students wouldn’t hold bigoted attitudes towards fellow Africans. After all, they spend much of their time in spaces dedicated to knowledge and learning, surrounded by people from all over the continent and world.
But research has shown that some South African students are as guilty of xenophobic attitudes and behaviour as anybody else. This is particularly problematic because the country is a regional hub for students from across the African continent.
Universities must work harder to produce graduates who embrace South Africa’s “African-ness”, treat their peers from the rest of the continent with respect and spread this attitude among their communities. But how could this be done?
Attitudes about Africa
She argued that universities had not done enough since democracy in 1994 to open students’ horizons about Africa. This, Gqola wrote, has:
… contributed to the ignorance of the continent we are part of and inadvertently allowed the faceless African man and woman to remain throwaway people.
In more than eight years as a postgraduate student, lecturer and researcher in South Africa, I’ve encountered too many students with indifferent attitudes towards the continent. Most of the students I have dealt with don’t seem interested in learning about Africa. Some have even asked about my travels “in Africa”, as though the country at the southernmost tip is not part of the continent.
The 2008 attacks prompted a great deal of introspection throughout society, though such eruptions have become all too common in the past seven years. Universities have publicly condemned such violence – but they don’t appear to have done much else.
I would argue that there are three approaches universities can take in dealing with xenophobia.
The first involves teaching students critically and factually about Africa. Xenophobia and similar social ills feed on myths and perceptions. Careful, thorough and accurate research presented to and debated with university students can help to dispel such myths.
This kind of teaching and engagement can also happen in high schools. South Africa’s government has already suggested that making History a compulsory school subject could help to prevent xenophobia. However, higher education is particularly important since it is developing graduates and future leaders.
The second approach involves developing students’ understanding of how South Africa fits into the continent and world at large. Students must be encouraged to explore the links between local, regional and global socio-economic, political and cultural dimensions and phenomena. This will help them to better understand South Africa’s place and role in both Africa and the world.
The third, and probably most complex approach involves broader institutional change. Too many university subjects are still taught through a Euro or US-centric lens. The curriculum needs to be altered so that it no longer ignores or marginalises Africa. Research suggests that when Africa takes centre stage in South African students’ classes, their levels of engagement improve.
In addition, South Africa needs academics who possess real knowledge and passion about the continent in order to teach current and future students about it. This will require finding and developing new academic staff as well as changing mindsets and developing new knowledge among existing lecturers.
Beyond ivory towers
South African universities and academics don’t only have a responsibility towards their students. They also need to play a more prominent role in the broader society rather than mainly observing and writing about it from ivory towers.
When it comes to xenophobia, this means conducting research and engaging with South African and immigrant communities to dispel myths and fallacies that lead to xenophobia.
Europe’s refugee crisis has prompted a wave of xenophobic and anti-immigrant rhetoric. One UK academic has suggested that universities and academics need to open up public engagement channels with local communities. This, she says, is a way to “temper the demonising of refugees with calm, evidence-based argument”.
The same must be done to help South Africans move away from dangerous xenophobic attitudes towards their fellow Africans.