OPINION: First they came for migrants. Now it's 'foreign looking' South Africans


About a year after the end of World War II, a war which claimed the lives of millions of people, a majority of whom were European Jews, a German Lutheran pastor, Martin Niemöller, wrote a confessional prose whose significance has reverberated through time and space. The prose is a reflection on the silence that many German intellectuals and clergy displayed when the Nazi regime was brutally slaughtering communists, persons with disabilities, radicals and mostly, Jewish people. It reads: “First they came for the communists and I did not speak out because I was not a communist. Then they came for the socialists and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me”.

Many who tell the story of World War II do so from the point of the beginning of the Holocaust, the genocide of European Jews by the Nazi regime. We know that between 1941 and 1945, approximately six million Jews were systematically exterminated across German-occupied Europe. This number represented almost two-thirds of the continent’s Jewish population. In what was referred to as the “Final solution to the Jewish question” many Jews were killed in gas chambers in extermination camps. Millions more were starved and beaten to death in concentration camps. But the brutality of Adolf Hitler and his murderous regime had not started with Jews – it had started in the early 1930s with the extermination of political opponents, mostly communists and socialists. In fact, Dachau, the first concentration camp built by Nazi Germany in 1933, was constructed to house political opponents of the Nazi regime. There, over 100,000 Communists were brutalised, maimed and killed – mostly through bone crushing labour and starvation. It is this that Niemöller reflected upon in his confessional speech in 1946, stating that, had the German clergy stood up to defend communists who were being hurled into Dachau back in 1933, the Holocaust might not have happened.

This past weekend, I found myself reflecting on the words of Niemöller when activist and scholar Rekgotsofetse Chikane, who authored the profoundly important Breaking a Rainbow, Building a Nation: The Politics Behind #MustFall Movements, was arrested while sitting in the back of an Uber. Chikane was accused by the police of being intoxicated, possibly possessing drugs and a firearm. Far worse than all this, Chikane was also accused of being a foreign national. In a shocking video that is circulated on social media, Chikane can be heard asking the police officers to identify themselves – something that is within his rights. They refuse, before man-handling him and throwing him into the back of the police van. When all these accusations were dispelled, he attempted to file a complaint at the police station. But the men who brought him there allegedly ran away.

I wish we could dismiss the violation of Chikane as nothing more than an isolated incident. The sad truth, however, is that it is becoming an increasingly common occurrence for South Africans who are deemed to “look” foreign, to be harassed by law enforcement officers and others in positions of authority. This attitude is at the heart of the normalisation of Afrophobic violence.

The silence of South Africans in the violation of African immigrants has set parameters for the cruelty that was endured by Rekgotsofetse. Many of us have kept quiet when police officers violated immigrants, particularly those of African origins. We have stood in queues at the Home Affairs Department and witnessed the abuse of immigrants by officials and said nothing. We have been part of conversations where immigrants were referred to by derogatory terms and said nothing. We have watched as properties of immigrants were being vandalised and destroyed and said nothing. We have borne witness to several brutal killings of immigrants, some of whom were set alight by our communities, and did nothing. This silence has normalised the inhumane treatment of African immigrants, which made allowance for what happened to Rekgotsofetse to occur. Had we stood up in 2008 when African immigrants were being maimed and killed, or challenged politicians when they scapegoat immigrants, we could have prevented what happened this past weekend. But we did not speak up and we did not stand up – because we are not immigrants.

The cost of this collective detachment is that once there are no immigrants left to dehumanise, it will be South Africans who “look” like immigrants who will be the next target. And this is not conjecture. Even in the 2008 Afrophobic violence that brought the country to its knees, of the 62 people who were killed, 21 were South Africans. Many of these were Tsonga-speaking locals who, to the bloodthirsty mobs who wanted “amakwerekwere” gone, did not “look” or sound South African. When every Zimbabwean, Mozambican, Nigerian, Congolese and Malawian have been chased out of the country, or burnt alive, South Africans will understand the irrationality and dangers of Afrophobia. It is then that we will understand that in allowing for the violation of immigrants, we have built violence and disregard for human rights into the fabric of our society. Violence and disregard for human rights are not a light switch that can be put on and off. Once they are normalised, they become entrenched and impossible to unlearn. We see the evidence of this in the residual violence of apartheid that persists in the democratic dispensation. With time, we South Africans will have their own reckoning. Like Niemöller, it is only then that we will reflect on the audible silence that we maintained when immigrants were being violated. It is then that we will say: “First they came for immigrants…”

Mahlatsi is a geographer, urban planner and research fellow at the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan African Thought and Conversation