This year’s commemoration of the Day of the African Child, under the theme ‘let the children be seen and heard’ comes at a difficult time in our part of the world.
During the last two weeks of May we were shocked and shamed to witness a wave of senseless acts of xenophobic violence perpetrated on citizens of some African states by lawless criminals in South Africa.
The violence led to the murder and displacement of many immigrants. As we mourn the victims of the xenophobia we must also take time to reflect on the children caught up in the wave of madness and cruelty. Today accords us an opportunity to pray for the child victims of the violence. As the most vulnerable section of any community, it is apparent that the children went through immense suffering.
We are informed that the violence killed at least 62 people, injured upwards of 670 and destroyed the shelters of tens of thousands who were rendered homeless.
Media pictures showed us horrific images of the children caught up in the orgy of hate. These are children who have now lost their parents. These are children who have lost their schooling opportunities. These are children who have borne witness to what no child ought to see. The emotional scars will remain with them for their entire lives.
Can the African child be seen and heard in such conditions?
Let us recall that the Day of the African Child was initiated in 1991 by the then Organization of African Unity to honour the memory and courage of the hundreds of black children killed in 1976.
The children of Soweto were marching to protest the inferior quality of their education offered in Afrikaans, the language of the oppressor. How ironic and puzzling it is that victims of the xenophobic violence are mainly Africans and the perpetrators, black South Africans.
The more learned tell us that xenophobia is an ancient Greek word meaning ‘a fear or contempt of that which is foreign or unknown’. This interpretation begs the question: are other Africans foreign and unknown to black South Africans? Surely this cannot hold true. After all, the victims of xenophobia originate from countries to which South Africa owes her freedom on account of the solidarity and assistance they provided. Surely, hardly fifteen years after the dawn of freedom, no black South African can repudiate the contribution of this continent to his or her emancipation.
However, much as we condemn the acts of xenophobia, we are grateful to the South African authorities, ordinary citizens and civil society for intervening decisively to quell the violence and their subsequent efforts to provide victims with humanitarian assistance, in line with international conventions.
That said, I share the sentiment that closure and healing can be brought to this blemish on the collective conscience of South Africa if the perpetrators are brought to book, victims reintegrated into society, awareness promoted about the role played by other Africans in the struggle against apartheid and finally, compensation offered to those who have lost loved ones, livelihoods and property. Perhaps only these measures can allow the child victims of xenophobia to reclaim their innocence and regain their humanity.
Deplorable as they are, what lessons have we drawn from the acts of xenophobia? As Batswana, we ought to pause, and reflect whether we too are without sin in the manner in which we treat some of our African brethren.
Let us look deep into ourselves and recall the number of times we have used the derogatory term ‘Makwerekwere’ to casually refer to others whom those not of our race consider Africans just like us. Many of us are guilty of this non violent form of xenophobia.
Today gives us a chance to rehabilitate ourselves and embrace other Africans as equals.
Fully conscious of the fact that the Day of the African Child is recognized throughout the world as an opportunity to reflect on progress toward health, education and protection for all the continent’s children, let this occasion spare a thought to the plight of the children of Zimbabwe. To me and other like minded people, the crises in that country is not an internal matter as some would have us believe. For the reason that our country, and many others in the region have had to accommodate millions of political and economic refugees renders obsolete any assertion that we must remain silent. Each and every citizen of this country who believes in the values that we most cherish such as democracy, good governance, rule of law and political tolerance must reject the narrative that says Zimbabweans deserve anything less. What we hold dear, they too are entitled to enjoy in their own country.
Indeed, we must reject the toxic narrative that patronises anyone who proclaims solidarity with the democratic forces in that country as a puppet of the West. The notion that a fellow African government cannot be criticised and shown the folly of its ways is no longer acceptable. It is a historical aberration that belongs to a time when our continent was, save for a few exceptions, an estate of one party authoritarian regimes where solidarity meant siding with the tyrants against the people.
The commitment to justice and freedom which informed a small and poor country like us to speak out against apartheid, should remind us of our obligation of morality and principle to Zimbabwe. We must always stand on the side of right, irrespective of whether those in power are black or white.
Let us note that in a period of slightly less than a decade, we have watched as a productive country that used to attract the admiration of all deteriorated into an impoverished basket case whose citizens have been shorn of all pride and dignity. No one can claim that a country which has lost approximately a quarter of its population to forced migration is in a state of normalcy. With an economy in free fall resulting in the collapse of an array of social services, the children are once again the most helpless victims of this meltdown.
For example figures from UNICEF show that on account of this humanitarian crises, Zimbabwe has the highest child mortality of any nation. The brain drain caused by an exodus of the best and the brightest means that those suffering most are the children. They have lost their teachers. They have lost health care givers. They have lost their parents and guardians. They have lost their innocence and sense of worth. Can the child be seen and heard in such conditions?
As we pray for the children of Zimbabwe, we must interrogate ourselves and answer the question of who can deliver the children of Zimbabwe from the grim circumstances in which they find themselves. My humble opinion is that only political change can bring about a solution.
Those of us who side with the democratic forces of that country thought the March 29 elections would mark a new beginning for the reconstruction of the country. Though the election delivered what we have been told is an inconclusive outcome in the presidential race, we are heartened that the people of Zimbabwe have another opportunity to return to the polls on June 27 to determine the kind of country they want. We are aware that the build up to the run-off has been characterised by the worst forms of violence, intimidation and disruption of opposition campaigns.
Our government, to its credit, has expressed strong concern at this disturbing state of affairs. The gesture of the Botswana government, allied to it granting sanctuary and other forms of assistance to over 400 political refugees, is most commendable. In addition, the government has also assigned a fifty strong team to observe the process.
Our stance sends the unequivocal message that we will not stand aside, arms folded, and claim to hear no evil, and see no evil.
Let us note that the turmoil ahead of the run off has prompted calls from some quarters for the elections to be postponed. We contend that such a course of action would not only be inimical to the welfare of the long suffering people of Zimbabwe, but also a concession to state-sponsored terrorism.
For the will of the people to triumph, the elections must go ahead, following which the results must be released immediately. As Batswana, ours is a duty to offer to our brothers and sisters, prayers for a free and fair poll. Through our prayers, we trust, Zimbabweans will usher in peaceful political change that will deliver the children from hunger, disease, illiteracy and deprivation. Only then will the Zimbabwean child be seen and heard.
And as the children of Botswana you must demonstrate solidarity with the child victims of the Zimbabwe crises.
* Botsalo Ntuane is a Member of Parliament in Botswana. His remarks were delivered on the Day of the African Child in Gaborone.