During the anti-apartheid struggle, South African refugees were sheltered in other African countries. The xenophobic attacks on foreigners are shameful.

A protest against xenophobia in South Africa

A protest against xenophobia in South Africa

Faced with political persecution and economic exclusion hundreds and, eventually, thousands of South Africans escaped, from the 1960s onwards, to neighbouring states or even as far afield as Nigeria and Ghana. There were, so far as I am aware, no reports of any xenophobic violence; we were welcomed even if, at times, a little warily.

I say we because I first sought refuge in Zambia when I feared being arrested again by the security police. Especially since they had detained one of the comrades with whom I had been working on an underground publication that fell squarely within the ambit of the so-called “Sabotage Act” and its five-year minimum prison term.

Having spent nearly two months in solitary confinement and having undergone interrogation, I had no wish to repeat the experience. So I made my way to Zambia where, among Zambians from every walk of life, I was welcomed. It was much the same, I discovered in later years among ordinary citizens in Kenya, Equatorial Guinea and Tanzania. And the same applied to other exiles whenever we came into contact. The only criticism I recall from a Zambian friend in the early years: “What’s wrong with you South Africans? You seem to be better at talking and singing than fighting.”

That was at the time when one of our number was kidnapped from Lusaka by apartheid security agents and my extradition was demanded. Zambia, at governmental level, promptly intervened. President Kenneth Kaunda not only refused the extradition, he also announced that he was seeking refuge for me further afield.

And when the then quite recently installed Labour Party government in Britain agreed to have me, it was Zambia that provided the air fare. So it was that I ended up in London with another group of exiles, including Thabo Mbeki and the Pahad brothers, Essop and Azziz who became part of post apartheid governments.

I was fortunate. As a journalist I had a fairly high profile. Quite apart from any other considerations, I could not easily disappear without questions being asked. The same did not apply to many others who fled. But, almost without exception, the reception received by all of us in the countries of exile was welcoming. When there were problems, it is was all too often because of the bad behaviour of a few of our countrymen, a number of whom were involved in various businesses.

It is against this history that I feel great shame at the xenophobic filth that has again risen to the surface of our proclaimed democratic and supposedly humane society. I feel like demanding: Do not forgive us, for know exactly what we do.


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Terry Bell

Cape Town, South Africa-based journalist commentator and author specialising in political and economic analysis and labour matters.

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