Xenophobia has plagued the country of South Africa for generations. Throughout the 20th century, immigrants from other African nations and Europe faced discrimination and often hostility. This animosity has been caused mainly by the South African institution apartheid. Apartheid, translated as “the state of being apart,” or literally “apart-hood,” was the South African system of racial segregation that was first instituted after World War II and remained intact until 1994. This system engrained fear and hatred into South African society. Since its deinstitutionalization in 1994, the country has experienced some progress, but the roots of racism run deep: violent hate crimes are still an astoundingly common occurrence, reaching to every corner of the country and only adding to the fear that everyone possesses.
I’d like to share a story. This past summer, I spent 8 weeks working in Johannesburg, South Africa. There, I met a beautiful family; the Kazembe Family.
The Kazembe’s had a “comfortable” home (two or three people in a bedroom, small kitchen, functioning bathroom and toilet, etc.). But this was not always so. One evening, I sat to eat with the eldest daughter of the family, Mary, where she told me their story, a story I will never forget.
The Kazembe family originally lived in Zimbabwe, ten years earlier. They had a tiny home with no furniture, no access to healthcare, their food was either cabbage soup or whatever was ripe in their modest garden. The conditions were tough. At the call of their uncle from Johannesburg, they left their home in Zimbabwe in search for a better life in South Africa. To their disbelief, living in South Africa proved harder than it was in Zimbabwe. In addition to the scarce resources and employment, they were hated intensely. Maxwell and John, the father and eldest son, were the only two family members to find employment. Their combined salaries were less than the salary of a single native South African in the same job. With this money, the Kazembe’s paid their slumlord for the room, no bigger than a college dorm room, which would be home to their family of ten. Still, this was more than many people had, especially more than other immigrants.
A few months into their stay in Johannessburg, the family lost their father, Maxwell. I asked Mary how he died. She said, “He had worked for two months straight, seven days a week. His body was too tired.” He had passed away in his sleep with no warning or illness. “He looked very tired that night,” and that is Mary’s last memory of her father. In the following year, the hatred directed towards them only grew. It grew to a point where it was unsafe for them to walk around at night, or even alone during the day. People knew who they were.
“One night,” Mary remembers, “we heard gunshots and saw smoke coming from the next village. There was screaming and chanting and then I realized, they were coming for us.” A riot had begun nearby and any known outsiders were being beaten and taken from their homes. Mary’s mother told her family to escape out the back door and hurry to the school (a Catholic school down the road) when she saw the rioters round the corner to their street. As they fled, they heard the rioters break into the house and watched them set fire to it. They made it safely to the school, with the exception of John who was at work when the riots began and was brutally beaten.
The school was connected to a non-profit organization founded by woman who certainly changed the course of all their lives. Sister Natalie, the founder of the organization, called the Kgosi Neighborghood Foundation, and the headmaster at the Dominican Convent School, took them in. She put a roof over their heads, nursed John, and gave them food. She also gave them work, free education, and something they had not felt in a very long time; hope. Since this time, every Kazembe child has passed through the primary school and into the secondary (except for the two who are still too young, Naomi and Pascalina), John has a respectable job and home with his wife and child, Mary is attending the University of Johannesburg, and they have four children (Joseph, Ruth, Racheal, and Sarah) in the secondary school, between grades 7-12.
It was stories like this one that inspired my work in South Africa. Although apartheid does not exist anymore, the effects of it are still very real. In fact, they are amplified because people who were separated and hated each other are now forced to interact. The Kazembe’s are living proof that xenophobia still thrives, but their ability to rebound from such terrible loss should motivate others to follow Sister Natalie’s example. My goal, and the goal of the other people who have gone before me, was to find a way to battle xenophobia. In our project, the Blooming Together Initiative, we sought to challenge second and third grade students, and, consequently, their teachers, to accept every person regardless of how they look, how they talk, or where they are from. In targeting this audience, we could plant the seeds of universal acceptance and love at a crucial time in kids’ lives.
Sister Natalie knew how to do this. Nearly every student at the Dominican Convent School, whether they came from wealthy families in the affluent areas of Johannesburg or they were refugees with nothing, thought of her as their grandmother. During that 8-week trip, Sister Natalie passed away. Although it was an immensely sad time, it was also profoundly moving. At her funeral, I watched blacks and whites, Nigerians, Zimbabweans, and South Africans, Zulus, Xhosas, Swazis and Ndebele, and Afrikaners all join hands to celebrate and mourn their fallen grandmother. It is through the actions of people like Sister Natalie that the world can grow in love. These actions instill hope, hope that one day we may all live in a society that does not see people by the color of their skin and does not criticize the way someone says something but rather listens to the words they have to say and acknowledges them as equals. The hope that I witnessed was both life changing and awe-inspiring. The example of Sister Natalie is one that all should strive to live by. Her work provided hope while fostering the intrinsic human dignity of every living person. It is my dream that more people will find this hope and be inspired to follow in her footsteps so that, together, we may provide the tools to build a world that can learn to bloom together.
“A summer bouquet may include an assortment of flowers in a rainbow of colors. I realize I am one flower in the wondrous bouquet of humanity andthe variety makes the whole bouquet even more beautiful.” ~ anonymous
By Joseph Paggi, Intern for WYA North America