“We build monuments to remind us of past abuses. We establish museums to learn about historical mistakes and miscarriages of justice. We erect statues in public spaces of people who have played important roles in changing history for the better.”
I was recently commissioned by a Rwandese actress friend to write a play about the treatment of refugees from Burundi in Rwanda. As a basis for the play, she sent me some research that had been conducted particularly among Burundian refugees who worked in people’s homes. This was in the form of questionnaires with questions about the age of the respondent, whether s/he had children, how much s/he earned, whether s/he had any social benefits and their general experience of their employers.
The stories of the refugees were almost uniformly depressing. Most are paid below the poverty line, they work long hours, few have formal leave, none have social benefits and a number of them experience verbal and physical abuse. With limited work options and few legal rights, they are forced to put up with such abuse in order to have at least some income to sustain their families.
This story is not unique to Rwanda; the exploitation of refugees and migrants is a worldwide – and, indeed, South African – phenomenon.
What intrigues me is that citizens who live in a country that has experienced genocide – where 800 000 people were hacked to death in a three-month period by those who “othered” them – seem quite comfortable now in “othering” and abusing those who have fled their country in search of a better, safer, longer life.
This is not unique to Rwanda.
“It is deeply ironic that many Africans will march under banners proclaiming black lives matter when an African American is killed by a white policeman, and yet will not have the same passion when black lives are made miserable and are even terminated prematurely by callous security forces in our own African countries.”
Jews, who were the focus of a genocide in Germany during the Second World War, now prey on Palestinians. There are brass plates on many pavements in Berlin and other German cities to remind contemporary generations of Germany’s crimes against humanity, with these brass plates pointing to houses from which Jews were removed. Yet, Israelis have since forcibly evicted thousands of Palestinians from their homes, which are now occupied by Jewish settlers, and there is current talk of Israel annexing parts of the West Bank.
Afrikaans families were torn apart by British settlers, with thousands of Boer women and children dying in British concentration camps. One would think that, having experienced this history, the descendants of those who experienced such atrocities would treat other people better, but the history of apartheid is littered with the dehumanisation, abuse and killing of black people under the Afrikaner government.
Nelson Mandela swore in his inauguration speech that “never and never again” would people be treated as black people were under apartheid, and yet nationals from other African countries are exploited, abused and murdered by (mostly black) South Africans just a few years into our democracy. Is this what we as human beings are cursed to do, or what we curse ourselves to do, since we have agency and are not mere “pawns of history”: to repeat, rather than learn from, history? Will we forever be engaged in a cycle of the once abused now abusing others?
We build monuments to remind us of past abuses. We establish museums to learn about historical mistakes and miscarriages of justice. We erect statues in public spaces of people who have played important roles in changing history for the better. And yet we appear to be driven not by altruistic values to change the world for the better for most, but by petty self-interest, by a sense of entitlement that claims that history owes us something because of ancestral suffering, and by a false presumption of superiority relative to others.
It is deeply ironic that many Africans will march under banners proclaiming black lives matter when an African American is killed by a white policeman, and yet will not have the same passion when black lives are made miserable and are even terminated prematurely by callous security forces in our own African countries.
The most positive story among the Rwandan “domestic workers” was that of a man who worked as a gardener and cook for a family in Kigali. His employers, though, were European expats, living in the capital and working for a multinational company.
Africans are right to protest, complain about and be angered at how particularly black Africans are maltreated and dehumanised in Europe, whether they be desperate migrants and refugees who have successfully crossed the Mediterranean, or sophisticated, middle-class people – with visas – passing through passport control at the various points of entry to Fortress Europe. But our voices would be a lot more authoritative and less hollow if we treated refugees and migrants from other African countries in our respective countries like we would like to be treated in Europe: simply as human beings, with the same rights and dignity as the citizens of Europe.Buro: MvH