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Praying with refugees in South Africa: why Catholics should be concerned about xenophobia
04 May 2015

South Africans gather together in Johannesburg for an anti-xenophobia peace march on 23 April in Johannesburg, protesting the recent violence against migrants. Similar peace marches took place in Durban on 16 April and Pretoria on 24 April. (Samson Ogunyemi / Jesuit Refugee Service)
But it is insufficient merely to extend a one-off welcome. Catholic Social Teaching sees the human person as answering God’s call in relation to others.
Johannesburg, 4 May 2015 – It is now three months since a wave of looting of migrant-run shops began in Snake Park, in the urban Soweto area of Johannesburg, and other parts of the country. The violence culminated two weeks ago in Durban leaving five people dead, many more injured and an estimated 2,500 people displaced and reliant on churches, mosques and the city for survival.

The public denials by some political and civil leaders of, even their tacit support for, violent attacks belies the background efforts of many trying to find solutions to this complex issue. One such initiative, by the Minister of Small Business Development, Ms Lindiwe Zulu, was the creation a task team to come up with solutions for the issues that emerged from Soweto looting. Moreover, there have been a number of ‘roundtables’ in which shop-owners of all backgrounds, refugees and locals, actively participated. I attended one of these at Centurion, organised by the UN refugee agency.

It is important not to underestimate the role that small spaza shops play as a source of employment in poorer communities. In this context, some refugee and migrant groups have created a successful business model which has enabled them to hold their own in the face of market encroachment by big shopping chains and malls. It is hardly surprising to hear a clear undercurrent from locals that government is not protecting South African interests enough.

At the same time, there is great reluctance to use the x word: everybody knows that xenophobia is a first cousin of racism. In a way, it does not matter what label one uses, but it is important to name the phenomenon for what it is, that is, attacks aimed exclusively at migrant-owned shops. At the same time, though, there is also a recognition that these issues are complex and have their genesis, not in racial hatred per se, but elsewhere – in poverty, poor education, lack of opportunity and feelings of disenfranchisement among local populations.

It is here that I believe the Catholic community and its Catholic Social Teaching (CST) have an important and peculiar contribution to make. Firstly, Catholicism’s primary impulse is to be inclusive; in recognising all people created in God’s image, it welcomes all-comers, no matter what their national or ethnic origins. The fundamental disposition, which has its source in scripture, is that the foreigner is to be welcomed.

But it is insufficient merely to extend a one-off welcome. CST sees the human person as answering God’s call in relation to others. It therefore looks to the unique contribution that one can make to the community. If someone is legitimately in that community, as refugees are, then the community has an obligation to ensure that everyone, including the refugee, can properly contribute.

It is clear that many refugees living in South Africa bring skills and values that enable their businesses to prosper in an environment of ever-increasing competition. Would it not be better if these could be shared; that business groups would have the humility to embrace people of different cultures, who may bring different approaches to common issues?

Your Reflections
In the Old Testament Abraham sees the three mysterious visitors near Mamre, not as competition or a threat, but as an opportunity. Despite the risk, he welcomes them to his tent, and asks Sarah to cook for them. We never see or hear precisely who these strangers are, but it is through them that Abraham receives news that Sarah will conceive and have descendants. It is through Abraham’s initial hospitality that the religious and political identity of Israel forms.

It may be that South Africa faces a similar situation, an opportunity to elicit the foreigners in its midst to contribute to solving some of the problems the country faces. But it needs committed Catholics to help those around them both work through the legitimate issues that all face and call them constantly to the bigger picture of nation building that our faith provides.

In this manner, we can help each other answer the deep call to hospitality confident that in so doing we are indeed recovering the blessing to which God calls South Africa as a nation.

David Holdcroft SJ, Jesuit Refugee Service Southern Africa Director