Higher education and research versus xenophobia

Xenophobic violence that erupted in parts of South Africa this month, leaving seven people dead, has outraged university communities and the ministries of higher education and of science and technology, all of which have come out in full support of international students and academics. The attacks also exposed gaps in research into xenophobia.

There has been a flood of condemnation of the violence from universities and higher education associations, as well as anti-xenophobia protests and marches on campuses around the country, including at the universities of Johannesburg and the Witwatersrand, or Wits.

The assaults in KwaZulu-Natal and Johannesburg displaced and led to the repatriation of thousands of people from other African countries. It followed waves of xenophobia over the years, especially in 2008 when some 70 foreigners were murdered.

This time, government action and public outrage stemmed the killing. But foreigners have been left with deep-seated feelings of being unwelcome to stay and work in South Africa.

The violence has horrified people across Africa – especially since many countries generously hosted exiled South Africans and actively supported the anti-apartheid struggle – as well as millions of South Africans, who have taken to the streets in protest and assisted foreigners under threat.

Concern for foreign students, academics

In the higher education sector, there have been concerns for the safety of foreign African and Asian students and academics – not at universities but in their lives outside campuses.

Xenophobic anger seems to be directed almost exclusively at these two groups of foreigners, who are seen by many people on the ground as economic competitors, although in fact research has overwhelmingly shown immigrants to be net creators of wealth and jobs.

There are more than 70,000 international students at South Africa’s public universities, many thousands more in private tertiary institutions, and hundreds of foreign academics working in universities and research centres.

Earlier this month a community of about 200 undergraduate and postgraduate foreign students learning English at the 'Getting to Know English' centre in Pretoria were rattled by social media messages warning of xenophobia. Students from countries including Angola, Benin, Cameroon, Gabon, Ivory Coast and Mozambique skipped class in fear of their lives.

Wits University held an anti-xenophobia march by students and lecturers last Wednesday and has set up a hotline that students on- and off-campus can call for help. Thousands of people, many of them students, also marched through downtown Johannesburg on Thursday.

A Zimbabwean student was attacked in a taxi in mid-April. Elvis Munatswa said on Facebook that he had been robbed and assaulted on his way home from Wits, and spent the night in hospital. On learning that he was from Zimbabwe, men in the taxi said in Zulu “that I was a dog and that I deserve to die”, said Munatswa.

Last year, in a major study of nearly 1,700 international students in South Africa, professors Jenny J Lee and Chika Sehoole found evidence of xenophobia experiences among visiting students.

One student surveyed said: “There is a general feeling in South Africa that foreigners come to take up their resources.” Another said: “It seems an average South African hates a foreigner.” Another reported being threatened by a taxi driver who said: “If not for Mandela, you would not be in South Africa and now that he is dead, you better go back.”

Widespread condemnation

The outpouring of condemnation of xenophobia from universities and associations in and around South Africa are listed on the website of the Southern African Regional Universities Association, SARUA.

Among them are 16 South African universities and a statement by the vice-chancellors’ association Higher Education South Africa, or HESA, which strongly condemned all forms of xenophobia and violence.

“These acts are unacceptable, inhumane and a clear violation of basic human rights,” HESA said in a statement.

“We are shocked that 20 years into our democracy, our country is witnessing these violent and outrageous acts which are inconsistent with the values expressed in, and the founding provisions of, our Constitution.”

Such incidents also undermine efforts to recruit and retain international students, staff and scholars at universities. HESA urged member universities to continue to “use teaching, research and scholarship to promote peace and security for all in South Africa”.

SARUA issued a statement on 23 April condemning the “appalling human tragedy that has unfolded (again) in xenophobic attacks in South Africa”, which has one of Africa’s most developed higher education systems.

“It is clear that despite our common histories and experiences of colonial exploitation and our vast post-colonial challenges, there is a huge chasm between the regional and continental ‘integration’ policies and declarations of political leaders versus civil society’s experiences of democratisation, inclusivity, social cohesion and tolerance of others,” said SARUA.

Universities needed to “take a visible and robust lead in driving change. As sites of cultural diversity, international exchange, knowledge production and innovation, higher education institutions are well placed to become centres of regional identity formation”.

In a 2012 publication, Perspectives on Regional Identity and the Role of Higher Education in Southern Africa, SARUA CEO Piyushi Kotecha pointed out that South Africans were “not alone in their anti-immigrant attitudes”.

A 2007 study by Jonathan Crush and Wade Pendleton, Mapping Hostilities: The geography of xenophobia in Southern Africa, compared the attitudes of South Africans with people from Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland and Zimbabwe.

It found that “citizens across the region consistently tend to exaggerate the numbers of non-citizens in their countries, to view the migration of people within the region as a 'problem' rather than an opportunity and to scapegoat non-citizens” – although the intensity of these feelings varied significantly between countries.

Underpinning regional integration with a Southern African identity would appear to be an easy task given the common values, histories, colonial struggles, regional migration and cultural affinities of its countries and people, says Kotecha in the SARUA report.

But it has proved not to be so – and the xenophobic attacks in South Africa are an example. SARUA concluded that regional integration should involve both governments and civil society – including universities – with regional identity and citizenship developed from the “bottom up”, if it was to have meaning in the lives of ordinary Southern Africans.

The African response

The violence against foreigners has infuriated the rest of Africa. International conferences have been cancelled and at the extreme end, Islamist groups Boko Haram in Nigeria and al-Shabaab in Somalia and Kenya threatened to attack South Africa if it did not stop.

The Zimbabwe Universities Vice Chancellors Association issued a powerful statement last week.

At the University of Lagos’ International Endoscopy Training Centre in Nigeria, xenophobic attacks in South Africa against Nigerians and other foreigners were broadcast live on international television. Nigerian and South African medical academics present were embarrassed and angered by what they saw.

The centre is a tripartite collaboration between the Society for Gastroenterology and Hepatology in Nigeria, the college of medicine at the University of Lagos and the Gastroenterology Foundation of South Africa.

At the inauguration of the centre Dr Chris Kassianides, the Gastroenterology Foundation chair, urged cooperation between Nigeria and South Africa. Dr Tokunbo Awolowo Dosumu, chair of the University of Lagos Teaching Hospital Board, said the centre’s creation was “a potent reminder of what could be achieved through collaboration”.

Peter Adeyemi, general-secretary of the Non-Academic Staff Union of Educational and Associated Institutions in Nigeria, hinted that the union was reaching out to colleagues in South Africa. “We are talking with some of our affiliates to see how we can end these unfortunate xenophobic actions,” he said.

HE part of the solution

Dr Blade Nzimande, Minister of Higher Education and Training, believes academics and students are part of the solution to a xenophobic problem that has made South Africa look bad internationally. The acts of violence did not represent “who we are as South Africans”.

Following a meeting with university council chairs, Nzimande said in an open letter to vice-chancellors last week that universities had an important role to play in the current crisis.

“They must prepare our youth to live and interact peacefully and successfully with others in our continent and our region to ensure peace and stability and a better living standard for all. This cannot be achieved in the atmosphere of mistrust,” he said.

Although universities and colleges had not been sites of xenophobic incidents, it was unclear how badly students had been affected off-campus. It was essential that South Africa’s 70,000 international students felt safe and welcome.

“We must safeguard against any form of xenophobia and I urge universities to take all necessary measures to ensure that it does not occur,” said Nzimande.

“These should include immediate actions to safeguard students where necessary and longer term, more fundamental processes aimed at ensuring that institutional cultures are as hospitable and nurturing of students from outside our country as they are of South African students.”

Nzimande urged vice-chancellors to involve all stakeholders in discussions so “the struggle against xenophobia is shared at all levels of the university”, and he commended universities that had already acted along these lines.

“A disturbing fact that has become apparent around the current violence is the poor state of our knowledge on its causes and the policy options that we have for dealing with it, especially in the longer term,” the minister said. “This requires rigorous research that only our universities are capable of conducting and I urge them to do so.”

Pan-African power of science

The Department of Science and Technology, the Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor and the organisations that report to her met last Tuesday to “express dismay” at attacks on foreign nationals.

Pandor said science in South Africa had benefited immensely from partnerships with African nations, and South Africa would not have won the bid to host the major portion of the huge international Square Kilometre Array radio telescope without the support of African partners.

Apart from humanitarian concerns, the science community expressed consternation about how xenophobic attacks could damage South Africa's national system of innovation, as efforts to develop human capital for research had been enriched by African scientists in senior positions in South Africa’s universities and science councils.

“Without the experience and expertise of these esteemed colleagues, who also fulfil the valuable role of mentors and guides to young South Africans, science and technology in our country would be very much the poorer,” said Pandor.

“Let us also not forget that during their exile from South Africa, due to the denial of access to education opportunities by the apartheid regime, many South African scientists benefited from training and education in other African states.”

The generation of new knowledge and its applications to benefit society was a universal pursuit and by nature international, the minister said. “The outbreak of xenophobic attacks in our society violates the ethos of science as a force for global good.

“We are shamed by these incidents, and condemn them in the strongest possible terms.”