After having witnessed an upsurge in xenophobic attacks in 2015, an Eritrean former shopkeeper and now a PhD candidate in the school of Applied Human Sciences at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Aaron Tesfai became an activist. He shared his experiences as a shopkeeper and an activist with the Daily Vox.
I came to South Africa in 2013 and started working for my brother in his shop, I still help him on weekends. In 2015 an upsurge in xenophobic attacks began, it was the first time I got to witness it although it did not affect me directly. Everything felt heavy with the circulation of information about the attacks and targeted areas. I had to stay indoors at all times.
As someone who started out as a shopkeeper, I haven’t experienced much of what others have gone through, especially those who are based in townships; where the sense of belonging for South Africans, among other things is common.
There have been different theories about foreign nationals, first it was about taking people’s jobs, crime and now it’s the accusation of selling fake food. If anyone is found to be guilty of this they should be reported to the authorities because it’s against the law. The shops that people operate in are very small and for someone to produce something they require certain equipment such as machinery, so has anyone seen any?
The people spreading these allegations might be benefiting from problem or situation of unrest and tension, but they fail to support their allegations with evidence. They could be politicians and organisations whose purpose is not to benefit the ordinary citizens.
But it seems to me that leaders are using it as a scapegoat from not delivering and accountability.
Deception is how they maintain the status quo.
Since my arrival I have had the privilege to interact with South Africans and they are quite innocent and very trusting people. If you tell them something they believe you, that is why even with these theories they easily believe whoever gives them the information.
Poverty and lack of knowledge has contributed so much to tensions and divisions between South Africans and migrants. When people loot you find that there’s an element of poverty, and yes there’s that of criminality but that of poverty can’t be ignored since it’s driven by desperation. It’s a matter of survival.
As Africans we can learn a lot from each other, especially in terms of skills. Skills transfer is very important and I’ve met a few non South Africans who are doing a great job in assisting South Africans with that. South Africans can actually benefit from working hand-in-hand with migrants.
After witnessing 2015 xenophobic attacks I started getting myself into activism as a way of opening myself up to other people from different walks of life. This was a life changing experience for me, I got to interact with different groups and practiced social cohesion.
Activism is the first step but the only problem is that everyone seems to be working for their own pockets. Even some of the NGOs are no longer doing the job since they rely on funding and they still have to pay salaries.
Dialogues have been started as the first step but conversation alone can’t curb the prevalence of poverty in communities or change the entire situation. More work still needs to be done to bring people together. Race is still another major factor causing divisions and as Africans we have so much hate for ourselves and each other. Our minds are still colonised.