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How xenophobia disrupts children’s education

The recent violence has caused many parents to withdraw their children from school (Photo: Janah Hattingh CC BY 2.0)
The recent violence has caused many parents to withdraw their children from school (Photo: Janah Hattingh CC BY 2.0)

In this week's guest blog, Isabelle reflects on the recent spate of racially motivated attacks in South Africa. Drawing on her own experiences, she considers the consequences of the violence on children's education.

Many Africans from all over the continent flee conflict or dictatorship regimes, and come to South Africa seeking asylum as well as a way to improve their lives. The Guardian reports that out of South Africa’s population of 51 million, immigrant numbers may vary from 2 million to 5 million people. These immigrants are from a range of countries including the DRC, Ethiopia, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Somalia, and Zimbabwe.

It is in this context that xenophobia arises. Xenophobia is dislike of or prejudice against people from other countries. However, as it is black African foreigners who have been specifically targeted here, many consider the hostility and violence to be symptoms of “Afrophobia”. Regardless of semantics, the fact is that people are physically and psychologically scarred by this discrimination.

Children are inevitably victims of such conflict. Innocent and vulnerable, they are often unable to comprehend the situation and don’t have a voice during a crisis like this one. One of the toughest challenges that they have to face, as a result of xenophobic actions, is an interrupted education.

Suspended schooling

Times LIVE reported that false claims of attacks on South African schools have been spreading through platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp. The rumours were that angry mobs had entered classrooms and assaulted foreign children and teachers. The police dismissed these as social media hoaxes, yet they have created enough fear to compel people to remove their children from school. One parent said, “I don’t know what to believe but the violence is real so I cannot take a chance with my child’s life.”

Children from a migrant school in South Africa
Some children are educated in migrant schools, like these youngsters from Lukhanyo Primary School, Zwelihle Township (Photo: Godot13 CC BY-SA 3.0)
Many children have missed school due to several other incidents. Along with their families, some were forced to flee their homes after xenophobic attacks. Others lost their school items, such as books and uniforms, when their homes were looted by local residents. Furthermore, many parents are worried about safe transportation from refugee camps to the schools. When interviewed by IOL News, one Zimbabwean father said, “Children are very smart; they know that they should have been at school today. On top of missing home, they are now missing out on a part of their childhood.”

Another problem is that many foreign children were born in South Africa (as someone who was also born there, I know that this doesn’t grant one any rights or lessen the discrimination). Therefore, those children are unfamiliar with the languages and cultures in their countries of origin. With the rise in xenophobic violence, their families will have to take them back to their home countries, which could negatively affect their education and social well-being.

Inequality in education

According to the BBC, although the situation seems to have calmed down recently, some children still live in fear and several schools have been closed temporarily. At a school for children of asylum seekers, a child from Cameroon said he’s scared that after school, people might pass by and attack him. He also said that he wished the violence would stop, because some teachers don’t come to the school due to the crisis.

Moreover, the government has been accused of implementing xenophobic polices in South African schools. Although the constitution states that everyone has the right to access public education, many migrant children have been turned away. In a separate BBC report, a non-South African parent mentioned that his children were denied admittance into government schools – without being given a reason for the decision. They were finally able to attend a private school run by other African migrants, but this came with its own problems. One administrator from a school that accepts migrants said that they have faced difficulties: not only have people tried to close them down, but the education department has not fully legalised them.

Childhoods in chaos

UNHCR tents at a refugee camp on Olifantsfontein, Midrand, Johannesburg
UNHCR set up camps in South Africa after racist violence in 2008 (Photo: NJR ZA CC BY-SA 3.0)
Xenophobia doesn’t just deprive children of their education and sense of security, but it also affects several of their rights under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child: non-discrimination, protection from all forms or violence, special protection and help for refugee children, and the right to relax and play. It disrupts their lives through instability, and it also breeds fear and animosity between different ethnic groups and minorities. Additionally, the refugee camps in which children stay have tents mixed with men, women, and children; conditions are often unhygienic and illnesses spread easily.

A City Press article notes that Save the Children South Africa has conducted ongoing research into the effects of xenophobic violence on foreign children. Children who see xenophobia occur against their families (some have witnessed murders) could face life-long psychological trauma. Furthermore, many migrant children are targeted by the police because they don’t hold South African documents, and most of them don’t feel safe where they live. Currently, tens of thousands of children across the region are at risk of being displaced.

No simple solution

Xenophobia can spring up anywhere in South Africa; when I was studying at a university there (as a foreigner), sometimes I would come across mild forms of xenophobia. As a non-black person, and one of the very few people from Mozambique, I myself was never targeted, but there was often a discord and visible divide between groups of black South African students and Zimbabwean ones. If this sort of selective discrimination can thrive at a tertiary institution where people have equal access to opportunities, then it’s no wonder that antagonism has reached dangerous levels in rural areas and among lower income groups.

There is no single solution to xenophobia, and the situation will only change when mindsets change. It is the result of numerous factors: a fragile economy, deep-rooted attitudes and misdirected resentment, xenophobic statements made by political figures, lack of government intervention and ineffective delivery of public services, as well as a history of inequality and intolerance. Unfortunately, while the nation struggles to keep xenophobia under control, the education and futures of countless children are jeopardised.

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