The events of the last few days have been harrowing. Africa has watched in horror as various acts of lunacy have destroyed the properties, and in some cases lives, of foreigners living in South Africa. A lot has been said about it – for this is a complex situation which requires extremely nuanced perspectives. But, in the midst of all that, I choose to make a basic observation. It goes without saying that something deeply fundamental has gone wrong.
Human life has been cheapened
In all of the chaos, we should acknowledge that somehow the sanctity of human life has been abandoned in a large section of South African society. It seems that life has lost its value, that humanity has ceased to be the most significant aspect of our world. It seems that our most valuable asset, life, has been emptied of its value. The question is: why? Why have we ceased to care about life, about human flourishing? When did we cease to see our ourselves in our neighbour’s shoes, seeking to treat the neighbour the way we would like to be treated? Why have we ignored the golden rule? When did we become so foolish?
It seems that life has lost its value, that humanity has ceased to be the most significant aspect of our world.
On the surface, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that the present crisis was stoked and stirred by public statements from the nation’s leaders. Faced with the challenges of a struggling state, growing unemployment, an ineffective medical care for the general public, a dwindling economy and many other challenges, South African leadership have blamed foreign nationals. A few weeks ago, Deputy Police Minister Bongani Mkongi made the following remark:
How can a city in South Africa be 80% foreign nationals. That is dangerous. That in Hillbrow and surrounding areas, South Africans have surrendered their own city to the foreign nationals. The nation should discuss that particular question. … Because if we do not debate that, that necessarily means the whole of South Africa could be 80% dominated by foreign nationals and the future president of South Africa could be a foreign national. We are surrendering our land and it is not xenophobia to talk through this. We fought for this land from a white minority, we cannot surrender it to the foreign nationals.
No one seeks wisdom, not even one
Mkongi may have been correct in his analysis, but he failed the litmus test for a man of his stature in society, he lacked wisdom. I think this is why society is failing. No one seeks wisdom, not even one.
There is truth in the claims that there are too many foreigners in South Africa. A lot of the foreigners are undocumented, and have resided in various parts of the country for years. Indeed there is a problem, for it becomes difficult to track the number of people who are using resources. Further, it leaves South Africans vulnerable, because undocumented foreign nationals can break the law and easily get away with it. But Mkongi’s statement and the recent violence we have witnessed is far from a wise response.
Wisdom teaches us how to live. If we ignore wisdom, it is likely that we will fail
The Old Testament book of Proverbs teaches us that success flows from wise living. These are wise principles by which God fashioned his world, what we might call cause and effect. They are principles that can make our world a good place to live, shaping people and communities. Wisdom imparts right values and teaches us what to value. Wisdom teaches us how to live. If we ignore wisdom, it is likely that we will fail.
Revising Israel’s story
On this particular issue, I remind you of the nation Israel. Israel became enslaved in Egypt, where their livelihood had been saved and sustained during a devastating famine. They moved to Egypt as a family, or small tribe, to join their brother Joseph. He had become Prime Minister, a man of good standing. But a few hundred years later, when Joseph and his generation had died, Israel’s status in Egypt was that of rank slaves (Exodus 1:1-14). It was in this the lowest of moments that God visited his people and redeemed them. He took them from slavery and began to build them up as a nation, the nation he promised Abraham. At Sinai he gave them a law to live by. This law was more than rules, for it was loaded with God’s wisdom, which would cause God’s people to flourish.
the LORD says, ‘When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong… and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt’
One of the key aspects of this law regarded the treatment of foreigners residing among them. Countless times in the Pentateuch (Genesis to Deuteronomy), the Lord commanded Israel to treat the foreigner like they would treat any other Israelite. In Leviticus 19:33-34, for instance, the LORD says, “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” Notice the reason that God gives for this command, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
A reminder and a warning
This reason carries two important dimensions: (a) a reminder and (b) a warning. Israel are reminded that they were once also foreigners living in another land. So, they were to treat foreigners like they would treat other Israelites, because they have had the experience of knowing what it is like to be mistreated in a foreign land. They had experienced the marginalisation of being an alien and a stranger.
they were to treat foreigners like they would treat other Israelites, because they have had the experience of knowing what it is like to be mistreated in a foreign land
The warning is more subtle. Upon being reminded that they were slaves in Egypt, the wise person would have recognised that since something like this had happened before, it could happen again. That warning is really an implication of the command. Yet it is powerful because it places the Israelites within the reality of their own history, allowing them to soberly reflect on their treatment of others. The golden rule is embedded in this commandment: do unto others as you want done to you (Matthew 7:12). For sure, the account in 2 Kings informs us that this eventually happened. The northern kingdom of Israel was exiled in Assyria and the southern kingdom of Judah to Babylon.
God stops short of saying what goes around comes around. But injustice, which is closely related to folly, tends to backlash. We need only think of Jesus’ parable about the ungrateful servant (Matthew 18:21-35). The command in Leviticus is God’s wisdom for his people Israel, along with the rest of the world. It is loaded with principles our world would never deny. It presents life as dynamic. People’s circumstances change, things do not remain the same. The wise person is aware of this. South Africa, or at least the perpetrators of the recent wave of xenophobic attacks, need to be reminded of this reality.
An example is not too far from them. Zimbabwe used to host foreign nationals from Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, Congo and others when things were good. But Zimbabwe’s status changed for the worse and now they need help from other African countries. This must be a warning. What goes around comes around. Wisdom calls out in the streets.