Ubuntu: Fighting Xenophobia in South Africa

Mary Kazembe and her family would have never expected the heartbreak and turmoil that xenophobia—an intense, irrational hatred or fear of people from other countries—would have caused them after moving to a neighborhood of Johannesburg in search of a better life. They left their home in Zambia because of a lack of food.

On May 18, 2008, they awoke to attacks on the news. They heard on TV that foreigners were being beaten and couldn’t believe it. Then it happened to them. Neighbors entered their home. Their identification documents were stolen. Neighbors threw stones to break windows and then set fire to the curtains. The eldest son, John, was attacked and Mary's father, Maxwell, never recovered from the trauma and died of a stress-induced stroke.

The Kazembe family is not alone in their struggle. Refugees are vulnerable to the high levels of random crime that afflict South Africa. Poor levels of education and low salaries often lead to municipal offices being staffed with people who tend to exclude refugees because of their prejudice against foreigners.

The family has since fled to the Kgosi Neighbourhood Foundation where they found refuge.

"Ubuntu" is an ideology rooted in the South African culture that roughly translates to "I am because we are." It is in the spirit of this ideology that the Together+ campaign seeks to unify communities in Johannesburg.

Together+ began after Notre Dame alum, Paul Horn, of the Kgosi Neighborhood Foundation in Johannesburg, contacted the University of Notre Dame through Robert Sedlack and the Pellegrino Collaborative about the opportunity to involve design students in addressing xenophobia in South Africa. Paul's background and knowledge of South Africa, as well as his ability to connect us with people who were directly affected by the xenophobic attacks, were crucial to the success of this project.

It started with the first assignment to Robert Sedlack's senior-level "Design for Social Good" class in the fall of 2011 to come up with ways that they, through their design work, could create positive change. When we traveled to South Africa over fall break to do research and fact-finding, we knew the project would be on-going. At the end of the fall semester, 10 students from the class of 12 followed through on pursuing the project the following semester.

The class came up with a total of four projects: a mural project that involved over 200 people from the local community to paint over hateful xenophobic graffiti during a community cookout; a series of informational posters that focus on health care rights for refugees written in six different languages (English, Zulu, Sesotho, Portuguese, French and Afrikaans); a "Welcome to South Africa" guide that describes in detail the rights that refugees have when they move to South Africa; and a children's book called Blooming Together that is about to be deployed in 300 schools across South Africa.

Blooming Together tells the story of four seeds that are blown into a South African garden, and as they grow, they realize they look very different from one another. A wise grasshopper who has traveled across the African continent overhears the conversation, jumps down from a tree, and tells the flowers why they all look so different and that it's their diversity that makes the garden so beautiful.

An Ideas that Matter grant from Sappi was used to start most of the above projects, helping us bring Together+ from an idea to realization. We are currently in the process of distributing the books to the schools, and figuring out ways to get the posters and welcome books distributed as widely as possible. Future plans include scaling the project for other South African communities, as well as refining it for other regions of the world affected by xenophobia.

Have your own idea for a nonprofit design project? Apply for funding from Sappi's Ideas that Matter program.

Images courtesy of Together+


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