Over the last few weeks, South Africa has been rocked by xenophobic violence.
According to The New York Times, approximately five million immigrants have settled in South Africa since the end of the apartheid in 1994. Many are refugees, or are pursuing economic opportunities in the country, which has become a relatively stable multiracial democracy. Many native South Africans are greeting these newcomers with prejudice, hatred, and violence—destroying local businesses and in some cases committing murder. Today, South Africa’s immigrant population lives in fear.
Unfortunately, the trend is not new. In 2007, a year before xenophobic attacks would break out nationwide, violence erupted in the small township of Zwelethemba, about two hours from Cape Town.
A Facing History teacher at the local high school recognized that his community was in crisis.
Milton Phangwa saw that many of his students held prejudices against their immigrant neighbors, and that they believed the baseless rumors about foreigners that were starting to take root. He wanted to make a difference in his community and at his school through an educational campaign. Milton applied for and won a 2009 Margot Stern Strom Innovation Grant, and used it to inform his community about the fragile position that their neighbors faced in South Africa and the horrors that forced them to leave their homes.
At a time when xenophobic violence is again on the rise in South Africa—and, indeed, worldwide—Milton reminds us of the critical role of education and the power of teachers to make a positive difference.