Final Word

Irresistible lure can be a deadly trap


As South Africa is again gripped by a devastating wave of xenophobic violence against fellow Africans, the question arises, what lures these migrants to our shores?

Xenophobic incidents in South Africa have occurred in the country from within months after our first fully democratic election in 1994. The website South African History Online records how armed youth gangs in Johannesburg’s Alexandra township in December 1994 and January 1995 destroyed the homes and property of suspected undocumented migrants and marched them to the local police station.

Since then, hardly a year has gone by without some incidents and in 2000 seven xenophobic killings took place in the Cape Flats district of Cape Town alone. Then there was a peak in May 2008, again in Alexandra, from where it spread. Eventually 62 people were killed, 342 shops looted and 213 burned down.

Late in 2009, as it became harvest season in the Western Cape, migrants from especially Zimbabwe were targeted by local residents in the district of De Doorns. And so the sad story continues.

What’s the lure?

There is no absolute consensus among analysts and researchers as to what lures people from other parts of Africa to South Africa and keeps them flocking south, despite this history of xenophobia.

The history of the migration south goes back to at least the 1970s and 1980s as economic and socio-political conditions deteriorated in a number of countries after colonialism had been brought to an end.

It picked up momentum after 1994 on the back of what one migrant from Ethiopia in 2008 described as follows: “I walked barefoot for six months from Ethiopia to South Africa. I slept in bushes and ate wild animals.” And, he said, Mandela’s promise of a better life for all sustained him on his journey.

Not all the stories of the migrants end in tragedy. In this particular case, off the back of keeping body and soul together with change earned as car guard and ‘parking attendant’, he acquired a bachelor’s and a master’s degree before enrolling for a PhD.

And many other migrants succeed in building better lives for themselves and their families by being entrepreneurs and/or building reputations as hard, productive workers in a country that, from where they start their journeys, appears to be the land of promise, hope and opportunity – that is until the ‘lure’ reverts to its roots and can become a deadly trap.

The illusion of a ‘lure’

It turns out that the word ‘lure’ (defined as ‘something which allures or entices, an attraction’) probably started off its own migration into English, where it arrived in the early 14th century, from Middle Low German loder (‘lure, bait,’) and German Luder (‘lure, deceit, bait’).

From its Germanic roots it travelled via the Old French word luere to English, where it today can mean anything from an inducement to pleasure or gain (enticement) to a decoy for attracting animals to capture or bait to catch fish. At one point during the 15th century, it was also used as a collective word for a group of young women.

Originally ‘lure’ was the term for an illusionary device employed by German falconers. It consisted of an object made with a bunch of feathers or leather, attached to a long cord, and used to recall hawks in training.

For thousands of African migrants moving south to the lure of the land of “promise, hope and opportunity” it often also turns out to be not much more than a mere illusion.

by Piet Coetzer

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