THE nation should have been more shocked by the reported utterances of North West premier Supra Mahumapelo, that foreign nationals who own spaza shops in the province should look for alternative places to do business. The Sowetan reported on these comments in the week leading up to Human Rights Day, a day when we are meant to remember the 69 people who lost their lives, and the estimated 180 others who were wounded fighting for the right to dignity and resisting the pass laws in Sharpeville.

It was philosopher George Santayana who said that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. That March 21 is a day of “celebration of our human rights” and not a commemoration and a moaning of lives lost in the struggle for liberation is testament to our willingness to forget and a warning of what we may be condemning ourselves to repeating.

The preamble to our Constitution declares: “We, the people of South Africa, recognise the injustices of our past; honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land”.

The xenophobic comments made by the premier were unjust; these statements go against the beliefs of those who fought and suffered for justice and freedom in our land.

Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, founder of the Pan Africanist Congress and the man written out of commemorations of the Sharpeville massacre, made this point in his inaugural speech in April 1959, when he said “the Africanists do not at all subscribe to the fashionable doctrine of South African exceptionalism. Our conception is that SA is an integral part of an indivisible whole that is Afrika. She cannot solve her problems in isolation from and with utter disregard of the rest of the continent”.

Former president Thabo Mbeki’s “I am an African” speech delivered at the adoption of the Constitution Bill in 1996 echoed these views.

“I am born of the peoples of the continent of Africa,” he professed.

“The pain of the violent conflict that the peoples of Liberia, Somalia, the Sudan, Burundi and Algeria is a pain I also bear. The dismal shame of poverty, suffering and human degradation of my continent is a blight that we share.”

Our path as a country is inextricably intertwined with that of the continent. The African National Congress owes its survival to the continent, yet a senior leader within its ranks can still appeal to our lowest common prejudices.

We know that these are common and shared beliefs because we have passed them on to the next generation.

The FutureFact survey has been tracking significant psychosocial, political and economic trends since 1998. Last year’s survey, which was conducted between October and November, offers telling insights about the attitudes, values and belief systems of South Africans. The survey found that about 55% of the 18-to 24-year-old cohort agreed that immigrants are a threat to jobs for South Africans and should not be allowed into the country; almost 60% agreed with the statement that, generally, people from SA are superior to those from other parts of the continent, and almost half agreed that they saw themselves as South African, but not African.

The governing party is clearly in ideological turmoil, unable to reconcile between its Africa agenda and how it treats fellow Africans on this land, which is meant to be just and fair. But we the people also have to decide who we are.

We must remember Sharpeville and how 69 people lost their lives fighting for dignity, equality and justice. We must remember Sobukwe, Steve Biko and Chris Hani and heed their warnings. If we don’t exorcise this exceptionalism, we are bound to repeat not just our own mistakes, but the continent’s as well. Only this time Africa may be less willing to help.

• Ndlovu is deputy MD at Livity Africa and a Bertha Scholar