Spreading violence

2008-05-20 00:00

It is clear that communal violence around a highly emotive issue can spread like a veld fire. This is what this country is seeing at present in the alarming and distressing spread of violence against foreign immigrants in the highly populated province of Gauteng.

The spark was lit in Alexandra and was quickly fanned into flame in nearby Diepsloot. It has now spread to the East Rand and into the central Johannesburg district of Hillbrow, where foreign street vendors have been attacked. Naked criminality has hitched itself to xenophobic acts and at least 12 people have died with many more left injured. The psychological damage of such gratuitous violence is not easy to measure and will last for a long time.

All the country's political leaders have expressed concern and outrage over these events and President Thabo Mbeki is correct to have emphasised the need for a two-pronged approach. Firstly, effective police action needs to bring the violence under control, difficult though this may be, and secondly, careful probing needs to be undertaken to penetrate the causes of the violence so that these, too, can be addressed.

The country is facing a traumatic symptom of an accumulation of socio-economic and political crises at home and in neighbouring Zimbabwe from which millions of desperate citizens are fleeing as refugees. Mzilikazi's flight with his followers from Shaka in the early 19th century to the area around Bulawayo has now become a massive exodus in reverse from the rule of Robert Mugabe.

South Africa is a heterogeneous society evoking the Tutu-Mandela vision of “a rainbow nation” living in harmony together, yet introducing also the possibility of internecine strife and misunderstanding. This country’s history is full of instances of such strife, culminating in the apartheid era that idolised racial differences in an explosively divisive way. Against this background, the continuing challenge facing the new democratic order is the creation of a unity in diversity which embraces an acceptance of “the other” no matter how different — or how foreign — the other may be.

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