Too little too late

2008-05-27 00:00

In his Canterbury Tales, the 14th century English writer, Geoffrey Chaucer, portrays a cock called Chanticleer, who allows his common sense judgment to become so clouded by his intellect, that he fails to discern the mortal danger represented by the fox, which literally woos him into its jaws by its skilful flattery. In contrast, Chanticleer’s owner, the poor widow, has no difficulty recognising the very real danger to her property and takes off after the fox at great speed.

Like Chanticleer our own government seems to wait until it is in the very maws of the predator before acknowledging that there might be a problem, although Thabo Mbeki’s policies on Zimbabwe and Aids suggest that this is not always the case. As ordinary South Africans, we have listened to the gush of rhetoric, applauded but been baffled by the African Renaissance, wondered vaguely what Nepad and all those other acronyms have actually achieved and what the “union” in African Union really means.

In the meantime, while our president has shuttled around the world in pursuit of his African dream, South Africa and indeed parts of the southern African region have steadily started to unravel. In our own country, collapsing health, social and education services, rolling blackouts, endemic violent crime and the steady erosion of the country’s values by high-level corruption and entrenched cronyism, have all played their part in engendering pessimism where once there was optimism. We have stood by and watched a once prosperous neighbour being bludgeoned into oblivion by a tyrant whose actions fly in the face of all the values enshrined in our Constitution while our own president, against all the evidence, has stood by mumbling platitudes about quiet diplomacy.

Few things, however, have shocked ordinary South Africans more than the appearance on our television screens of scenes reminiscent of the seventies and eighties. While days of this xenophobic mayhem have thundered by, government agencies, including the police, whose specialised riot component was unwisely scaled down in 2006, have been noteworthy for their ineffectiveness. It is mainly civil society that has played the role of the poor widow and provided shelter and support to those who have suffered from the xenophobic barbarity which has consumed this country.

Coming on top of a notably heavy-handed police raid in January on refugees sheltering at the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg, one cannot escape the somewhat cynical conclusion that as these people are not voters they fall outside the protection of our Constitution. Furthermore, such official actions tend to give the green light to those living in ever worsening circumstances in the crowded informal settlements around our cities.

After close on two weeks of widening conflagrations, Mbeki has at last interrupted his programme long enough to publicly condemn the atrocities, but it will take a lot more than this lame finger-wagging to restore ordinary South Africans’ shattered confidence, much less that of those unfortunates who have been the target of what amounts to ethnic cleansing.

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