What can be done?

2008-05-29 00:00

Recently a great deal has been written about our xenophobic riots. But at the moment it is almost the only thing to write about. It represents a huge crisis in our political and social history. We need to get our thoughts and attitudes clear and ordered. There are certainly no slick solutions.

We are faced with a battery of seemingly conflicting truths. Attacks on foreigners living in our midst are of course illegal and shameful, and need to be halted as rapidly as possible.

Clearly some of those involved in the riots are mere criminals, but to describe the whole phenomenon of angry xenophobia as criminality or a political conspiracy is unrealistic. It is true and important that during the anti-apartheid struggle South African exiles were treated kindly in neighbouring countries, but one can hardly expect that to be vividly remembered by people who have so far gained little materially from our new democracy. The frustrations of unemployed South Africans living in an impoverished society overburdened by outsiders need to be understood and addressed. The world’s successful democracies keep a close control on immigration.

Again, the government under Thabo Mbeki’s leadership has to be blamed for many aspects of the crisis. Although people from all over Africa have been targeted in the attacks, the “tipping point” may well have been provided by Zimbabwe: streams of immigrants, mainly illegal, have fled here to escape the crisis in their country which Mbeki has doggedly refused properly to acknowledge. The government’s inability to produce an economy which generates more jobs has also played its part. At the same time, however, it would be unfair and unhelpful to blame everything on the government. Among poor people anger and anxiety have been raised by the worldwide rise in food and fuel prices — although the government may be able to offer some assistance here. Beyond this, though, the fact that South Africa possesses the most developed and attractive economy on the continent means that some degree of tension between South Africans and immigrants was almost inevitable.

Whether or not we assign blame, there can be no doubt that the country is bogged down in a frightening dilemma. And we will have to work very hard together to pull our beloved nation out of the bog.

Above all, perhaps, we need strong, imaginative and inclusive political and moral leadership. The confusing relationship between the government and the African National Congress means that, in practice, the nation has no unequivocal leader. Mbeki did eventually speak on TV on Sunday evening, but his demeanour was uninspiring: cold, disapproving and wooden. Jacob Zuma addressed an audience on the East Rand but was largely shouted down. What we need is someone who can take the nation along with him or her with a warm, empathetic and determined thrust.

And what should the agenda be? Some things are becoming clear. The government and the ANC — if they can get their act together — need to work urgently on modifying economic arrangements in order to produce more jobs. The creation of employment is more important than an exclusive focus on inflation. A new and coherent immigration policy also needs to be devised and implemented.

Then there is a need for thorough education. All South Africans have to be made aware of the complexities of the current political and economic situation, and of the ways in which it might be improved. The crucial notions of ubuntu and African and worldwide solidarity need to be spoken about in such a way as to make them real, urgent and viable. Work needs to be done, too, on the whole issue of integrating immigrants into communities and harnessing their varied kinds of expertise and creativity.

Who is to do this? The schools must be deeply involved. The three spheres of government must get appropriate departments to work. But a great responsibility also rests with civil society. Mosques, temples but above all (given our statistics) the churches are well placed to provide the passionate lead that is required. And of course the NGOs. South Africa is blessed with a wide array of committed NGO workers. This may be the moment that many of them have been waiting for.

One would be trivialising our current crisis to sound too optimistic a note. The outlook is at the moment pretty bleak. But crises have often turned out to be occasions for imaginative initiatives, and that could happen now. And in the process of discussing these matters and educating ourselves we might also take in the closely related issue of the swift resort to violence, which is one of the flaws in the national psyche.

In the meantime, too, let those of us who are able to do so contribute to the organisations which are assisting displaced outsiders.

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