internal refugees

2008-05-29 00:00

As the xenophobic violence subsides, at least for the time being, this country is faced by the immediate twofold consequence of masses of displaced people to be cared for and buses full of disillusioned and frightened foreigners fleeing back to their countries of origin.

The images are heartbreaking and it is difficult to believe that this is not Somalia or the Sudan but South Africa today.

Those displaced have at last been called refugees by the government, but this is only because of their internal migration. Those fleeing from Zimbabwe in particular were previously denied this dignity on the grounds that there was considered to be no political persecution in that country.

Yet even though these desperate people are now acknowledged as refugees, the government’s response to their welfare has so far been far from adequate. There is political wrangling about where the refugee centres should be and there is no concerted plan to provide appropriate care. Once again it seems to be from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and religious bodies that the chief practical response is emerging.

The government resorts to appointing inter-departmental committees and President Thabo Mbeki, having eloquently described the violence as “an absolute disgrace”, has left the country with apparent nonchalance to visit Tanzania and Japan.

It is important to acknowledge a point made twice this week in feature articles in this newspaper that, while the xenophobic attacks cannot be excused, a problem of massive unemployment, especially among young South Africans, lies at the heart of the outbreak.

The ministry of intelligence prefers to suspect a hidden “third force” of right-wing elements cynically fomenting the violence, as was indeed the case in the early nineties. Such a conspiracy theory comes across now as a scandalous smokescreen for the authorities’ failure to deliver on promises to achieve “a better life for all”.

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