Kgomotso Matsunyane

Who shoulders the blame?

2008-05-22 12:16

Kgomotso Matsunyane

Our helper, Ous' Selina did not arrive at work on Monday, and when she reappeared on Tuesday morning it was to tell us of a frightening weekend of terror, mayhem and murder. She lives in an informal settlement, and was caught up in the xenophobic violence that gripped and continues to prevail throughout South Africa as we speak.

I ask her how it all started, and the explanation goes something along the lines of "Our settlement wasn't affected, but then the Shangaans started attacking people."

I ask what the Shangaans would have to gain from attacking others. "I don't know, but now everybody is attacking everybody. Those not from this country have had to sleep in the bushes with little children. Some are even voluntarily asking to be taken to Lindela. Can you imagine? It's so bad that people are asking to go back home!"

This fresh spate of xenophobic attacks is nothing new, unfortunately. When I was living in Cape Town well over a year ago, Somali refugees were being killed at an alarming rate of one murder per month, and this over a period of two years. I'm yet to hear an official call this situation a crisis and treat it with the immediacy that it deserves.

What I saw on TV this weekend, i.e. the scenes of the mobs, mostly including thugs and drunks that were marching (and conveniently looting) through Jo'burg brought an uncomfortable reminder of the days when Inkatha supporters would march through townships and cities alike, armed with "traditional weapons" to get their points across. It was a time when war seemed like a grim reality, and once again that feeling has come to shake us all out of our collective stupor.

But we can't blame the mobs without understanding the context of a populace that is frustrated by a lack of delivery by government on its constitutional promises - education, housing and health, as well as access to water, plumbing and electricity, amongst others.

The gap between those who have too much and those who have too little has become too large to ignore, and those who don't have are fed up. And when the marginalised feel trapped and unheard, they lash out at the easiest targets - those even more on the periphery, the poorest of the illegal immigrants.

I don't know about you, but the government proposing a commission to investigate the source of this violence can be best described as stupendously inadequate. The week-old death toll is already at 25 and people are being burnt alive for god's sakes, how many more casualties do we need before acting swiftly here?

Reminds me of the 80s

South Africa is shamefully a place where only if you're considered "too black" do the police still have the right to stop you to ask for your ID - uncomfortably reminiscent of the 1980's when I lived in Hillbrow and the police could detain groups of black people randomly and at their whim for not having the right papers.

It doesn't help that the police are known to sometimes round up illegal immigrants for the sole purpose of collecting bribes from those who can afford it, and shipping the rest off to repatriation centres. So when you send these same police to the affected informal settlements to "control" the situation, do you honestly expect them to do a good job or to inspire trust?

Of course we all want to know what the real dubious source of all this madness is, but I would surmise that action is much more critical right now than yet another commission about a commission. There's also suspicion of a "third force", yet another fraught association with the political violence of the 1980s and early 1990s.

That this violence against predominantly African immigrants is happening in the same week that we should be celebrating Africa Day makes it probable to conjure up a direct correlation between the two.

If I was president of the country, or even the president of the ruling party for that matter, instead of empty sound bites to the media, I would have dropped everything to physically be present at the affected areas to demonstrate that I care enough, and to take charge of the situation.

Incidentally, hunted by the nationalists in South Africa, both Mbeki and Zuma spent a lot of time being protected by African states while fighting apartheid. Judging by their damp squib reactions to this matter, you wouldn't know it.

What you and I can do: The Gift and the Givers truck will receive donated items for the displaced at Village Walk from 08:00 to 22:00 until Friday (blankets, clothes, coffee, sugar, tea, soups, anything for babies and disposable cups and plates).

The Red Cross collection point is at 41 de Korte Street, Braamfontein. On Saturday there is a march starting at 09:00 from Mark Park on Empire Road.

  • Kgomotso Matsunyane is a partner at TOM. Pictures, an award winning TV and Film Company in Jo'burg

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