HRC plays it sorry but safe

2010-12-04 00:00

IN 2008, a wave of attacks against refugees and migrants from elsewhere on the continent swept South Africa, killing scores and ravaging the lives of thousands. The brittle side of the “rainbow nation” was exposed and the shame lingers.

The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) has now released its report on the violence against “non-nationals”. The report is pretty much summed up by the euphemistic pomposity of the word “non-nationals” — is “foreigners” or “aliens” too emotive?

The report, although well intentioned, is consigned to ineffectuality by the SAHRC’s failure to address the political challenges resulting from those awful events.

The first nettle is that of a denialism regarding xenophobia that is as pernicious as that which once paralysed the government’s response to HIV/Aids. Former president Thabo Mbeki insists to this day that the attacks were not aimed at foreigners, while National Police Commissioner Bheki Cele told a media conference this year that “I will only believe there is xenophobia in our country if communities stand up and tell foreigners to leave”.

The belief that black South Africans are incapable of anything but fraternal goodwill towards other black Africans is an article of political faith for many in government. It is thus unsurprising that the police were hopelessly unprepared for the 2008 attacks and, unless there is a change in attitude, are unlikely to do any better in the future.

Denialism paralysed the government in 2008, with violence raging for a week before Mbeki mobilised the military. The SAHRC glosses over this abject failure of leadership, merely noting mildly that there still is “no evidence of introspection by the Presidency of the timing or overall effectiveness or appropriacy of the executive decision to deploy the army.”

The need for presidential vigour in responding to explosions of social conflict is not even mentioned in the main SAHRC recommendations. Nor, for that matter, does the SAHRC find it anything more than “regrettable” that the Defence ministry, among unnamed others, failed to co-operate with the investigation.

Another nettle is that of justice. Officially, 62 people were killed in 2008 and at least 670 wounded, dozens were raped, and at least 100 000 people “displaced” — that’s officialspeak for “fled for their lives” — with property worth millions looted or destroyed by local residents and their leaders.

Yet not a single person has been jailed for murder and of the only 597 prosecutions of any kind that were brought, a mere 159 have been completed, with 98 convictions.

These are distressing statistics, especially given that only a fraction of criminal acts led to charges, but the best the SAHRC can do is the feeble admission that there was a “limited attainment of justice for the victims”.

Then there is the politically explosive matter of accountability. The SAHRC notes that there were many claims that the police used “excessive force, were accessories to attacks or looting, incited violence … or stood by while crimes took place.”

The SAHRC makes no finding on this and appears not to have pursued this worrying accusation with the Police ministry.

Finally, there is the nettle of local government structures where “poor infrastructure, undercapacitated police and privatised, authoritarian leadership structures may intersect to create conditions where the rule of law barely exists and impunity reigns for rogue leaders and common criminals alike”.

The SAHRC solution is basically to ask the political parties to encourage their rogue leaders to behave better in future.

The only time that the SAHRC tortoise boldly sticks its head beyond its carapace is when it comes to the media.

It is likely, the SAHRC opines, “that media images and reporting made visible the level of impunity enjoyed by many perpetrators, reducing the disincentive to committing crimes publicly”. Ah, at last the villain.

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