Is anybody listening?

2008-05-27 00:00

Government leaders are so staggeringly out of touch with the grim daily reality of South Africa that not even the horrifying incidents of xenophobia can jolt them to their senses. After the appalling xenophobic violence, which has left more than 40 people dead and thousands homeless, leaders, instead of dealing decisively with the crisis and its causes, as depressingly usual, looked for scapegoats, blaming criminal individuals, rogue elements of the Inkatha Freedom Party and a shadowy “third force” for “orchestrating” it.

It took President Thabo Mbeki days after the violence started, to call in the army reluctantly. The country is burning, but the president goes to Tanzania. Hardly a government leader has rushed to the points of conflict to talk directly to communities. A deadly cocktail of reasons is to blame for this xenophobic terror.

Firstly, there is a culture of violence at the heart of South African society. Violence is now seen as the norm, socially, culturally and politically, to deal with problems. The apartheid state, the liberation movements and the political forces of both the black and white, left and right, saw violence as the final arbiter of problems.

Nothing has been done since 1994 to reverse this deadly culture. In fact, in the midst of social and political crises, the democratic government, whether to disable legitimate criticisms or protests, have actually often fallen back on the hardy manual of violence.

Secondly, there is also a deep prejudice against others, which was reinforced by apartheid segregation that encouraged white supremacy over blacks. Yet, be-tween blacks there was also an artificial hierarchy, not only be-tween Indians, mixed-race South Africans and blacks on the one hand, but also within these groups, whether it was based on economic status, on whether one’s pigmentation was lighter, or the size of one’s language group.

If one was black, how an individual survived the apartheid system often depended, at least in part, on overcoming a combination of these obstacles. After 1994 foreign blacks were placed at the bottom of this system. Except for nice sounding speeches about the rainbow nation there have been few concrete efforts by the government, institutions and civil groups to help people unlearn these prejudices.

Given South Africa’s history, there will have to be a deliberate strategy to educate citizens, starting at school, at community level and in workplaces on the new civic virtues demanded in our society. To some extent in the United States, but more specifically in Scandinavian countries such as Sweden, democracy or civic virtues, as a way of life, are taught from nursery school.

Thirdly, since 1994, community solidarity has almost totally collapsed in black society. Those with an education, having political connections to the ANC, or those who managed during apartheid to be relatively well off, left the townships for former white suburbs or gated communities, taking with them their skills, business and leadership.

This latter group not only dominated the ANC, but also newly democratic institutions, and benefited from the opportunities opened by affirmative action and black economic empowerment. This has turned townships and informal settlements into ghettos.

Those in the townships and informal settlements have felt the lack of service delivery the most, whether it be the lack of housing, water, sanitation, public transport, electricity, public corruption or indifferent public representatives. They have the least access to the ANC, democratic institutions or empowerment opportunities.

A case in point is that many, more than five million, eke out a living in the informal sector. Yet, this is also where most of the black immigrants have been forced to survive, resulting in a deadly battle for scarce resources.

At the same time, the disadvantaged in the townships have now also reached a point where they want the democratic dividend of democracy: they want jobs, food, access to affordable education, health care, sanitation, electricity, transport and other services. They want their voices to be heard.

This is why there has also been an explosion of local protests. But importantly, Mbeki and the government have ignored the voices of this important sector of South Africa.

Only last week Finance Minister Trevor Manuel played down the urgency of high food prices saying that South Africa “is not even among the 50 worst affected countries.” Xenophobic violence is yet another outlet, if misguided, for the anger of the masses. If the government remains deaf, we must expect a bigger violent explosion, turned towards other South Africans perceived to be doing better. Yet, by blaming scapegoats for the xenophobic violence, the government is again in denial.

The economic downturn, the devastating cascading effects of high interest rates, and rampant food and fuel inflation, combined with poor delivery of basic services and public corruption has hit this group the hardest. In places such as Alexandra, perceptions, for some time, have been that black immigrants have the resources to bribe government officials to get houses, and licences for taxi routes and trading, while the locals have to stand in never-ending queues. The ANC, its leaders, and its democratic institutions must become more accountable, responsive and efficient.

The first step is for the government to publicly accept that it has failed its people on all levels, and commit itself in word and action to do better. There has to be immediate economic relief in the form of basic income grants to desperate families. Former education minister Kader Asmal proposed that the government grant some kind of amnesty to immigrants — the government must do this. Government leaders must physically go to communities with anti-xenophobic messages.

Unless drastic action is taken this toxic mix of latent prejudice, the government’s non-delivery, the feeling among citizens that they are not listened to and the failure of democratic institutions to protect citizens in the face of political leaders’ callousness, will not only unleash violent protest against non-delivery and xenophobic violence, as terrifying as it is, but soon a full-scale outbreak of anarchy will come about in the face of the government’s continued indifference.

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