Whose song shall we sing?

2008-05-27 00:00

Did you know that people from Lesotho all walk humped over, because they spend so much time climbing the mountains? Or so our previous Zulu gardener told us, in the course of claiming that he could always spot a Mosotho even before a Mosotho said a word. He knew from their humped back. He did not approve of them and thought they should go back to the mountains.

Therein lies the seed of the xenophobic attacks that have horrified us all so much. Everyone has their own explanation. “African people are always tribal at root.” “The locals are lazy and they resent the foreigners who work so hard.” “The criminal element is seizing the opportunity.” Or the National Intelligence Agency (NIA): “It’s clearly the work of a third force at work again, just like before the 1994 elections.”

So who’s to blame? Traditionally militant Zulus? South Africans in general for being a violent lot? The foreigners for being willing to work hard for small wages? President Thabo Mbeki for being soft on Robert Mugabe who has driven a third of his people into exile? Or is it the shadowy anti-liberation “third force” again, as the NIA implies, seeking to discredit our not-so-new government?

The NIA is plainly being ridiculous, but all of the other explanations have a grain of truth in them. Foreigners are desperate and will work harder for lower wages. Crispin Hemson’s article in The Witness suggested that the children of foreign immigrants work harder at school, presumably for the same reasons of insecurity and needing to survive. Mbeki has indeed connived with Mugabe to his everlasting discredit. South Africans on the whole are somewhat insular and unused to foreigners.

So, quite rightly, we are all sorry for the immigrants, many living under dreadful conditions and now in fear for their lives and livelihood. It’s hard enough being an immigrant anyway. Missing home, family, familiar customs and familiar food, all causes huge stress, as again The Witness pointed out in a recent health article. Home is where we feel secure. Home is where we feel we belong. Immigrants, legal and illegal, have left that behind because they hope to make a better life for themselves despite the stress.

And so all of us — newspaper editorials, government spokespeople, church spokespeople and university spokespeople — have spoken out in strong and self-righteous condemnation of the perpetrators. No effort, we are assured, will be spared in tracking and prosecuting them. Our horror is appropriate. What has happened is cruel. It is inhuman. It can’t be defended.

But what about those who have turned on the foreigners? What pity for them? Our old gardener’s attitude was regrettable. He was a curmudgeonly fellow, albeit with a fine turn of phrase. But from his point of view, he only had work two or three times a week. There was no other work for him, in late middle age, with unfulfilled dreams and a family to support. He wanted to put down some money on an RDP house. And, as he saw, it, foreigners came and took away the few job opportunities that might come his way. His dream and his house would remain out of reach forever. Charity towards foreigners was something that only those whose modest dreams were already in reach could afford.

There has been much talk from the government spokespeople about the generosity that Zimbabweans and Congolese and others showed to South Africans in exile. “How then,” they ask, “can we bite the hand that fed us?” But our gardener and, I suspect, almost all of those currently causing mayhem in Alexandra and the other townships, were never in exile and have no reason to feel grateful.

Yet those now causing the violence were always in exile in a different way. They were in exile under apartheid in their own land. They were the dispossessed, the ones with no access to education, the ones continually harassed by police, the ones not permitted to live in the towns and not able to afford to live in the homelands to which they were banished. There was no glamour or heroism in their exile, but just misery and a feeling of not belonging.

And I suspect that for most of them they feel they are in exile still. Not for them the aspirations to join a middle class. They still have no homes, but live in informal settlements. They still have no car, but take taxis or walk to work. They still have no access to proper education. They still have no job security. And, rightly or wrongly, they feel that the government does not care. The offices of Home Affairs, the hospital wards in the public hospitals, the courts and the police, are not places where they are made to feel welcome and at home. Civil servants treat them with the same disrespect as ever. They still do not belong.

Is it not interesting that many of the demonstrating crowds have sung the Jacob Zuma song? Zuma has been as outspoken against the demonstrations as anybody. His song, though, has gone beyond Zuma to become a song of revolution and the target of their anger is no longer apartheid but the current government. They feel that the current government is no more on their side than the previous apartheid government.

I don’t think their perception is fair. In its often bumbling way, our government does want to uplift the poor. But as yet it is far from delivering the goods. Unless we have a better idea, it is not for us Witness readers in our relative middle-class comfort to point fingers. But it is not for us to point fingers at the demonstrators either. They cling to their small foothold in their own country. They want so much to belong. And they see the incomers, the wave of foreign immigrants, as threatening that precarious foothold — and like anyone else in that position, they want to push them off.

How sad for the foreigners. But how sad, too, for those who still feel themselves to be foreigners in the land of their birth. “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” the psalmist wondered when the Jews of old were in exile in Babylon. And how shall the poorest of the poor, the dwellers in informal settlements, the unemployed, sing the Lord’s song until their cry is heard? All that is left for them is the Zuma song. “Bring me my machine gun.” Will anyone hear the song?

• Ronald Nicolson is a retired academic and Anglican priest.

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