Xenophobia, Poverty and the Looming Conflict in South Africa

2012-02-13 07:53

Free State Premier Ace Magashule was right to condemn the violence which has plagued Thabong, Welkom and Odendaalrus which witnessed the torching of a number of shops owned by foreigners and their having to be escorted out of the townships by police. The premier, however, is overly simplistic by referring to this violence as the result of xenophobia.

Consider here the sequence of events in Thabong. Here, unemployed youth first engaged with local mines about jobs – wanting the mines to recruit from the local community. When this did not materialize, frustrated, angry and jobless, these youth took to the streets in a three-day rampage which resulted in 24 businesses being damaged. Foreign shopkeepers then became the scapegoat for an alienated youth to take their frustrations on.

The primary issue is one of poverty and inequality. Consider here the fact that 18 millions South Africans are living in poverty. Consider, too, that South Africa is amongst the most unequal societies in the world with a gini-coefficient of .67 with 1 representing complete inequality and 0 representing complete equality.

To put it differently, South Africa is more unequal that Lesotho, Swaziland or even Zimbabwe. More importantly, government initiatives such as Black Economic Empowerment have only served to reinforce this dynamic of inequality and have morphed it into ugly new ways.

The main driver of inequality in South Africa today is no longer between Black and White South Africans but is increasingly between rich Blacks and poor Blacks. Government economic policies thus have not challenged the economic legacy of apartheid but have added a Black nouveau riche class to an already deeply unequal society.

Such inequality cannot be sustained and hence we have the jobless and frustrated poor taking to the streets and burning shops of foreigners blaming these hapless shop owners for their economic marginalization. But what happens when these sporadic incidents of violence is directed at government as the militant poor focus the blame on government?

Already we see the formation of radical social movements at local level. What happens when these organize at national level and violently challenge the government as we see in North Africa?

To prevent such a conflagration, we need to put greater emphasis on education and the creation of an entrepreneurial culture.

There is a close relationship between education and income earned. People with a secondary education earn the bulk of income below R50,000 per annum. People with a tertiary income earn the bulk of the income in the R300,000 to R500,000 category. This means a greater emphasis on education relevant to the needs of the market and the power of the unions like the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) needs to be curtailed if effective learning without disruptions is to take place.

Recent research from the Bureau of Market Research has also demonstrated that whilst 34.5% of people earning R30,000 – R500,000 were employed, 62.3% of all self-employed people earned R750,000 or more per annum. In other words, entrepreneurs earn more. Government needs to encourage such entrepreneurs. One way to encourage this is to support small and medium business which could well serve as the catalyst for job creation. A key step here for the sustainability of such enterprise is to deregulate the labour market.

Unless we can do this, expect more Thabongs.

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