Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Xenophobia in South Africa

This landed in my Inbox today, shortly after I had responded to Rina's comment on yesterday's post. I can do no better than to add it verbatim here, and share how my heart aches. I'm a ridiculously optimistic person, but even I have entirely lost hope.

May 27, 2008

CAPE TOWN, South Africa

South Africa is taking stock after two weeks of xenophobic riots. By the latest count, 50 people have been killed and thousands injured. Over 600 rioters have been arrested as the violence spread through all nine of the country's provinces. The images are shocking. Large, well-armed mobs of black people rampage through the townships, even the center of the commercial capital, Johannesburg . The necklace (burning tire) style of killing, so familiar from the civil strife that swept the country in the early 1990s, has made a horrific return. The plight of the foreign Africans has been desperate, with some 30,000 displaced and many of their shops and shacks ransacked or destroyed; unknown thousands have gone back home.

The damage to South Africa 's image both within Africa and beyond is very large. Perhaps worst of all, the riots have raised the question of whether the country really made a miraculously peaceful transition from apartheid to multiracial democracy, as so widely trumpeted, 14 years ago. In a ghostly reversal of history, mobs are once more in the streets, and as in apartheid days, the military has been called out to control them. The ruling African National Congress is used to thinking of large, politically mobilized township mobs as masses demanding democracy, and the soldiers out to bring them into submission the instrument of apartheid oppression. Now the roles are reversed, posing some disturbing thoughts about whether one has viewed the past correctly. Certainly the sight of workers attacking workers is a nightmare for the left. The greater fear is that this could all easily spill over into intra-South African tribal conflict.

Nobody knows how many illegal immigrants there are in South Africa . Most estimates suggest that up to four million Zimbabweans have fled here from Robert Mugabe's rule of brutality and enforced poverty. Mozambicans make up the second-largest group. But South Africa 's borders are porous and there are also large numbers of people from Malawi, Nigeria, the Democratic of Congo , Somalia and elsewhere in Africa. At a bare minimum there must be five million such illegals, though some think there are twice that number. Xenophobia is not new -- over 30 Somali shopkeepers were murdered in Cape Town in the last two years -- but the country has not witnessed civil strife on anything like this scale before.

The causes are obvious. A Markinor survey earlier this month found that only 42% of South Africans had jobs. Millions are housed in shacks lacking many basic amenities. It is now winter here and at night on the Gold Reef, on which Johannesburg was built, temperatures can fall below freezing, so the homeless can no longer live on the streets. In addition, soaring food prices and shortages of maize, the African staple, have left many hungry. Tempers have frayed and many point to foreigners as a major source of crime.

But the greatest complaint, inevitably, is that "They are taking our jobs." There is some truth to this: Employers generally find Zimbabweans and Malawians make desirable employees -- they are often better-educated, speak better English and work harder. In my little valley in Cape Town every single domestic servant or gardener is now from one of those two countries.
Some are political refugees from Mugabe's Zimbabwe but mainly they're economic migrants, drawn by South Africa's more developed economy. South Africa's per capita income is, for example, 36 times Mozambique 's.

Thabo Mbeki's government has floundered in response, clearly unaware that it has been sitting on a powder keg for some time -- despite warnings from African ambassadors here. Astonishingly, President Mbeki has failed to visit any of the trouble spots or even vary his program of frequent foreign visits. This has merely added to the general impression that the disaster is due to the government's having allowed everything to drift -- it simply couldn't be bothered to do its job. It failed to exercise immigration control; halved the number of riot police; abolished the rural commando system that used to patrol rural areas; propped up Robert Mugabe's regime in Zimbabwe, causing millions of Zimbabwean refugees to flee to South Africa; and did too little about jobs and housing for locals. Above all, in its pan-Africanist naïveté the Mbeki government assumed that all Africans are brothers. It failed to realize that to allow uncontrolled and massive immigration into a society already overflowing with unemployment is inevitably explosive.

The government has been frantically trying to suggest that right-wing whites or Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha movement are behind the attacks. This is ludicrous. Chief Buthelezi has in fact distinguished himself in this crisis. He is the only major black leader to tour the trouble spots, to commiserate with the refugees and apologize to them, and to sternly threaten that any of his supporters who join the rioters will be expelled from Inkatha.

ANC leaders have preferred to give homilies, from a safe distance, about how when the ANC was in exile they received hospitality from many African countries and everyone must accordingly treat other Africans as brothers now. This fails to understand the difference between a country hosting a few thousand ANC exiles and the competitive impact in the labor, housing and other markets of millions of illegal immigrants.

The government has treated the problem as one of xenophobia only, as if it is all about people having the wrong ideas in their heads. The underlying causes have not been tackled and there is no sign that they will be. In its pan-Africanist enthusiasm the government has now signed a protocol allowing free movement of people within the 15-nation Southern African Development Community. When this comes into effect shortly, many million more Mozambicans and Congolese could well attempt to move to South Africa. Apostles of African unity like Mr. Mbeki cannot see why Africa should not follow the example of the European Union. In effect the street mobs are demanding the opposite. Further collisions can hardly be ruled out.

Mr. Johnson is southern Africa correspondent for the Sunday Times of London.


Anonymous said...

Karyn this mass hysteria can be compared to Indan partition. That was a political move, last nail in the coffin of the agenda-divide and rule. There was Pakistan carved at the both ends of India. Now as I write it appears like Christ on the crucifix. There was bloodshed and strife all over. After this initial shock the things stablised in the newly independent nation. Probable the constitution was followed and -people whom we curse as 'those corrupt politicians' were doing some thing worth while.
The immigrants problemis as old as civilization, similar killings occur here near the borders where the poor Bangladeshi immigrants are slaughtered by the people who accuse them of snatching thir jobs. Suvival is a cruel mistress, wipes off the competition. Since we have never experienced starvation and the desperation, we cannot honestly talk about what motivates the people to kill other people.
Karyn another very sick angle to this problem is that sometimes these civil wars are sponsored by the migtier nations. It is no secret that the more these war-torn areas engade in self-destruction, the more the miners and exploiters of resources prosper.
It is difficult to pinpoint the main cause unless all the factors playing in this condition are clear. Why was power handed over suddenly, it should have been gradual and assisted handing over. May be the people involved what to see the fun of the madness and stumble that happens. To show the world, see we told you these people don't deserve independence, they are better off as slaves.
On a different level, how distorted all this is, God must have thought of human race as one, creatng different colours just as in flowers. These colours were taken by human mind and ego as symbols of superiority. Why is white better than black, is there any logic or reason to this. Hundreds of years of conditioning have embedded these stupid conditionings as facts. Now fair and lovely earns millions of dollar just selling fairness dreams to dark-skinned people. How silly, if you look at it deeply.
I feel similarly this is all a huge political game of one upmanship. The people who bear the brunt are not able to grasp this scenario. The will to be just and not just superior could have made the transition smoother. Karyn I have not read much on this so I could be wrong in my observations, but I was moved by this article and had to pour my heart out, hugs to the 'rock'.

Tinfoilstar said...

Well, I can share another gruesome story with you... but will spare you the detail... a beheading of a young woman in hillbrow... all captured frame by frame... anyway... democracy African style... freedom African style...

Minorities -- never good in Africa setting... never safe... Look at history books...

When the pressure gets on (food, water and energy security), minorities are first targeted and blamed...

Oh well... another bright sunshine day in Africa!!! At least the weather is nice

Anonymous said...

How sad that this is seen as the norm. That this behaviour can be packaged together and referred to as "Africa style". I'm fairly sure that countries outside of Africa have endured similar conflicts, as Rina's comment would seem to indicate.