Wednesday, May 21, 2008

At the heart of our xenophobic violence

I've agonised long over whether I should publish this post.... well here we are...I've been in Alex last week and attended a meeting of repressentataives of various religious bodies at the now, almost legendary Central Methodist Church, here in downtown Johannesburg. I listened to churchleaders making nice sounding speeches and offering pearls of wisdom and prayers of consolation. However, what has struck me at my core, was the time spend with the people, currently housed in tents, in police stations, in community halls- the odour of desperation, the utter vulnerability, yet the resilience of the victims, in the face of the raw brutality.

Yes, many commentators have refered to the desperate situation amongst South African township dwellers, have pointed out correctly that government should shoulder the blame for the lack of service delivery, for the squalor in our informal settlements, the evidently inadequate policies on refugees by our Ministry of Home Affairs and so forth. I also have an axe to grind over my Nigerian neighbors selling drugs in our community (organized and supplied by white Afrikaner males, according to Piet Byleveld) Yet, I would argue that these selfsame advocates and defenders of the mob, causing the current mayhem unleashed upon innocent, entrepreneurial and often hardworking neighbors, would militantly resist any conscious intervention towards fundamental economic transformation and redistribution of wealth in South Africa.

Let's be frank for a moment: Irrespective of the veneer of compassion for these South African poor, these advocates don't give a hoot for the poor living in shacks, or poor marginalised communities. They are the reason the current ANC government shifted gear from a strong peoplecentred RDP macro-economic policy to a policy, where 'the fundamentals are in place', for the sake of economic growth for the small elite, a compromise to protect the wealth gained before 1994. Yes, let's be honest, this fundamental shift benefited us handsomely and, irrespective of the whining and bad-mouthing the current ANC-led government, due to this system, they would remain, what is sometimes euphemistically called, 'the most fortunate'. They (we) are fine with a system, that is skewed in favour of those who 'were blessed'. Why then, I ask, would there be these explanations and excuses for the violence as if this is a spontaneous uprising of the poor, the long awaited revolt of the proletariate ?

What is crucial is to give perspective on what's happening, albeit only one perspective.
1) The xenophobic attacks did not start in Alex, 10 days ago. Alex, was only another outburst following on what happened in Cape Town, last year with Somalians, in Attridgeville and Mamelodi earlier this year, which I posted here, ironically only a few days after our Human Rights Day 'celebrations' in South Africa, but also on
Alpha Christian Community in March and Mod South in April.
2) South Africans at large, are shocked and ashamed of what's been happening. We pride ourselves as having overcome the scourge of racism and now this. It has already been pointed out by others, that this is not about foreigners in general, this is about black foreigners, those that are considered 'darker than black'. We have not yet been able to transcend the fundamentally racist colonial legacy, which, not simply divided Africa along ethnic lines, but has hammered into our psyche a brutal social and economic hierarchy. We maintain it in a highly sophisticated fashion and are surprise when 'they' (the unsophisticated) break ranks.
3) In general, there is a difficult uneasy conspiracy of silence over racism perpetrated by black people. Of course this is not the case amongst all black people, Coloureds and Indians, but it is like 'bloedskande'(incest), we don't talk about it, yet these things have a way of haunting us. How can we deal with it whilst we are still in denial? Which brings me to the next point.
4) I have a sense that we have not yet been able to translate the symbolic impact of the Truth and Reconciliation process, in terms of the realities where people live. Reconciliation is not pursued consciously, as a national priority- hence as Christi van der Westhuisen has pointed out, possibly taking a cue from Achille Mbembe's On the Postcolony, we are at heart (still) a very violent country. But then, indeed, this is not news in a world of Wars on Terror, xenophobia in Europe (Belgium, France, Italy, England and Germany), a world where violence has become the bread of life.
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