Political Watch

Danger that xenophobia could mutate into civil war

Forerunner of direct attacks?

Unless South Africa succeeds in coming to grips with the underlying factors driving the present wave of xenophobic violence, there is a danger that it could mutate into internecine violence or even civil war.

In May 2008, in the wake of the wave of xenophobia which, at the time, left 62 people dead and thousands displaced, the South African Institute of Race Relations in a report warned that “the violence could come to take on a more ethnic nature and devolve into a renewed conflict particularly if it spreads in KwaZulu-Natal.”

As far back as then, and subsequently, numerous studies, reports and analyses have fingered economic deprivation, poverty, unemployment, corruption, high levels of inequality and crime in marginalised communities and, especially, frustrated expectations as the driving forces behind the xenophobic violence.

In short, “foreigners” became the soft targets of communities’ frustrations with a system and policies that are failing them.

There are signs that the underlying anger in some communities could at any moment find more, or alternative, targets in the ‘blame game’ (often fuelled by political leaders to divert attention from their own failures) –  the present attacks on historical monuments being a symptom or a proxy of an increasing and wider wave of resentment:

·         In an article for the New York Times last week Sisonke Msimang wrote: “Those of us who are tired of the empty politics of reconciliation — which assumes that whites have paid for their sins and blacks have forgiven them ... We have lived with choreographed unity for long enough to know that we now prefer acrimonious and robust disharmony.”;

  • An editorial in the Mail and Guardian stated: “It would not take much for the groundswell against foreigners to be translated into violence against the Indian community, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal, where there is a long and dishonourable tradition of sectarian hatred. There is now an attempt to paint South Africans of Indian origin as ‘co-conspirators’, by suggesting that foreigners are using their warehouses or that ‘they are working together against us, the Zulu majority’”;
  • In a clear reference to whites in the country, Kenneth Mokgatlhe of the Pan Africanist Congress is quoted in a New Age article as saying about the xenophobic attacks: “The attacks are misplaced and unfortunate, the landlessness and poverty of African people in this country were never created by our fellow Africans. We are of the impression that the energy should be directed to relevant people who took our land; we deem that they are foreigners”;
  • A clearly racist remark by President Robert Mugabe, while a guest in the country of President Jacob Zuma, that he does want to see “a white face”, was allowed to pass without any comment from the South African government. In fact, within days, news broke that South Africa would be supplying helicopters to the Mugabe regime, known for its repressive and failed policies; and
  • Many observers and commentators blame the wave of defacing of historical monuments on a remark by President Zuma that the country’s problems all started with Jan van Riebeeck’s landing at the Cape.

In an article on the Daily Maverick ex-minister Jay Naidoo observes how, during the last decades, “the internecine battles within our political parties, especially in the ANC and Cosatu and the broader mass democratic movement have fractured the social cohesion and social capital we had built up in our fight against Apartheid”.

He suggests that “our conversations have to turn to a serious public debate on the underlying causes. One in four South Africans go to bed hungry and are unemployed and poor. One third lives on social grants. Corruption, incompetence and neglect resulted in a massive service delivery failure that robs so many of our people of their most basic constitutional rights: water, housing, quality education, health, toilets.” 

Naidoo suggests that South Africa takes a leaf out of the book of a Brazilian project to restore human dignity about which President Lula (of Brazil) said: “We achieved (our goals) by building accountability of the public institutions and (a) real partnership with business, labour and civil society that brought hope to the people. We put the needs of the people first. Not ours.”

New social contract

As far back as October 2012 President Zuma, at a “social dialogue meeting”, in the wake of the violent confrontation at Marikana which cost more than 40 lives, spoke about the need for a “new social contract”.

At the time, a report prepared for the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) by the Idasa Institute for Democracy in Africa noted that “pervasive poverty and inequality are perhaps the most important crises facing South Africa 17 years after the transition to democracy”. 

It is the stuff the present wave of xenophobia is made of and which could take the deeply divided South African community into devastating civil conflict if not addressed – but then in a practical, truly broad-based and inclusive national campaign of reconstruction.

It has become far too important to be left to government alone if is to go beyond the “promising words” of another “social dialogue”.

The country needs more than:

  • The tokenism that Black Economic Empowerment has become – and, as per the 2008 SAIRR report, part of the problem by creating “a very small and often politically connected black middle class”;
  • The upliftment projects of big corporations that in the end amount to little more than public relations exercises; and
  • The charity drives of NGOs.

 We need a national project or programme that truly empowers people to help themselves. Commendable projects like the Khaya Lam Land Reform Project of the Free Market Foundation should be replicated in all possible sectors; Afrikaner and other organised cultural institutions should put in effort to share their historically acquired upliftment knowledge; and the massive funds presently tied up in BEE deals should be re-channelled to empower ordinary people to help themselves instead of them becoming enslaved to welfare and a sense of entitlement.

Reccomended related article: We're screwed, share that

by Piet Coetzer

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