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South Africa is all of us

Saturday 24 May 2008, by Mukoma Wa Ngugi and Firoze Manji

The mythologies we have constructed around us are imploding, write Mukoma Wa Ngugi and Firoze Manji looking at the background to the explosion of xenophobia in South Africa. The situation is the culmination of policies that have made the rich richer, and the poor poorer. But "the ruling elite is not South Africa. There are many within South Africa who are in solidarity with those under attack, and are opposed to the conditions that feed xenophobia."

The mythologies we have constructed around us are imploding. There is no point in running away from this. The edifices we have of Truth and Reconciliation, post-apartheid healing, rainbow nations and multi-party post-dictatorship democracies are coming down all around us.

What is more, the edifices are crushing down into a sea of ruin. Kenya, Zimbabwe, Somalia, and now South Africa are burning alongside bigger fires in Darfur and the Congo. And where a fragile peace now reigns in countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone, the poverty is so extreme that unless tackled decisively, the slide back into civil war will continue to loom threateningly in the background.

But South Africa especially represents a collective tragedy because, and perhaps naively, it has represented our collective hope for Africa. This land where, as of today, at least 42 Africans from other countries have been killed and thousands are fleeing, businesses destroyed and homes burnt, where the army is being deployed in the poor townships just like the days of apartheid, this is the land that produced Steve Biko, Chris Hani, Ruth First and others.

This is the land that produced a militant and revolutionary Mandela, a Mandela so sure of the righteousness of his struggle that at his treason trial, he described the ideal of a South Africa where “all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities”, and as one that he was prepared to die for. That was in 1964. In 1990, when he was released from prison, and with apartheid broken, the promise of his struggle became a possibility. And the new South Africa became our collective hope. We clung to that hope all the more because in the same year as South Africa held its first democratic election – 1994 - was also the year in which we witnessed the genocidal slaughter of nearly a million people in the space of a few months in Rwanda. Hope and tragedy – these are elements that hover concurrently in our collective consciousness across the continent. In the rest of Africa, we have lived with those contending emotions, but somehow South Africans believed themselves immune.

But history is not without irony for in that same statement that he submitted at the beginning of his prison trial, Mandela said:

“The whites enjoy what may well be the highest standard of living in the world, whilst Africans live in poverty and misery. Forty per cent of the Africans live in hopelessly overcrowded and, in some cases, drought-stricken Reserves, where soil erosion and the overworking of the soil makes it impossible for them to live properly off the land.

"Thirty per cent," he continued, "are laborers, labor tenants, and squatters on white farms and work and live under conditions similar to those of the serfs of the Middle Ages. The other 30 per cent live in towns where they have developed economic and social habits which bring them closer in many respects to white standards. Yet most Africans, even in this group, are impoverished by low incomes and high cost of living.”

That was the Mandela of 1964, but he might as well have been speaking about the South Africa he helped create. For the Mandela of the 1990’s was followed by Mbeki who answered the challenge of this vast economic and social inequality by throwing at it the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) strategy followed by the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) plan. These social and economic policies have enriched a minority, and impoverished the many. The poor have remained poor, but part of the class that Mandela in 1964 identified as developing “economic and social habits which bring them closer in many respects to white standards” have been the only ones who benefited, and grown rich, from BEE.

That the ANC struggle would not have succeeded without sacrifices from fellow Africans is well known. As is the fact that the South African economy from the days of apartheid has been kept afloat by migrant labor. So how did we reach this point where xenophobia has turned violent? As in any situation – keep an eye on who benefits.

A government with policies that reward the haves - those who during apartheid already had something - and punishes those who had nothing to start with, has a good reason to find xenophobia useful. What racism did for apartheid, xenophobia serves for the new ruling class – its unjust policies, its failures, its betrayal of poor South Africans, are all blamed on the amakwekwere.

What should we expect? We now know that the even in exile, some ANC members were more equal than others. The elite of the ANC today was the elite in exile. Blind to the poor of Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Mozambique or Angola when in exile, how can we expect them to see them today from the high offices of government? And if blind to the cries and struggles of poor South Africans, surely the poor immigrant is invisible.

The Mbeki government has for the short term deployed the army to assist the police. The government will do what all other governments do – criminalize: it will criminalize the youth in the slums in the same way that the Kenyan, Zimbabwean and Nigerian governments have, in the same way the American government has criminalized African American youth in the ghettoes. The structural inequalities will remain, individual youths will be thrown in jail as criminals.

But let us remember this: the ruling elite is not South Africa. There are many within South Africa who are in solidarity with those under attack, and are opposed to the conditions that feed xenophobia, opposed to the policies that attack the poor and reward the rich. There are many who understand, as did Steve Biko, that because of the vicious inequalities in South Africa, justice cannot come without redistribution of land and wealth.

Anticipating the violence,, PASSOP (People Against Suffering Suppression Oppression and Poverty) together with COSATU and other organizations marched against xenophobia on the 17th of May. Announcing the solidarity march, PASSOP said that it is “appalled by the reports of recent xenophobic attacks in Alexandria and Diepsloot. We are appealing to all political parties and social movements within South Africa to address and clarify their stances towards the important issue of xenophobia. Foreigners in townships across South Africa live in fear, much like the Jews during the Nazi Regime. Their homes are vandalized, their stores looted and even their lives are taken. This inhumanity cannot be allowed to continue.”

The Social Movements Indaba (SMI) – “a coordinating national body of social movements, civil society and activist organizations – is organizing with its affiliated organizations and immigrant communities to roll back the groundswell of xenophobia” on 24th May. Recognizing the “origins lie within the conditions of poverty in which the majority of south Africans live” and that the struggle is “for a change to the neo-liberal capitalist system that has created this reality” SMI maintains that a “rearguard struggles for safety and security of immigrants in the country must continue.”

Abahlali baseMjondolo, (Shack Dwellers) Movement says it is time for us to ask seriously the question “why it is that money and rich people can move freely around the world while everywhere the poor must confront razor wire, corrupt and violent police, queues and relocation or deportation.” Abahlali baseMjondolo which began in Durban, South Africa is the largest organisation of the militant poor in post-apartheid South Africa that includes tens of thousands of people from more than 30 settlements. It is this organization that says “A human being cannot be illegal!”

In this issue of Pambazuka News, we carry some of the courageous reports that have arisen for those who ally themselves with the oppressed. Below is a partial list of articles on xenophobia carried Pambazuka News in the recent past. They illustrate that xenophobia is not new to South Africa. But it had to blow eventually.

*Mukoma Wa Ngugi and Firoze Manji are co-editors of Pambazuka News.

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