Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Xenophobia and urban poverty a highly flammable mix

This week, I have published a piece which argues that xenophobia and urban poverty combine to create an explosive mix. The article looks at the central place of urban informal settlements in the strife.

I also point out that the conflict is a struggle between poor and poor (it easier for those mobilizing to lash out at those closest to them and easiest to attack) and anger turned inward.

The article argues, furthermore, that the conflict has its roots in:
- deep-seated identity issues that are linked to conflict flashpoints occurring at various points in our history.
- a clash of expectations where locals are aspirational (they want a better life and good jobs now) whereas many poor immigrants are relatively happy to grab the crumbs that fall off the economic table.
- different approaches to entrepreneurialism (and notes that researchers suggest that immigrants are better hawkers and small traders than locals).

See the complete piece at, a website of the South African Civil Society Information Service. The article is in the right hand column of the landing page.

Friday, 23 May 2008

Varied reflections on the xenophobic violence

This week I provide a range of reflections, thoughts and varied comments on the xenophobic attacks sweeping Gauteng and rippling out to other parts of South Africa.

Participants in the mobs that have launched attacks on black foreigners in our townships have given several reasons why they want to drive immigrants from the rest of Africa out of their settlements. The following points need to be made in response to comments made/views about immigrants:

Allegation: Immigrants are taking our jobs: Many immigrants take jobs that others do not want. As I have argued elsewhere, there is a clash of expectations between locals and foreigners. The locals have aspirations for good jobs and a decent life now. They compare their lot with their advancement made by various layers of South Africans, and contrast their situation with the comforts of those who have benefited from economic growth. The immigrants, on the other hand, are bottom feeders; they will take crumbs that fall from the economic table. Immigrants also have certain rights to jobs in South Africa. Their countries' economies are so linked to our country and our economy; many of the goods sold and consumed in their countries are produced here. It is only logical that people do not want to sit in their own countries (confined to a role as consumers) and instead to relocate to where they can be involved in production. If globalisation permits/ thrives on /escalates the movement of money and goods, it is illogical to expect people to stay put within tightly controlled borders.

Allegation: They are taking housing that should be allocated to locals: It is South Africans that rent out their shacks and RDP houses to foreigners. This is in some ways a natural phenomenon – using one’s assets to add to household income; it is even what the capitalist system expects of smart people in the property market. Furthermore, if it is true that foreigners are getting state housing – ahead of locals whose names have been languishing on waiting lists – then housing and home affairs officials who are bending the rules should take the blame. These officials, their palms ‘greased’, are prepared to issue ID books or allocate houses to foreign nationals in violation of laws and regulations.

Allegation: They are taking our women: This is backward thinking. Such thinking is sexist and undermines the Constitution. It also ranks with the kind of perverse thinking that informed the Mixed Marriages Act under apartheid. Women have the right to choose their partners; they do not belong to a nation, and their choices about who to marry is not circumscribed by national interest. Surely those who make this allegation – and one must assume it is men – should be able to initiate romance and marriage with partners without expecting the government to implement a protectionism system to ensure an adequate supply of potential partners for them. Surely, sir/brother/mfowethu, you can win the affection of a potential partner without help from government or a violent mob. Women and feminists should be outraged at the shameless paternalism being shown towards women.

Crime has also been mentioned as an issue in the disturbances and attacks, though not always. It is argued that immigrants and immigration contribute to crime. Those punting this view find it much harder to sustain this argument, especially since South Africans are as involved in crime. Those making the allegation also don’t spell out whether they are referring to petty crime or (something which may have more merit, subject to evidence) the fact that – due to patterns of crime and international connections involved – members from certain groups may be disproportionately involved in certain types of sophisticated or organised crimes. Of course, if anyone has information of groups made up predominantly of either South Africans, Russians or Nigerians, etc., the targets of action (including co-operating with the relevant police units) should be specific persons and the specific sites from which such crimes are organized and perpetrated.

The South Africans that are swept up in the attacks appear to be old and young, women and men as well as ordinary community members (many of whom until now have been exemplary neighbours and engaged in community building). They are generally part of poor communities, but participants in the mob enjoy wider support: undefined numbers of people in the rest of society not directly involved in the attacks.

This support is rooted in fearful and negative attitudes towards immigrants, which attitudes are widespread. The pervasiveness of such attitudes is apparent from the following findings cited by Fact-a-Day (which draws on information from Future Fact 2006 and 2007):
• 69% of urban South Africans agree with the statement 'Immigrants are a threat to jobs for South Africans, they should not be allowed into the country.'
• 81% of urban South Africans agree with the statement 'South Africa should severely limit immigration into the country from troubled African countries.' (FutureFact 2007)

It is incredible how quickly prejudice can switch over from rhetoric and a largely passive outlook into a campaign of violent attacks. It’s amazing (and dangerous) how people lose their shyness for expressing perverse ideas – for example, that it is okay and even justifiable to violently attack foreigners – and how quickly such ideas spread.

Those who engage in racially-based attacks against people (as opposed to militant actions against systems and targeting physical objects owned by government or corporations) often see themselves as superior or better, or (in our case) even more worthy of human rights than their ‘prey’. But through their behaviour they manifest a deep deficiency. By wanton killing, they take part in and forge an alliance with evil and injustice. They are equally vulnerable, they have fears (and fears cloud understanding and perspective), and they are often not sufficiently aware of the (further) dehumanizing and brutalizing effect of violence on themselves. They also fail to understand how their actions will come back to haunt them when future generations in their immediate vicinity continue to address problems through destructive violence and the taking of lives.

Clearly the combined effect of poverty and worsening economic conditions for the poorest of the poor is the crucible for the wave of attacks. (I will deal with social and economic issues in a later piece). Protest action and a militant response to such conditions are understandable and warranted. However, there are choices in how we respond to circumstances - and in how we aim and deploy militant action; and the more we build community power and influence over developments in society, the more conscious we are of the choices open to us. Through organizing and debating prior to action, aggrieved groups widen possibilities regarding actions and for actions that can lead to sustainable and more fundamental social changes. And conversely, I am leery of social actions that are not based on internal democracy and controlled through democracy.

From a different angle, friends involved in esoteric work adopt different emphases in their understanding of the unfolding events. They zoom in on issues of dignity and self-esteem, and the way these are decimated in certain contexts of deprivation.

A highly regarded esoteric leader (who I won’t name because I don’t have permission to) argues that those who lack control over their lives undertake violence as a way of feeling more in control. In this regard, anger turns to violence; and dehumanization (erosion of the divine within) plays out in violent attacks on other people. Violence then (as the feminists have repeatedly pointed out) is about power and the exertion of power over others. The guru wonders at the extent of dehumanization and marginalization that exists in informal settlements, and which has now bred such viciousness and brutality.

Another argues that the problem is that “poor, hungry and desperate people” in informal settlements are “not seen” or have become invisible. She notes that when such people become invisible they can “stoop so low as to inflict torture on their fellow neighbours”. This translates, for her, into a need to reach out and show care (probably valid as an immediate response, I would argue) and recognizing the humanity (more valuable provided such recognition can lead to change in social structures and processes) of marginalized people.

I conclude by noting: In society, the attackers are not better than foreigners or immigrants, nor are we onlookers to the rampage better than the attackers (even as we express outrage at the attacks). We are all embroiled and so need to work together to deploy understanding, democratic solutions and decisive action to unravel the deep-seated tensions and conflicts.

Dear blog reader, what are your views? Please add your comments.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

New united Black Consciousness political body to launch soon

The united or unified Black Consciousness Movement is set to launch soon, possibly in next month.

The core of the story is not new; it has been a long and winding road towards unity for Azapo, the Socialist Party of Azania (Sopa) and the Black People’s Convention (BPC). The intent was expressed as far back as 2000, and there have been previous announcements indicating that progress has been made.

But now, and with Ishmael Mkhabela facilitating, the process has apparently moved past the point of no return. And with the launch, the main leaders – like PAC leaders when it launched in 1959 – will feel the pressure to perform and deliver.

The launch is a major achievement given the many differences that lay like potholes and snares along the path. Past hurts, angry divisions, the bitterness of jilted partnerships, prima donna-ism, clashes over what needs to be done – these were all there.

The parties are in some ways splinters off the same block; and apart from needing to sort out a common vision and a shared strategic view of SA, had to overcome (or at least manage) significant personality tensions during the talks.

I will be watching the launch with a hawk’s eye. I am less interested in who the leaders will be, the name of the new animal (both contentious issues during the talks, I am told) and where funding will come from. I am far more interested in what niches the new body will seek to occupy and what programmes are to be implemented.

Leaders involved in the talks have pointed to tensions and divisions in the ANC and the ANC’s tripartite alliance, and emphasize that now is a good time to form a strong, credible left-of-centre opposition. They even point to events unfolding in Zimbabwe – and have declared that a new force such as BCM would be ready to harvest the tons of disillusioned voters that the ANC would be shedding when a similar fracturing of the ruling party happens here. Regarding the next elections, some BC voices say: “Many former ANC supporters will be looking for a party to vote for in the next elections, and we’ll be there,” while others say, “I fear the unification has come too late to make an impact on the next election.”

However – as a strategy – capitalizing on the weakness of another party is insufficient. You also have to be clear about what you are “for”.

Thus, as the launch date approaches, one might ask:
- Will the main focus for the new entity be formal politics and fighting elections? (Indications are that the new formation will definitely take part in the next elections).
Will it, alternately, place more emphasis on an identity as a cultural-political movement, working primarily in the realm of ideas, education, consciousness, etc?
- Will the new player adopt a primary focus area and if so, what choice will be made between focus areas such as service delivery to the poor; justice and human rights issues and the challenge of ensuring access to justice for all, and; effective government institutions (and accountability in these terms)?
- Will it take part in government, if given the opportunity to do so, and as a key black consciousness figure, Mosibudi Mangena, a minister in Mbeki’s Cabinet is doing?.
Will it regularly take part in or initiate social mobilization, or will it eschew mass action in favour of using national parliament as a platform?
- Will leaders continue to throw around terms such as 'Scientific Socialism' as a key reference, as some did in early stages of the talks? And if so, how will they translate such a term so that it has practical relevance in the light of the day-to-day struggles of the marginalised? Does adherence to such an ideology mean, for example, that BCM will prioritise alliances with trade unions and privilege labour issues?
- What does black consciousness mean (BC) today? [In its hey day, BC played a key role (See my blog entitled Finding the ‘fit’ between Biko’s ideas and the Tambo path to freedom, 19/09/07). Together with worker and trade union action, it ignited resistance in highly repressive times when the struggle was at its lowest ebb. What will be its key message today? Now almost everyone can be ‘black conscious’; anyone can make a fist – even companies (that want to reach the mass market), mainstream radio stations, clothing brands, advertisers, fly-by-night colleges, funeral parlours, and so on].

The various parts of the BC movement are already scarred by their past encounters with such questions. Misreading the mood of the people, Azapo boycotted the first election - and arguably lost ground among the electorate. By the time they joined the electoral system, they could only muster enough support to win one seat in parliament.

Around 1994, Azapo was the main flag bearer for black consciousness. Then Lybon Mabaso, citing differences, broke away to form the Sopa in 1996. The party split further when some opposed (and Mosibudi Mangena accepted) an offer to participate in Mbeki’s government after the 1999 elections. Those unhappy with Mangena’s strategic stance formed BPC.

All the protagonists have since kissed and made up; but the new leaders will have to do more than hug each other and smile for the cameras on launch day and after. They will need to speak with one voice on strategic issues, display respect for a collective and shared leadership, and consistently demonstrate healthy ways of debating and reaching agreement when major differences arise.

As always, I ask: What do readers think? Will the new body make a major difference to the political scene in Mzansi? Please add your comment.

Friday, 9 May 2008

Government stirs the pot at launch of report on democracy at local government level

Things are not good at local government level. That is, when measured against the requirements of good governance, according to a recently released report.

A network of NGOs, the Good Governance Learning Network (GGLN), launched its report yesterday in Johannesburg. The report follows eighteen months of research and is entitled ‘Local Democracy in Action: A civil society perspective of local governance in action’.

Based on the interplay of inputs from the presenter’s table, the launch was odd. This was so in the main because government caused a stir when it assumed the moral high ground and slammed the report for not being critical and provocative enough.

The presenter of the report, Terence Smith (who is also co-ordinator of the GGLN), made a number of key points arising from a substantial report that referred several times to the existence of a “crisis” at local government level.

Discussing democracy and participation, Smith noted that in many cases, participation (the obligation for community participation in local governance) was observed in the breach. The ward committee system – a key structure for citizen participation – was weak with these bodies lacking focus and meaningful decisionmaking power. Ward committees allow municipalities to meet formal obligations but “crowd out” more effective forms of participation, he noted. The Integrated Development Plans, although somewhat improved and lately “more credible”, remained a problematic area. According to Smith, the report asked whether IDPs had become too complex, and were a barrier to rather than an appropriate tool for community participation.

He referred to implementation of municipalities' indigent policy, observing that far too many deserving people are insufficiently aware of the benefits due to them. He stated further that local governments were generally doing poorly on local economic development, and that gains seemed to be generally confined to tourism-related initiatives.

Speaking as respondent, Idasa’s Steven Friedman, noted that reviews could either take a consultancy approach (“tweaking existing policies or approaches”) or a critical stance. He charged that the CGLN report was a good example of the consultancy orientation; it merely provided “helpful hints on how to tweak things”. However, he argued, the consultancy approach was ill-advised in a context where the existing policies were the cause of the governance problems and the crisis of confidence at local level. Friedman argued that NGOs should be far more critical and ought to be making full use of the relatively greater open political ‘space’ in South Africa today. Friedman criticised various aspects in the report: indigent policies (coupled with targeting and the means test) were demeaning and further marginalised the poorest; capacity building was not the answer to municipalities' skills problems - local goverment should simply do less; more effective citizen partipation will lead to better technical solutions.

Then government, through the Department of Provincial and Local Government Director-General, Ms Lindiwe Msengana-Ndlela, raised eyebrows when it questioned various aspects of the report. The director-general:
- observed that critical thought, coupled with alternative proposals, was necessary in debates about policy and practice.
- complained that the report did not highlight “best practice”.
- bemoaned that this report did not state “what should be discontinued”.
- said the report erred in devoting a major section to ‘service delivery’; this was a term government used -- NGOs should rather be talking more holistically about “development”.
- said she detected aspects of unfavourable agendas e.g. neo-liberalism and certain ideas from the past, and this caused her to scrawl “No, no” in pages in her copy of the report.
- lamented that the report was weighted in favour of “known issues”; she wanted a report that provide more new information.

There was limited discussion following the speakers’ presentation; it was, after all, a launch. But, over drinks, delegates mulled over the more provocative or, in the speakers’ own words, “impolite” comments that were left hanging in the air.

The government’s line at the launch was interesting. As one delegate to the launch noted: “It was if the government was saying: ‘These problems have nothing to do with us. Unless you can bring us a different report, a better or more critical report, we cannot even begin to consider or discuss what you think ought to be done by those in power’. In those terms, it was the neatest of tricks.

The launch featured a most unusual input by a government spokespersons at a function of partners and – even in the truncated discussion from the floor that followed – a remarkable avoidance of the pertinent issues at stake. Participants were left none the wiser about what is to be done about the report's stark judgement: that aside from local government elections, there is little by way of effective accountability, community participation and active citizen involvement in local governance taking place.

The launch was held at the Centre for Policy Studies. Participants in the network include CPS and various NGOs active in the field of local government issues.

The network’s criteria for good governance are:
- Democracy
- Responsibility
- Accountability
- Equitable service delivery and poverty reduction.

The GGLN receives backing from Mott Foundation, Ford Foundation and GTZ.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Great opportunity for intellectuals to play a bolder role

It is a time of change and renewal – or, at the very least, a time of upheaval - in the continent and the country.

These are times when intellectuals – however defined – need to take stock of the role they will play. Their role in change processes is not an exclusive role – there are other forces at play, including class forces, popular forces, economic factors and shifts in global power relations. But given their role in mobilising new ideas – organizing interests, mobilizing consensus and, as Edward Said put it, changing minds and expanding markets – their potentially have a substantial part to play in moving things in positive and hopeful directions.

Intellectuals are active on many fronts, and operate extensively beyond the ‘traditional’ spheres of intellectual activity. They are used and deployed by all kinds of interests – in roles as consultants, journalists, professionals, policy advisors, marketers, makers of cultural products, and so on – and it is high time they reviewed what it means to be an intellectual and what responsibility necessarily accompanies this function.

From the progressive viewpoint, intellectuals should side with what is right, should be part of making a better world and should strive, as Said has noted, to combat prejudice, to advance justice and to be free of double standards as regards their attitudes to treatment of human beings.

Various voices have commented on the role of intellectuals in South Africa during its complicated transition process. President Thabo Mbeki has lamented that intellectuals are not playing their role and wept, so to speak, for black intellectuals. Xolela Mangcu hit back, arguing that the ruling party muzzled intellectuals, and has used its powers to restrict intellectual activity. Mangcu rails against (to lift from a chapter title in his recent book) "Mbeki's assault on black intellectuals". The dispute aside, there is agreement that, going forward, the country needs more vibrant debate, more open discussion of options and alternatives and more evidence-based engagement around burning issues.

There is now much more open space for discussion and debate in South Africa. This is so for various reasons. There has been a dramatic change in leadership at the ANC’s Polokwane conference last December – and it seems that since then, we regularly witness divergent positions emanating from within the ruling party on key policy matters. Leading up to Polokwane, a surge of grassroots pressure has thrown wide open the debate about the pace and the methods of social change.

Furthermore, the winds of change battering Zimbabwe seems to be good for the democratic climate in other regional countries. We in South Africa must face up to the possibility of a second transformation in recently-liberated countries; and we must discuss under what conditions that may occur (or should occur), and what the political goals of such a change should be. Also in the present period, various societal issues – resurgence of racism, service delivery crises – are coming to the boil and a range of governance issues demand attention – the role of parastatals; the relationship between parliament(s) and the executive.

It is a good time for intellectuals. They can be in the fray as South Africa’s precious democracy – so robust in many ways and yet so fragile in parts – gets reengineered.

They can play a much more prominent role. They can be much more vocal, they can, to a greater extent, stand up for generally recognized human rights, eschew narrow interests, transgress when blind compliance is required; they can debate and ask questions, speak with/for the marginalized and – most of all – encourage democratic debate.

Intellectuals can play a dynamic role in fanning the democratic participation that seems to be a prerequisite for the economically vibrant, well-functioning, just and winning society we are building.

For intellectuals, the moment is ripe to be in the forefront of generating ideas and options to sustain/improve our democracy and to vastly improve service-delivery to the poorest. To contribute to getting better policies, to ensuring better policy implementation, to strengthening accountability systems and to expansion of effective leadership in government departments.

Speaking as a progressive (and admitting my bias), intellectuals have the opportunity – more than ever – to be clear about supporting our democratic transformation as it strives to eradicate the pain and division of the past and build a prosperous and just future for all.