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.

1 comment:

ramo said...

frank cant but agree with your comments the answer to the question of "what is to be done" is very complex - but we should start by analysing the weaknesses in the state . The governments response at all levels.
We should start by applauding the actions of thousands of South Africans who have rallied to the crisis and have taken the initiative in the face of government and paralysis amongst all the political formations. Especially the teacher unions.

one can go on and on but there is a crisis - it has mobilised civil society and now we must push for these formations to continue to create a space in the forums that matter - the alliance must not be confined to the big three.