Tuesday, June 17, 2008

A little less conversation, more unity, please

Currently, it is not possible to write about anything else other than the violence that has gripped South Africa over the last few weeks. Barbaric images of foreigners being burned alive and assaulted by xenophobic mobs have been splashed across most international newspapers and TV.

It has been sobering, leaving one feeling powerless, distraught and deeply ashamed. I imagine most South Africans feel the same way.

As I write, 56 people have been killed, 342 shops belonging to foreign nationals looted and 213 burnt down. Figures vary, but at least 25 000 people are said to have fled their homes, or, put another way, are now internal refugees. The police have arrested 1 384 individuals suspected of participating in the violence. When this article is printed, I fear these figures will be drastically out of date, but also a grave reminder of how quickly a life can be taken.

Everyone has a theory about the roots of the violence. Many say poverty is the major cause. Frustration of unmet expectations for economic change in the lives of the country’s poorest has finally bubbled over. The media has also been blamed for hyping up the illegal immigrant issue over the years, opening the door for a violent response.

Immigration authorities and the police have also received stick for their constant harassment of illegal immigrants, which has set a poor example. Still others say the violence is an orchestrated strategy to destabilise the ruling party, the African National Congress. Government is also blamed for ratcheting up anti-immigrant discourse on the one hand, but having an ineffective immigration policy on the other.

Thabo Mbeki’s dilly-dallying on Zimbabwe, according to others, was the tipping point. Zimbabwe’s implosion, in which the South African government has failed to intervene, has resulted in hundreds of thousands of Zimbabwean refugees flowing into the country.

There is probably truth in all of these explanations. But what is interesting, reading the different theories from afar, while knowing where different South Africans stand politically, is how one-sided and hollow most of the explanations seem.

Mbeki opponents are quick to jump on his ineptitude as the key issue. The unions and the Communist Party are quick to blame global capitalism, which has meant, they argue, that economic progress for the poor has been stymied.

Many in the ruling party are quick to roll out the counterrevolutionary discourse and propose that there is a hidden hand behind the violence bent on trying to pull the State down. And I have no doubt race or, more to the point, racism, typified by the meaningless label black-on-black violence, has been used as an explanation by some whites.

A discussion about the causes of the violence is important, but I was amazed when reading the editorials and commentary, one step removed from the reality on the ground, how self-serving they currently seem.

There have been rallies to call for an end to the violence, many have donated money for the people forced out of their homes, and public condemnations have been extensive. But what worries me is that as the condemnations fly, opportunists are seeing new openings.

Criminals can loot and rob on the tailcoats of xenophobic vigilantes, political parties can all have a dig at one another, and the newspapers are selling in their thousands. As for the majority, myself included, we can beat our breasts with exasperation and outrage, making ourselves feel better, but no-one else.

So what is to be done? I don’t have an easy answer. But I do know the constant mudslinging between different political parties and the media, all looking for the best analysis or who they can use as their next scapegoat, is counterproductive. Just as attacking foreigners will not bring the poor more jobs, vitriolic attacks and blaming political opponents will not bring an end to violence. Surely unity is more important now than division?

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, October 2007. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 6 June 2008.