Over the past two weeks there has been a series of violent mass attacks on people allegedly foreigners — “amakwerekwere”, black sojourners in our glorious nation. It has happened mostly in the area of Johannesburg and its southern regions. It has been characterised by robbery, arson, violent beatings and murder. Nobody seems able to anticipate or prevent it — or perhaps, more worryingly, the people in power could do this, but choose not to. (However, our safety and security services are generally so inept that this is not a likely assumption; even if they passionately wish something, it rarely seems to happen.) It is not particularly new — there was a spate of similar brutality in Port Elizabeth last year, and before that in the Cape Town area.
The chief difference seems to be (apart from the fact that it has gone on for longer and has been on a slightly larger scale) that since this is happening in Johannesburg, it is receiving some media coverage. This raises a second question: how effective or meaningful is the response of “civil society”? But first things first. What is going on?
South Africa has been flooded with black foreigners to an extent unheard-of under apartheid. Some of them are legal residents — particularly wealthier ones. Some of them (a few) are undeniably refugees in the sense of fleeing from unbearable persecution or intolerable conditions at home. Some Somalians probably fall into this category — although South Africa was well-populated with Somalians long before the Global War on Terror turned their country into Dachau with a national anthem. However, most of these foreigners are illegal immigrants, in the sense that they have not passed through any of the complex legal formalities for being here, and they don’t have the kind of record which attracts the attention of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Rather, they are here because they thought that life would be better for them here, than at home.
We are talking about a lot of people. Some think they may have increased the population by a twentieth in the last decade. Compared with immigration into North America or Europe, South African immigration is a tsunami. However, South African civil society has not launched any of the propaganda campaigns against immigrants which has led to disgraceful official behaviour in those countries. South African behaviour has been pretty disgraceful on occasions — one thinks of the horrible private prison run by Winnie Mandela when she was Deputy Minister for Home Affairs — but at least it is not consistently disgraceful, and the disgraceful behaviour is not backed by official policy.
On the other hand, the acceptance of foreigners into the country is partly promoted by the fact that it would be difficult to keep them out. It is a default position rather than an active choice. Probably Thabo Mbeki is aware that it is a position consistent with the principles of the African Renaissance, but even if it wasn’t, the government would probably still be doing it. Our borders are long, and these people are energetic. If even the Americans can’t keep the Mexicans out, how can we keep the Mozambicans or Zimbabweans out? But as a result, support for the immigrants is limited to occasional pious platitudes against xenophobia and mystical appeals to imaginary concepts such as ubuntu and the Rainbow Nation.
Now that they are here, however, the foreigners are entitled to the rights of citizens. Short of voting, they can do almost anything anyone born here can. If they are HIV+ they can apply for health-care. If they are homeless they can seek houses. Most importantly, if they are jobless they can seek jobs — it is a little more difficult at official levels, where the question “Where’s your work-permit, then?” arises and where Home Affairs can get sticky about granting such permits. There is a kind of affirmative action benefiting locals which is perfectly understandable, although it is also annoying both to qualified foreigners and to their potential employers who find themselves obliged to hire a less qualified local.
But the local, on the other hand, is understandably annoyed at having to compete with foreigners. Zimbabweans, for instance, are on average much better-educated than South Africans, since they haven’t gone through the horrible mess that is our educational system today. They are also docile, diligent, and can be fired at the drop of a hat, since they aren’t citizens and the Labour Relations Act does not apply to them. Hence employers love hiring foreigners. Hence there’s a sense that foreigners are blacklegs — scabs. Where do these words come from? “Blackleg” comes from the fact that people who sucked up to management and didn’t go on strike when the union called would find themselves getting kicked in the shins by passing union members until their whole legs were swollen and black with bruises. “Scabs” is probably similar, plus what do you do with a scab, if not tear it off and throw it away?
Just to add to the issue, foreigners are prominent in trade. They often own trading stores in townships where wealthier, less desperate people won’t go, but also where poor blacks choose not to take the risk. Foreigners often set up mutual support networks to operate in this foreign land, whereas South Africans, being home, usually operate on an “everyone for themselves” perspective. Like the Jews and the Indians in the nineteenth and twentieth century, these foreigners — Somalians, Congolese, Chinese, Pakistanis, Nigerians, Zimbabweans — see a commercial niche and occupy it and use that to help out their friends and families. Sometimes the niche isn’t a tremendously nice one; some Nigerians do seem to have been active in the cocaine trade, and some Eastern Europeans in importing not necessarily willing whores. (On the other hand, the Eastern Europeans aren’t victims of pogroms on their estates in Constantia and Sandton.)
All this adds up to jealousy and fuels the suspicion that these foreigners, who don’t even speak our language and look funny, are exploiting our generosity and robbing us. This is the same kind of thing which gets said in North America and Western Europe, but in those countries, they can trust the government to clamp down on foreigners, or at least to pretend to, and to ostentatiously ill-treat foreigners and discriminate against them. In South Africa the government pretends (truthfully or not) to be on the foreigners’ side. It’s maybe not surprising that there’s an inclination to get those damned foreigners out of here, so that we can have their houses, cars and cellphone shops. (However, in the pogroms which have taken place, someone usually sets fire to such things, so nobody gets very much except consumer goods and, maybe, the opportunity to rape and/or murder someone.)
That’s explicable, and probably the explanation. One other factor might be mentioned. We have a quite paternalistic government and civil society. Everybody is always telling us what to do. Seldom do we get told why we ought to do it, or what’s in it for us. We just have to switch off our lights when ESCOM screws up (or are they just screwing us?) and always be faithful to our girlfriends and always be nice to strangers and show respect and batho pele and — boge moi! Understandable in the face of this hectoring is a reactive “Fuck you!” mood, an attitude that says “Whatever you say, I’m doing the opposite, just to show that I can and that you can’t stop me.” It’s a three-year-old’s approach, but it seems to be tremendously common. So if we are told to be nice to foreigners, no wonder that some otherwise decent people join in when thugs attack them.
Of course this approach is anti-community, but then again, there are powerful forces in our society which want to destroy the concept of community, believing that it is not profitable.
Plus, another point. In South Africa you might help others when they ask for it. You might help them when they are in trouble from natural causes. You definitely don’t help anyone when they are under attack from a person or from people. This has been dinned into everybody. So it is hardly surprising that in a time of crisis, when people are under attack, nobody helps. Where it counts, there is no such thing as community in South Africa.
An overstatement. No doubt there are communities where there is community. However, community spirit is at quite a low ebb.
You can blame the government for this — it is, probably, the area where the government is most culpable in terms of xenophobia. If the government had done more to promote communal spirit by providing all in South Africa with a clear objective to aim for and a plain means of getting there, and encouraged everybody to help — well, perhaps there would be less or no xenophobia. Perhaps. However, community spirit is not solely the responsibility of the government. It does not get delivered in trucks, packaged with labels specifying the ingredients, and distributed fairly to clamouring crowds. It comes from below as much as from above, if not more so than from above. So far as the Creator can see, there is a shortage. What’s more, where there is a shortage, it’s hard to deliver the stuff.
Now, how effective has “civil society” (which means, the facade of community which the plutocracy generates through its hirelings) been in dealing with the problem? The Creator hasn’t left much space to discuss this, and this is fair, because there is very little to discuss. The press has, as usual, failed. It has balanced uneasily on two stools — and these are the stools which come out of your anus, not the ones on which you would choose to sit — which are, announcing piously that this is a very very terrible thing to be happening, and denouncing piously that it is all Thabo Mbeki’s fault. In other words, a) it is bad for unspecified reasons, and b) it is the fault of someone else and when we get rid of him the problem is all over.
There are also people saying that the Army should be called out, since the best way of dealing with civil unrest is to send in the troops, as P W Botha did. There are also people saying that we should have kept these foreigners out and then the problem would not arise. (These people, who in other countries would be called fascists, are in our country called liberals, sometimes crusading liberals.) Oh, and people saying that this proves that we are a Very Bad Country Who Should Be Punished. These people are probably planning to emigrate shortly.
COSATU, the SACP and the TAC called for marches, which were supposed to be against food prices but then they tacked anti-xenophobia onto it. Nearly nobody showed for these marches. The reason is not clear, but it doesn’t look good. (Even if you want to have the foreigners sent home, you should want a cheaper bag of mealie-meal. Possibly, at rock-bottom, nobody really trusts COSATU or the SACP to provide them with anything in reality, which suggests good judgement.)
The ANC has called on the people to trust the ANC. That may have seemed a bit unsatisfactory, given the ANC’s total failure to prevent the attacks in the first place. So the ANC’s Secretary-General announced that on this one, the ANC would be in alliance with the Inkatha Freedom Party, the reactionary Zulu nationalist organisation, some of whose members may have carried out some of the attacks, but which is also very pleased with Jacob Zuma because he is a Zulu. Zuma himself was indignant because some of the attacks were allegedly carried out by people singing his campaign song, Umshini’ Wam (Bring me my machine-gun), so he felt he had to point out that this was absolutely not his fault. No doubt this is how he plans to govern. The government, meanwhile, called for more police (though mercifully Deputy Minister Shabangu was prevented from calling for wholesale massacre) and plans to set up a commission to investigate. Whew– so that’s all right then. Other organisations have called for more action in support of whatever they are paid to support, such as privatisation of public services and public-private partnerships (the public pays, the private interests profit) in, er, whatever seems right. Oh, and Archbishop Tutu says xenophobia is wrong. Wow, thanks Arch, we’d never have known otherwise.
So if the attacks have done nothing else, they have at least confirmed the Creator’s contention that we don’t actually have a civil society — just a bunch of hired fuckwits with megaphones. They go nicely along with the fuckwits with knives guns boots clubs and petrol-bombs. But it’s a hard way to learn a bad lesson.