23 May 2008

Xenophobic Violence in South Africa

I feel the need to follow up that ridiculous bit of nonsense with a far more serious post.

Over the last eleven days, xenophobic violence has erupted in several spots across South Africa, focused mostly in the settlement of Alexandria and at certain areas surrounding Gauteng, although violence broke out in Cape Town as well last night along with looting and vandalism.

The media has been commenting on how the actions and captured footage are like flask-backs to the Apartheid era. Personally, I wouldn’t know. I was nine when apartheid crumbled. When black children started arriving at our school, most of us didn’t even bat an eyelid. Why should we? Kids came to a school every day.

Ironically, it was our teachers’ and parents’ pointing out to us that drew attention to the past atrocities. Now, I know all the arguments for studying and understanding the wrongs of the past, but I can’t help but want to think that maybe, if the generation before us had just kept their mouths shut, we’d be living in a far friendlier country because none of us would have known any better.

Yay ignorance.

While I’m at it, I’m going to wish for a pony.

I digress though.

What troubled me the most about these xenophobic attacks (and I can’t help but notice how everyone is doing their damnedest to avoid using the word “racist”) is the complete lack of action by our government. Neither our belligerent ex-vice president and president of the ANC, the ruling party, Jacob Zuma, nor our timid president, Mr Thabo Mbeki, have ventured anywhere ear the conflict fraught areas – surprising especially considering that many of the perpetrators have been heard singing the song Lethu Mshini Wami, Bring Me MY Machine Gun; a favoured song of the struggle and personal theme-song to the presidential hopeful, Mr Zuma himself.

Even the Zimbabwean presidential hopeful and leader of the MDC, Morgan Tsvangirai, has managed to take time away from his country and political conflict with the embittered (maybe ex-) president, Robert Mugabe to address the people of Alexandria in an attempt to curb the violence at least.

Apparently Mr Mbeki is overseas at the moment. Again. One wonders if he is ever planning on coming back?

I brought up apartheid so as to make a point. People outside of South Africa assume, because of the rampant crime in our country and the sins of our past, that we are all familiar with violent crime. I think that they look at the rest of war-torn Africa and find it hard, as foreigners, to separate the open atrocities of the central and northern half of the continent from the violence and crime in South Africa. This may sound absurd – after all, violence is violence – but the crux is that, although so very prevalent in South Africa, it is still considered a serious crime as opposed to just another part of the wan and wane of everyday living, such as theft and mugging. Almost every South African has experienced crime, and has or is connected to someone who has suffered a violent crime – murder, assault, rape and even police brutality are things that I, through others, have become acquainted with – but the violence stills horrifies us. It is not yet, thank heavens, a part of our everyday lives.

So yes, crime we know, but this open aggression and wide-spread violence is something that my generation has never properly been exposed to (I make no such suggestion regarding township and informal settlement life, however – to myself an others like me, that is another world and I could never make any honest claim regarding it).

The first ten years of my life was spent in the pink haze of childhood worries and luckily I was never touched by the troubles that surrounded me during that tumulus time. As it is, I entered my adult life a free South African; no different to any of the other young adults around me; Black, White or other. The violence of the past was something that I had read and been taught about – there was nothing tangible to connect me to it.

Now, to see people being attacked and murdered for what amounts to no reason at all, I think that I can begin to understand the horror of the years that slipped by me as I was playing in my sandbox.

Forty-two xenophobic related deaths have been confirmed in the last twelve days – a number that was half as high two days ago – and with the weekend upon us and the shabeens fully stocked, who knows what news awaits us Monday morning.

And only twenty eight violence specific arrest. The mind boggles.

We’ve grown up in a world where the inefficiency of our government has become a running joke, but the more that this sort of violence escalates, the faster this joke becomes a dangerous inadequacy. In a country whose leaders are more concerned with their international profiles and more likely to lay the blame at the foot and a mysterious, malevolent third party, where do we turn when their political impotency eventually comes to a head? And what are the far reaching consequences of this inaction? Because of our own internal conflict, the media has had little to report on the violence and political squabbling that has been happening just across our border in Zimbabwe, but it’s still there, I assure you. The worries and dangers of that precarious affair have not gone away; rather, they’ve been buried under newer, more prevalent worries, to swell and fester and add to the ever present anxieties that seem to dominate the South African condition.

This new violence has been an eye-opener as to how political inefficacy is not just an inconvenience, but a danger to the lives of the people who live within that country’s boundaries.

I’m going to leave you with a link to a slide show hosted on the Times multimedia website entitled Flames of Hate. Sometimes it helps to see what’s happening rather than read or listen to it. To (miss-) quote a war photographer whose name eludes me: “I take these photos so that my mom won’t think that war is something that happens on TV.”

We’re not at war – I don’t think – but you get the picture.

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