I’m not sure what happened to the dream of the Rainbow Nation but I think it’s probably safe to say both dream and rainbow have vanished. The past few weeks have been “interesting” to say the least. The xenophobic violence that reared its ugly head killing about 62 people, injuring some 670 and displacing more than 100 000 people has left many of us perplexed. D and I have had long discussions as to what may lie behind the inexplicable display of violence that has been experienced. Could it be sociological? Yes. Could it be theological? Yes. Is it the result of socio-economic policies? Yes. Is it the result of high expectations fuelled by lack of delivery? Yes. Is it the result of political lethargy? Yes. Is the result of a lack of education? Yes. It is all these things but it is also more – and it is the more that is almost too frightening to put into words. It is a barbarism and brutality that smacks primarily of Hitler’s Germany but also of Pol Pot’s Cambodia and Milosevic’s Serbia. It speaks of a baseness in the human psyche – the shadow self, the untamed beast.
Take this story and make sense of it if you can.
A Somali shop owner lived in one of the Cape Town townships/shantytowns for over seven years. He lent his predominantly Xhosa neighbours money, did their shopping when they’ve were unable to, gave their children sweets. He was a part of their community and his prices were better than the supermarkets. Yet there he stood in his shop two weeks ago when his neighbour walked into the shop and started toyi-toyi-ing. He said to her “Sisi [sister], you must sing when you dance,” not realising that her dance was a Judas kiss which brought all his other neighbours into the shop. His neighbours looted the shop, burnt it down and chased him from his home and neighbourhood screaming “Hamba amakwerekwere, hamba!” (Go, foreigner, go!)
There is no logic in this action. This man had done nothing to them. In fact, he had helped them, yet this was how they repaid him – by turning on him and destroying everything he had.
It’s not an isolated incident. In recent weeks events like this have unfolded across South Africa.
Angela’s husband has experienced much the same. For two years he has lived amongst his neighbours, renting a room from a local woman. As a qualified welder running his own business, he has created burglar bars, sliding gates and security gates for the people he lives amongst. Yet, on top of never wanting to pay him (after all, why should they pay a foreigner), two weeks ago they looted the workshop where he worked and stole most of his equipment. He now has to either start from scratch or find employment with a company. The irony is, these same locals are now asking when he'll come back and do more burglar bars for him. As he says, he doesn't want to go back, it's not safe and will never be. Foreigners, he says, are natural targets from local criminal elements - and others, simply because they're foreign
As events have unfolded, foreigners across South Africa have been necklaced and burnt to death, they’ve been attacked and victimized, they’ve had their belongings stolen or burnt. Many fled with just the clothes on their back. Locals have shown a complete lack of human compassion, understanding - and basic humanity. A negative energy which has touched everyone has pervaded the country like an unexpected, rampant cancer. Of course, one might say it was not that unexpected. And it wasn’t – it’s been waiting to happen – it started happening five years ago (and that’s without mentioning South Africa’s long history of ethnic violence). But the government in its “wisdom” has, as ever, failed to act - and continues to do too little, too late.
It would, of course, be gloriously easy to say, as so many do, “Oh, this is the legacy of apartheid.” To that, I say, "Rubbish! Wake up and smell the roses." Yes, of course, apartheid was a deeply dehumanizing system, no one denies that, of course it has left scars. But we are fourteen years on and huge efforts have been made to heal the rifts. Yet today, racism is more alive and well in South Africa than it has ever been. It is conceivably far worse than ever.
Angela’s husband and I were chatting this morning.
“You know what they say in the townships,” he said, “why they want this Zuma as president? Because they say he is going to chase away the whites. They don’t want whites in South Africa, they want only themselves, they hate everyone else. They look to Zimbabwe and they say, yes, that Mugabe, he has the right idea, he chased away the whites. They’re mad, these people, crazy. They’re ignorant. They don’t know what the reality will be. They will have nothing. South Africa will end up like Zimbabwe – and unlike Zimbabweans, these South Africans they don’t want to work, they don’t know how to work. They want everything, but it must be given to them for nothing.”
My own experience of many South Africans bears this out. The resentment and hatred continues to brood and brew. It is targeted at minority ethnic groups, irrespective of colour or creed. Alongside it the culture of entitlement and non-payment continues to grow.
“You know,” said Angela’s husband, “they were attacking everyone they saw when we left. It didn’t matter that you were black, if you were blacker than them, they attacked you. Even their own people. It was only when people could prove they spoke their language that they stopped beating them, but everyone else – local people and foreigners – who didn’t speak their language, they attacked, even the old ladies, the grandmothers.”
(Do take into account that South Africa has 11 official languages and eight non official languages...)
There is a strong sense among those I speak to that this violence is but the beginning. That it will, in time, spread from attacks on foreigners to attacks on the Indian, “coloured” (mixed race), white and other smaller ethnic populations.
The ANC government has had fourteen years to make a difference – and it has failed miserably. President Thabo Mbeki continues to argue that there is no crisis in Zimbabwe. I suspect he still believes that AIDS is the white man’s hex on the black man and that it can be cured by the African potato and a goodly dose of garlic. He has presided over an education system which is in tatters, health services which have failed miserably, and borders that are as porous as sieves. The fact that it took him two weeks to act and another two and a half weeks to speak out against the xenophobia, also speaks volumes, as does his refusal to invite the UN to lend assistance to the thousands of refugees housed in tented camps in the middle of a wet and cold winter. One can only assume that along with Bob from up North, he’s done a deal with the devil (or maybe the Chinese). Of course, as to his successor, Jacob Zuma, currently facing charges of fraud and corruption (which he and his cronies are doing their level best to quash), I think it would be safe to say, he’ll go with the highest bidder. As it is, his message changes from day to day depending on what any given audience wishes to hear.
Those who think the writing isn’t on the wall for the “Rainbow Nation” are surely living in a fool’s paradise whilst imitating the good old ostrich.