by Suren Pillay
During the past 10 years I have seen reports and heard anecdotal evidence of threats, attacks, victimisation and simmering tensions in respect of foreign Africans in South Africa’s townships, but it is the violence of this month that has brought the phenomena into sharp focus.
This week we woke to a horrific image on the front page of the Cape Times of Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave, a Mozambican national who was set alight in full view of the residents of Ramaphosa Park, the informal settlement to the east of Johannesburg, where he lived. According to media reports, the attacks began in the township of Alexandra and have now spread to other areas in and around Johannesburg and violence in the provinces of Kwazulu-Natal and Mpumalanga and in the city of Cape Town might soon follow.
The reaction to the photograph marks a disjuncture in how we imagine “the nation”, and ruptures certain conceptions of it. The picture is causing what we might describe as a “scandal” – one that is out in the open for all to see: refugees, the most vulnerable people on this continent are being attacked and killed by the poor of South Africa’s townships, who, too, are counted among the most vulnerable.
In this, they are not exceptional. For centuries, capital, goods and people have been moved and traded and exploited in the business of colonial expansion, industrialisation and globalisation. This has given rise to tensions and animosities within and among communities and nations. Throughout colonised Africa, indigeneity has long been a political issue: the colonial state distributed rewards and punishment along these lines, ensuring that where you came from was a determining factor in how you were treated.
In his reflections on violence after colonial rule, Frantz Fanon observed with prescient, foreboding clarity: “The colonized man will first manifest this aggressiveness which has been deposited in his bones against his own people … the colonized man is an envious man”. Without meaningful decolonization of the society to benefit all, Fanon warned, this envy in the post-independence period turns on outsiders: “From nationalism, we have passed to chauvinism, and finally to racism. These foreigners are called on to leave, their shops are burned, their street stalls wrecked…We observe a permanent seesaw between African unity, which fades quicker and quicker into the mists of oblivion…”
But how we are responding and what does our response say about how we understand the violence? I am concerned that when a very vocal minority determines the discourse and the agenda, and how a wrong is to be understood and righted, because they posses the cultural, social and economic capital to do so, that it might not address the problem but rather contribute to it.
I am part of an HSRC research team that has been hastily assembled to look into the matter of the current violence. An aspect of the reporting that seems to be shared by elites – from business leaders, to many in the state, to NGOs – is outrage about what is happening. This takes various forms: the newspapers carry stories headlined: “mob nation”, describing the perpetrators as “thugs”, “hooligans” and “barbarians”; others implore South Africans to embrace fellow Africans and to seek unity in diversity.
To understand what is going on, we need to understand the subjectivity out of which this violence is emerging. How can we account for it? How is it being articulated? The HSRC team is conducting focus groups in the communities where the violence occurs to get a sense of these feelings. One of these communities is Imizamo Yethu in Houtbay. A small, but growing informal settlement on the slopes of the mountain, IY, as it is known, comprises of Namibians, Mozambicans, Zimbabweans, Chinese, Malawians and South Africans, mostly Xhosa-speakers descendent from the Eastern Cape. Its demographics and geography make it, in some ways, a microcosm of South Africa.
We begin with the premise of “us” and “them” and in IY it is immediately apparent that we are dealing with multiples of these categories. There is the “us” – South Africans of African descent – making permanent their residence in this increasingly formalising informal settlement; the “them” – foreign Africans, both economic migrants and political refugees – trying to make a living and seeking peace away from troubled homes; the “us” – the community of white, middle and upper-class residents of Hout Bay; the “them” – the entire IY community, whom the former would rather have removed from the pristine picturesque valley because the latter increasingly gives their exclusive area the look of a Brazilian favela; the “us” – the older so-called Coloured fishing community, and so it continues.
Our team finds out that IY has a vibrant community life, and that its development forum (CDF) is very active. A range of political organisations operate here, and there are two very active community development workers (CDWs), who also happen to be officials of the ruling party. The CDF works closely with the station commander of the Hout Bay police station, a very innovative woman who attempts to make the police station a community centre of sorts, and consults and works closely with those who live in the area. No reports of physical violence against foreign nationals have yet been reported from IY, but shops belonging to the latter have been looted.
We find out very quickly that the CDWs are angry – not at foreign nationals, but because two years of community work to build relations between the locals and foreign nationals is being undone by a very vocal and insistent group of residents in Hout Bay. The CDWs are angry because the white residents of Hout Bay, on hearing the stories about attacks on foreign nationals, are putting increasing pressure on the police to escort foreigners from the area; they are angry that white residents are arriving at IY and removing the foreign nationals in their employ themselves; and they are angry that all of this is done without consultation, particularly because after the foreign nationals leave the area, the looting of their shops, homes and businesses begins.
Now, this is but one recurring story and I think it is instructive. The CDWs and some researchers doing field work in the IY area describe how some NGOs, and young, mostly white, activists and residents have been seen near IY with posters and placards, imploring the residents to say no to xenophobia, and to embrace tolerance, diversity and other Africans. Good intentions are no doubt behind the actions, but again the community of IY is not consulted. And so begs the question: are these actions useful?
In the rush to find solutions and to act, the nature of a problem is assumed rather than probed. And its manifestation is assumed to be the problem, rather than a symptom. Recall the German political theorist, Hannah Arendt, who noted that: “No paradox of contemporary politics is filled with a more poignant irony than the discrepancy between the efforts of well-meaning idealists who stubbornly insist on regarding as ‘inalienable’ those human rights which are enjoyed only by citizens of the most prosperous and civilized countries, and the situation of the rightless themselves.”
There is a disjuncture between those whom Arendt describes as the “rightless” and those most prosperous. But, let’s adapt Arendt to our condition, to say that we are not talking about the rightless in this instance, but different ways in which rights are being engaged, claimed and protected. And that rather than viewing as different entities a first world and a third world, a coloniser and the colonised, or developed and underdeveloped, we are talking about geographically proximate, but economically, socially and culturally distinct communities of apartheid within the same state.
In this Manichean world, some are asserting and claiming their rights themselves. And some are asserting and claiming rights on behalf of others, mediating between these worlds. There is an increase in the judicialisation of political discontent in South Africa. That is to say, the addressing of political demands and discontent post-apartheid, has corralled politics into legal channels and constitutional discourses. We are communities asserting and claiming certain rights, not only through legal and acceptable ways, but also through ways that we have labelled as criminal, as thuggery and as hooliganism.
The HSRC team is encountering widespread discontent within informal settlements about a range of welfare-based promises that are either slow in the offing, or mysterious and opaque: the provision of housing is not fast enough, and where there are new housing settlements there appear to be irregularities; there is a lack of jobs and job creation appears non existent; there is a lack of consultation, and political party branches are weak and focused on electoral politics; and there is a general sense among people that they are being ignored. So when the violence breaks out and the political elites, the NGOs, the charities and the middle class, mostly white residents, focus on the plight of foreign nationals and ignore or admonish the black South African residents, it serves to further polarise feelings.
Another question begs reflection: when do violations of rights or lack of delivery of those rights become the stuff of scandal? When we talk about violence, threats, and animosity towards foreign Africans, we are talking about something that has taken on the proportions of a scandal and commands attention, energy and action. We talk about addressing xenophobia through the injunction to tolerance, through the allocation of citizenship rights, through the language of diversity and community, through the protection and upholding of human rights. And this is all good and well. But I am doubtful about the efficacy of this response, if it is designed and intended to address the violence. An exclusive focus on human rights or an appeal to embrace otherness does not resonate with the potential perpetrators, and in some cases might increase the animosity toward the potential targets of violence.
Let’s look at the images of those who carry out the violence more closely. Many are young men who live in informal settlements, where the violence is, for the most part, taking place. We now know that two-thirds of South Africa’s unemployed are under the age of 35, and that 75 per cent of those unemployed young people, mostly men, are neither studying nor working and have never had a job in the formal economy. If we look at the main looters of stores, the main constituency from which those carrying out violence come, we see young, unemployed men, discontented and lacking in formal education.
The violence perpetrated against foreign nationals is our scandal; manifest and appalling. We must ask ourselves, however, why the equally manifest and appalling structural violence that condemns people to unemployment and lack of education, that assaults their dignity, imagination and hope, is not the scandal that mobilises the middle classes, the residents of comfortable suburbs, the bulk of NGOs and the media into action? Is it not an abdication of responsibility, of citizenship, to leave that to the state, bemoan its inefficiency, but deem political mobilisation the responsibility of someone else?
The middle and upper class residents of Houtbay and those driving around the perimeter of IY with their placards saying “No to xenophobia”, are doing little to work with and through the local organisations. They are not supporting the slow, less visible, day-to-day work of those who actually live and organise within a context that recognises that neighbour will have to live with neighbour; that the message of love and tolerance will find little traction if it is not accompanied by a political struggle against the structural violence that places vulnerable people in situations of poverty and inequality, and leads them, sometimes, to do awful things to each other.
It can only be a myopic middle class sensibility that does not recognise that this violence will continue to find its other, the weaker, in the closest and that it is symbolic, a manifestation of a kind of politics that cares less about the formal institutions of parliamentary constitutional democracy, less about the uproar and outrage of the very small, but dominant bourgeois civil society – the chattering classes.
Yes, we must act on our feelings of compassion, empathy and even outrage. But we must also be aware that when we speak out, and speak loudest, we are silencing many others. So, perhaps a different, more ethical political gesture is necessary: one that involves speaking to, rather than a speaking out; a dialogue with, rather than a diatribe against; a listening rather than a lecture. With such gestures we might be able to do good by acting in concert, in community and in a manner that promotes less the distinction of identity and more the inclusivity of us.
This story features in the Burnin’ and A-Lootin’ section of Chimurenga Vol. 16: The Chimurenga Chronic (available here).
Set in the week 18-24 May 2008, the Chronic, imagines the newspaper as a producer of time – a time-machine – which travels backwards and forwards, to place these events within a broader context and thereby to challenge the logic of emergencies and immediate needs that characterise contemporary African media.Buy the Chronic