South-African violence is a mutiny

Just weeks before Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday, South Africa is shocked by an unseen explosion of xenophobia. Is this the end of the rainbow-nation ‘where black and white can walk full of pride without a trace of fear in their heart’?

The deadly anger came from the poorest people in townships like Alexandra (Johannesburg).  With sticks, machetes and axes, they took their rage out on the despised amakwerekwere, economic refugees from Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Malawi and the rest of Africa.  The violence is one more example of the consequences brought about by an insufficient social policy, and of the perverse mechanism that makes the powerless attack those who are even more powerless.

The South-African Institute of Race Relations estimates the amount of South-Africans who have to survive with one dollar a day at 4,2 million, double the amount of 1996.  South-Africa’s economic growth has fallen from five per cent the past three years, probably to three or two per cent, and inflation is exceeding ten per cent.  With the increased food and fuel prices, this adds up to a severe blow for the inhabitants of the townships.  And it is not only the poorest who desperately attack the those who arrived last and thus constitute the most fragile group.  Even bright people like Graça Machel – Nelson Mandela’s Mozambican wife and ex-wife of Mozambique’s first president Samora Machel – seems to lean towards blaming the victim. In a recent interview I had with her, she responded to a question about the immense poverty gap in South-Africa refering to the three million Zimbabweans who are staying illegally in the country. ‘They are putting a huge pressure on the public provisions’, said Machel.
According to Steven Friedman of the Institute for Democracy in South-Africa there is no basis to the claim that illegal Zimbabweans and Mozambicans are stealing jobs, hospitals, schools, houses or other provisions from ‘native’ black people.  ‘A lot of migrants even don’t claim those provisions, feeling discriminated and not being welcome.’  A lot of Mozambicans, Malawians and Zimbabweans work as gardeners, security agents, waiters or housemaids.  In many case they also crank up the informal economy, practising a self-sustaining activity.  ‘Are they then stealing jobs from others or contributing to society?’, Friedman asks retorically.
To blame ‘criminal foreigners’ for the countries woes, is a game as old as the state itself.  South-Africa is being antagonized by towering crime-statistics, with an average of 52 murders a day.  In his outstanding analysis of post-apartheid South-Africa, Beyond the Miracle, journalist Allister Sparks points out that crime started rising already in the eighties, when the South-African police had their hands full with a black rebellion, and the country was swamped by drugs.  By the time Mandela was sworn in as president, crime syndicates were already firmly rooted in communities and it was too late.  Without a doubt migrants, now but also in the past, had their share in criminal activity.  Recently a South-African diplomat, grown up in Alexandra, told me how simple it was today to find a Zimbabwean hitman in her township to get rid of someone.  It is not uncommon to find that the explosions of so called xenophobia are the effect of territorial conflicts between druglords, the battle for taxiroutes or conflicts of interest in illegal streetmarkets.  But again: crime is not a sole right of “foreigners”.
The uncontrolled immigration of recent years –Internal Affairs is corrupt as hell and bordercontrols contain human flows as effectively as a colander contains water– has widened the existing gap between poor and rich in South-Africa.  Now that chances to leave poverty behind, seem even smaller than before for the poorest, the bomb exploded.  Are the policies persued by Thabo Mbeki’s governement to blame for the xenofobic violence?  Dit it happen because “Mister Delivery” couldn’t provide all the houses, public provisions, schools, grants and most of all the jobs he promised?
‘South-Africa is investing more per capita in education than any other country’, says Piet Croucamp, professor in Political Sciences at the University of Johannesburg. According to him the neoliberal policy of Mbeki offers sufficient financial support for social provisions.  ‘This year there even was a surplus on the government budget.  Nevertheless, this support is not used efficiently, partly because the ANC cherishes a deeply rooted distrust towards technocrats.  Lots of money is even returning into government coffers without being used.’  Maybe it is the lack of management and skills, even more than the neoliberal signature of Mbeki’s politics, that is causing problems in this country.
South-Africa’s option for neoliberalism, after the democratic elections of 1994, was born more out of necessity than choice.  ‘By the time the figures were apparent, it became clear that no money was available for any social experiment whatsoever’, Marc Maharaj, an ANC-insider, told Sparks.  The apartheidsregime left the government coffers empty, the agricultural sector was bleeding after years of oversubsidising, and the mining industry would soon land in rough financial waters.  Furthermore people were speculating against the South African Rand.  By want of alternative – in the middle of the nineties the Washington Consensus was still all pervasive – the ANC had no choice but to commit itself fully to the integration into the neoliberal world economy.  There were benefits: the economy grew the at a yearly rate of five per cent, and a section of black superrich and middle class black diamonds joined the white establishment.  Still, the official unemployment figures claim that one out of four South-Africans is unemployed, and labour unions even talk about forty per cent.  The “trickle-down-effect” never reached the poorest people.  Today, only ten per cent of the population possesses half of the purchasing power, while the inhabitants of Alexandra can hardly survive.  From their shack it is literally only a stone’s throw to the shiny towerbuildings of Sandton, the financial hart of Johannesburg.  No wonder they start a mutiny.

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