Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Rainbow nation goes up in flames

Horror in Johannesburg: Beatings, Man set alight, Mobs Run Riot, 22 dead

The front pages of three major South African newspapers today featured a burning man. A photographer on the scene in Reiger Park, Johannesburg, Halden Krog, said concrete slabs around the man were splattered with blood. The mob beat him then covered him in blankets and set him alight.

While police officers scrambled to help him, kicking sand onto him and finally spraying out the flames with an extinguisher, all the smoking and badly singed man could do was groan softly. Krog says that police assisted the man until paramedics arrived, and while they waited, residents gathered and laughed. Another photographer on the scene admonished them, but the crowd continued to laugh. The man died in hospital later in the evening.

Harrowing photographs show a man covered in flames, in some cases flames near his hands and curling up his face, but he appears too weak or shocked to do anything. These pictures are eerily reminiscent of troubling times not so long ago when vicious necklance murders were the order of the day in South Africa (large tyres were placed over the individual and set alight).

Controversy has erupted over the 'burning man pictures', with some South Africans decrying them as 'bad publicity' ahead of the Soccer World Cup in 2010.

A country overrun by crime

The death toll has now reached 22, with hundreds of arrests made, and an additional deployment of an 'Intervention Force' of some 150 police. With numerous rampaging mobs numbering over 500, some have argued that police reaction has been too limited and called for military assistance, while others have cautioned against 'militarising society'. The police insist it is not xenophobia but 'pure criminality' as violence is associated with theft and large scale looting and house robberies.


Medecins Sans Frontieres has called the situation a 'humanitarian crisis', while South Africa's president has typically under-reacted, saying a panel would be set up to investigate the attacks. Has the president visited any of the scenes, or offered any form of relief or incentive or plan to control the violence? His best offer has been an intellectual response - merely to seek to understand...

Two very important messages are conveyed through these recent events, and while they have been obvious for some time, they bear our urgent attention now.

1) President Thabo Mbeki's general lack of leadership, influence and involvement has cost South Africans dearly, both directly through his consistent failures on everything from AIDS to crime, and indirectly in terms of his virtual endorsement of Mugabe.

Mbeki's weak policies have failed consistently to address the obvious and chronic crisis in Zimbabwe, which has amounted to a protracted divorce from reality. The consequences of these leadership failures are now erupting and burning in the engine of Africa's streets.

2) South Africa is not a safe country. Not for foreigners, and not for its own citizens. 50 murders are committed daily with rapes estimated at 150 a day or one every 10 minutes, and almost half of these are against children under 12 years of age. In Meadowlands, Soweto, 90% of rapes are said to be perpetrated against children under 12 years.

Should South Africa be rewarded for failing to address the criminal crime situation that was already obvious when South Africa won the FIFA World Cup bid? Should South Africa be rewarded for stubbornly dismantling an elite crime fighting unit (in the last few months) and constantly underplaying the urgent measures required to address crime? It is as a result of this lazy laissez-faire leadership that South Africa remains the most violently criminal nation in the world.

You can fool some people some of the time

While politically correct South Africans try to congratulate themselves that they are not racists, it is evident that racism, violence and unacceptable levels of corruption and dishonesty have infected large pockets of the population. Pretence and connivery is obvious in leadership positions in government (South Africa's Health Minister is a recent example) and also in many business and service sectors.

Ordinary blacks and whites, as citizens and voters, have failed to function as conscious and socially committed agents of change. And ordinary citizens have not made their leaders accountable for a lack of real results, or even for their transgressions and so become culpable in the moral demise of their own country.

Publicity scam

Playing publicity games ought to be over for South Africa. It is time that the country seriously addresses its many serious problems, both in terms of its leaders, its communities and at the level of each and every citizen becoming involved in the fate of the nation.

While South Africa fails to take care of its own, those who solicit business should not be rewarded economically, investments ought to be steered away from business and diverted to the poor until business and government begin to address the serious domestic issues that they are faced with. Let's be sensible and practical: the World Cup ought to be held elsewhere. The incentives of the World Cup were apparently not enough to bring about sufficiently real change, and this is both abundantly evident and utterly deplorable.

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