Saturday, May 24, 2008

Xenophobia? South Africans Might As Well Be Poles Apart

On eTV news at 10pm this evening there was excellent footage of looting in progress in Cape Town. The area was called DuNoon. The cameramen were running and moving between policemen, and actually recorded shots going off, police smacking and throwing around looters.

In one scene the camera was inside a shop (known as a spaza store, often built inside a shipping container, made of metal, offloaded in a poor township) and a number of looters were making their way out. Carrying bags of sweets, one old overweight woman was hauling a large plastic tray with various treasures on it. People were dancing, and jubilant as they gained access to these booty prizes. Outside two women scuffled over hard won spoils, one spilling flour over herself. Is this Xenophobia?

What is crazy are these messages on TV, and on blogs, broadcasts that chide, or warn or plead with these perpetrators... The reality is, no one is listening, because the people who are experiencing the violence are in the poorest corners of South Africa. They are not watching television. They may not even have homes, or beds. They are people with sick and dying daughters and husbands, who celebrate getting their hands on a 1kg packet of flour. These are not people who own televisions, and certainly don't have the luxury of computers with an internet connection.

Poor people in South Africa make up a SUBSTANTIAL fraction of the population. There are enough poor people to overrun this country if they decided to do so. If there is any culpability for their condition, it is not just the government's, it is everyone's. A friend who visited from the UK once admonished me, saying: "How can people living in large mansions with swimming pools manage to ignore huge swathes of land covered in squatters? How do you live with yourselves with so many people suffering in abject poverty right next door?" We should have addressed these people sooner. We should have found ways to get them employed, even if it was simply dedicating the lands around these townships to the intense cultivation of vegetables. Most middle class South Africans will agree that we have shut them out, out of our thoughts, out of our hearts; they simply haven't figured in our calculated lifestyles, because they are out of sight and out of mind.

No more. With the violence having erupted, and the sheer ubiquity of the attacks - middle class South Africans have grown increasingly alarmed at the escalating state of affairs. And we should be alarmed. With petrol prices set to continue, the poor are entitled to feel even more gloomy and hopeless about their prospects. So yes, we should feel threatened...the poor are lashing out, struggling to survive, and soon, that frustration, desperation and anger will spread to the lower middle classes. The resentment will begin to build between the haves and the have-nots, who remain poles apart, but a fiery bridge of violent criminality is slowly forming across the abyss. It's not racism. It's not xenophobia. It's people with nothing trying to survive, and resorting to opportunism, stealing and thieving, to address their problems of scarcity. These poor people can no longer afford the basics, and we can no longer afford to ignore them, or to shout at them over television screens and internet connections. Go to them where they are, and see that they are simple people with tremendous difficulties in store for them. At a time when it feels harder to be generous, to listen, to learn about a world beyond our street, we must try to give even more, m,uchj morte of ourselves.

Click here to link to a video.


Wessel said...

True and not. The poorest provinces in South Africa has not experienced this.

Also, Alexandra were this all started is wealthier than many over townships in Gauteng, and wealthier than almost all other townships in SA. It's the only township surrounded by afluent areas and unlike other poor areas in SA you dont have to pay half your salary to travel to work.

On an African comparative level these townships look even bette.r

What is true is that the relative deprivation, Alexandra compared to Sandton, De Noon compared to the City bowl is probably of the highest on the planet.

Nick said...

What is true is that the relative deprivation - There you have it - the poor in proximity to the wealthy. However you want to spin it, the problem is poverty. Scarcity. Lack of resources. Increased pressure on the poor. Economic pressure. Let's accept that the perpetrators were all poor people attacking their poor companions out of frustration for their own worsening circumstances.