Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Xenophobia Or Agoraphobia?

With current events unfolding in South Africa, as they are, this is the most gut wrenching post to write. My country has taken a dangerous turn in the latest challenge to it's embryonic democracy. Violence, allegedly based on xenophobic prejudice, has erupted in Johannesburg. Xenophobia, as defined by Wikipedia, is a fear or contempt of that which is foreign or unknown - especially of strangers or foreign people. By now this issue is being illustrated, in high definition, across the world's television screens. Inflammatory rhetoric is being piled on top of highly pressurized communities, fanned by local government incompetence and legitimized by the absence of moral leadership.

However, graphic television footage aside, there is always more than one perspective and this case is no different. As with most incidents of civil unrest, there are several root causes that have combined at a critical juncture to reveal the faultlines in our society. To blame it all on xenophobia is simplistic and misses the larger forces at work. For example, the affected areas are without exception inhabited by poor working class people. The same group of people most vulnerable to current prices increases of food and fuel, rising inflation and unemployment. They are also the would be recipients of improved housing, education and social services promised by the government; which is yet to materialize since those same election promises were made in 1994. Failed expectations have turned to anger; and are now exacerbated by a major influx of Zimbabweans, after that country's economic meltdown.

Agoraphobia, on the other hand, is the fear of a place or event where escape is impossible or when help is unavailable. The sort of anxiety that is a constant companion in a life of struggle. A natural byproduct of high crime levels, especially amongst those least able to defend themselves namely the poor. Thus a continuous thread can be traced from reckless politics to poor service delivery and, ultimately, appeasement of yet another African dictator. Its these underlying, and frankly preventable, problems that are now manifesting as racially motivated unrest. When you are poor and defenseless your frustrations can initially only reach those on your level, such as equally poor illegal immigrants from other African nations.

Only 10 years ago South Africa was a beacon of racial tolerance. It was to race relations what the Gaza strip is to the international peace process; the hope of a new order. That hope hasn't been extinguished, but it has been severely curtailed. More to the point it has sounded a serious warning, that, none will be safe till the least of us have been accommodated in a just outcome. No border, nor law, will stop a hungry human being. Louis XVI of France famously said: "We don't sleep if they don't eat". Unfortunately he didn't heed his own advice and "they" launched a revolution that eventually removed the European aristocracy as hereditary rulers. The political process has been refined since but Louis' truism still holds, well, true.

We, as South Africans, can't duck the fact that we are the ones with the power to change this dismal state of affairs. We ought to start by making the painful admission that we are behaving with a total lack of charity, towards fellow Africans that sacrificed enormously to support the liberation of this country. Furthermore, the wealthy and powerful in our community are no longer exempt from the plight of the poor. Our collective futures are intertwined as South Africans and Africans, in fact as human beings. Today is 911 for race relations and downtown Johannesburg is ground zero. This time we have to pay attention, decipher the signs correctly and respond with just intent.

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