The past week in South Africa was arguably one of the most shameful weeks of the post-apartheid South Africa. Two of the many challenges that have plagued our country for a long time reared their ugly heads once more. Fatal Sexual Gender Based Violence (SGBV) and Xenophobia almost brought the country to a halt.
Several big cities experienced violent attacks on businesses, particularly shops owned by non-nationals. Some of these acts of violence resulted in loss of life and property. Parts of Pretoria and Johannesburg, the two cities with probably the highest number of migrants and refugees in South Africa, were in flames. Some of their surrounding townships were also experiencing the same violent protests against non-nationals.
Part of the challenge with these recurring acts of violence including violence against women and children is the fact that the root causes of the problem have not been dealt with decisively. They are indeed momentous but certainly not insurmountable and the politicians have been dillydallying around them while people lose their lives.
In a stagnant economy in a country where the gap between the poor and the rich is becoming wider and the rising unemployment rate seem to be slipping out of control, as it is happening in South Africa at the moment, it is inevitable that the poor and marginalised sooner or later start fighting and killing each other for the crumbs falling off the table of the rich. The poor South Africans -most of whom feel betrayed by the political leaders who in some areas have failed to render even basic services for their communities- can no longer cope with the rising cost of living and can hardly afford the bare necessities of survival. Their disappointments, anger, frustrations and indignation have reached a dangerously intolerable level. Unless the government of South Africa solves the problem of poverty, the unjust distribution of resources and unemployment – particularly among the young South Africans, the targeting of non-nationals as scapegoats will persist. Poverty in South Africa is a ticking time bomb and we have ignored it for too long at our own peril.
The two challenges of SGBV and xenophobia that confronted us in the past week exposed the one major problem of South Africa and certainly of our continent of Africa. The continent has for a long-time been suffering from leadership deficit. Last week’s events revealed the amount of work still needed to be done in mitigating this deficit. In South Africa when the nation was lamenting the abuse, kidnapping, raping and killing of women, (now labelled Femicide); when the non-nationals were under siege and their lives in danger, the political leaders were AWOL. In the time of crisis like the one we were in last week; true leadership would have been visible right from the beginning of the crisis. It was unfortunately not the case. The political leadership in its intervention, it was too late and too little.
While we can speak of the root cause, we can also speak of events or issues that act (not as causes but) triggers of the problem of Xenoohobia. we look at what sparked the violence in Pretoria last week, it is a problem not dissimilar to that which sparked violence against non-nationals in previous years in cities like Rustenburg towards the border with Botswana, in Mogale City west of Johannesburg and Rosettenville, south of Johannesburg. The crimes of drug peddling and human trafficking alleged or perceived by locals to be instigated by some of the non-nationals, has spiralled out of control. South Africa is faced with a serious drug problem and it has become more than just a popular perception that it is some of the non-nationals at are killing the youth with these drugs. Communities have complained and reported some of the people involved but nothing seems to be done to stop this horrible crime against humanity.
The South African Police Services have unfortunately become part of the problem. Some, if not many of the police officers including senior police officers, have been involved in corrupt activities of either assisting drug peddlers or making it impossible for a successful prosecution and conviction of the drug dealers who are arrested. Subsequently, the many communities faced with the problem of drug abuse among their youth, have sometimes decided to take the law into their hands. If and when that happens, it is of course the non-nationals -most of whom are totally innocent- who are targeted.
Corruption, particularly in the Police is a huge problem and it seems the government is losing the battle against this monster that has firmly taken root, not only in the police service or other law enforcing agencies like the Metro and Traffic police but also in key government departments, including the Department of Home Affairs. The problem of porous borders coupled with corrupt Home Affairs officials at border posts like Beit Bridge, has made proper documentation of non-nationals a lost battle. Consequently, many undocumented migrants have become susceptible to all kinds of abuse and violation of their human rights by unscrupulous employers, traffickers and some agents of the state.
The problem goes wider beyond South Africa. African leaders, especially those who decided to pull out of the World Economic Forum on Africa that took place in Cape Town last week, failed to prove themselves to be determined leaders with the interest of the continent at heart. One would have thought that at the height of the xenophobic crisis as we had last week, instead of pulling out, they would have descended on Cape Town and put their heads together to help South Africa tackle this recurring problem of xenophobia. Not only was the disunity of the African leaders exposed but their poor leadership and disinterest in the common good of the people of Africa was also laid bare.
As one takes stock of the events of the past week in South Africa, it is clear that unless the root causes – some of which have been mentioned above- are dealt with, the problem of xenophobia and SGBV will keep on coming back. Unless political leadership shows some seriousness and is decisive in its approach of tackling these challenges non-nationals will continue being victims of scapegoating xenophobic attacks and children and women also continue being abused, abducted, kidnapped, raped, trafficked and murdered while we all watch.