Sunday, May 25, 2008

Africa: Where life is nasty, brutish and short

Earlier this year, Kenya saw a wave of violence not unlike the scenes being seen in South Africa – just on a much larger scale. A Kenyan reporter draws on the parallels between the two situations.

Is this to be the fate of Africa where poverty remains a growing problem with the competition for resources getting worse?

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South Africa is the latest entrant into the growing league of jurisdictions where “mobs from hell” are exploiting the slightest excuse to take the law into their own hands, leaving a trail of arson, rape, theft and death.

And, like their Kenyan counterparts, they are also burning alive those they view as different from them.

All these acts, whatever the validity of the grievances of the perpetrators, are purely criminal.

They are mainly driven by greed, jealousy and intolerance. Regrettably, governments are busy fuelling these waves of violence by failing to take decisive action.

When some Senegalese immigrants were robbed, beaten up and hurled to their death from moving trains in Pretoria two years ago, not much condemnation followed.

There is a lot of wisdom in the old Swahili adage that warns that if you fail to seal a crack, you will certainly have to rebuild the wall.

The South African government ignored warnings that xenophobia was becoming a serious problem.

It failed to see the need to treat migrants humanely and, to a certain degree, there is a sense in which the marauding gangs that are now hunting down black foreigners and bludgeoning them or burning them to death, have taken their cue from the derogatory utterances of local politicians against the so-called foreign “illegals” and the harassment to which they normally see the police subjecting foreigners.

Unbelievable as it may sound, a decent black visitor to South Africa is more likely to be subjected to a humiliating ordeal in the hands of immigration and customs officials at the airports than a paedophile or drug-trafficking Caucasian or any other white-skinned person of whatever origin.

This kind of profiling of human beings on the basis of colour is an enduring relic of the apartheid system.

Yet black officials are now the majority in these institutions.

Sadly, the government has not found it urgent to deal with these problems that signal a deeper socio-psychological malaise among many black South Africans.

In the slum areas, it is worse because of the competition associated with low-skill jobs and dwellings.

All over the world, migrant workers invariably work harder because of their additional financial obligations to family and relatives in their home countries.

It is not any different in South Africa which is a temporary home to many migrants from Africa and beyond.

Their relative success elicits jealousy and resentment among the local population.

Under the circumstances, you just need a few idiots mouthing some populist gibberish to ignite violence against the targeted minority groups.

Just as in Kenya, South Africa is not entirely short of political operatives who find it only too easy to mobilise a section of the population around emotive issues.

Although there are still many challenges regarding unemployment and service delivery, it is erroneous to fault the government in its efforts to address the problems.

The numerous social safety valves provided by government in the form of social grants as well as the ongoing housing and free basic services indicate that South Africa is a few light years ahead of many countries in its welfare programmes.

To be fair, there is frustration over the slow pace of service delivery in some cases, but this has little to do with the xenophobic attacks that have now claimed more than 40 lives and have spread beyond Gauteng to three more provinces (Western Cape, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu Natal).

The South African government can be faulted principally for failing to take early warnings seriously and for being lethargic in its handling of the crisis.

However, a parallel can be drawn to the even more disturbing Kenyan case.

At the dawn of this year Kenyans and the world were treated to unprecedented acts of violence and ethnic cleansing for which a few politicians have lately been claiming credit and christening “the fight for democracy.”

It is not clear when rape, arson, cold-blooded murder, malicious damage to private and public property and the burning of terrified and defenceless women and children huddled in a church became legitimate tools in the fight for democracy.

Yet some have demanded the release of the suspects alleged to have been behind these heinous acts. They should be hanging their heads in shame instead.

Seemingly, we have lucky criminals walking among us; their not-so-lucky sidekicks are behind bars awaiting trial.

But what is really happening? Is the state becoming largely irrelevant?

In South Africa, just as in Kenya, greater democracy appears to have emboldened every other miscreant into “democratically” expressing their dissatisfaction even if such expressions invariably involve breaking the law.

With greater democracy in these two countries, there has been an inadvertent liberalisation of violence which is, incredibly, justified by some purely for political expediency.

Unless governments reclaim their monopolistic position in the use of violence for the common good, our societies appear headed for an apocalyptic mess of chaos akin to the Hobbesian “state of nature” where life was “nasty, brutish and short.”

The South African government’s decision to deploy the defence force to assist in dealing with the domestic menace posed by the local legions from hell appears to be bearing fruit.

Kenya’s belated strong action against the rag-tag Sabaot Land Defence Force that had caused misery to the people of Mt Elgon has progressively restored calm in the region despite some protests.

Responsible governments have a legitimate obligation to use lethal force in the defence of law and order in the absence of which it will be everyone for themselves and the devil, as usual, happily taking the spoils.

4 Opinion(s):

Anonymous said...

I don't quite understand this violence in SA. There are thousands of South Africans - mostly white, mark you - in my country (Nigeria), living in peace. Nobody goes around killing them, eventhough there are many local businessmen who feel as though they should be given the chance the SA have. However, they accept that white south Africans have - in some cases - a lot of capital. If we turned to looting and burning MTN, Nandos, etc offices in Nigeria (and other places in Africa), what would the result be? MTN's biggest market today has become Nigeria. Same with DSTV, another South African corporation.

Wonder what Mbeki will have to say if we turned to burning and looting their offices the same way his countrymen have done.

Anonymous said...

@ anon of 08:30..

You make a good point. There are also thousands of (black) foreigners in South Africa who are unaffected by the violence - but they don't live in the squatter camps.

This has more to do with the poorest of the poorest, the most unskilled, uneducated, taking out the 'competition' as they see it.

Blacks living in normal suburbs are not being targeted and are quite safe from this violence.

Anonymous said...

I am afraid to think of what SA will become once that goon (Zuma) is elected, and it seems inevitable that he will be elected.

Well, good luck to South Africans. I really hope the nation does not become another basket case. Zuma must be prevented from taking power - I just heard a speech of his a few minutes ago, and I must say, he sounds like a clueless crook that can only take SA in one direction.

May the Lord save South Africa! Good people of SA, fight for your country. Do not let it go down the drain!

Anonymous said...

@ anon 01:58.

Sensible sentiments. Zuma is a tool - no, literally - a tool of the SA Communist Party and Cosatu. He has a grade 5 (foreign countries version) or Std 3 education.

He is corruptible as his trial will attest and yet he will become our leader.

I fear that he will become eventually like Mugabe. It is not Mugabe hanging on to power per se, it is the people AROUND him with too much to lose that won't let the system change.

Once SA has had another round of BEE, this time for the Zuma fans, I fear it will be broken.

Unless, Jesus arrives in time and stops Zuma from taking power.

As much as Mbeki is bad for SA (AND HE IS TERRIBLE), Zuma is worse.

Surely there must be other alternatives? Is Zuma or Mbeki the best we can muster from 49 million people?