Sunday, May 25, 2008

The nightmare is a wake-up call

The past two weeks have been trying for all South Africans. Witnessing the horrific cruelty of our neighbours to our neighbours has left many of us feeling desperate, despondent and disillusioned, and we have no idea how long this current round of violence will last or who will be targeted next.

Authorising the military to respond might be the right choice to stop the murders but it is not without its dangers. For many, the mix of violent protest and military evokes horrors we hoped would recede into our distant collective memory.

Undoubtedly, the murders of foreigners and South Africans will be a rallying point for future violence. The aching familiarity of these events makes us wonder why we have been so powerless to prevent them.

Before we go pointing fingers at others, let us admit one uncomfortable truth: we have all chosen - through omission and commission - to make this violence possible. There is no third force to blame and no evil mastermind. Are the government's shortcomings - poor service delivery, corruption and denialism - not also our own? Did we not elect this government, and do we not have the right and strength to change its policies?

Too many of us in the middle class have been distracted by threats to our own economic and physical security to worry about what is happening to others. We send our children overseas, add another private guard to the security detail, or talk at the gym or in our office meetings about injustice, but do little to fight it.

Many of us are now responding to the needs of the displaced, but where were we before?

Many among us have worked for good, but we remain tarnished by how tolerant we have been of xenophobia and hatred in our midst. We need only compare the furore over an unforgivable racist prank at the University of the Free State to the virtual silence from the government and civil society when foreigners were murdered in townships outside Pretoria in the same week.

Although charges of racism against employers or officials can end their careers, belittling and excluding foreigners from jobs, services and our social lives is often seen as patriotic. There is a deep irony in accepting such dehumanising and murderous activity while we busy ourselves righting past injustices.

If nothing else, we must reconsider what it means to be South African and what it is to be in South Africa. This means opening up avenues immediately for foreigners to live among us. Our top leaders have only recently made unequivocal statements about accepting non-nationals in our communities.

In part this is opportunism because, although President Thabo Mbeki asks us to get used to the new Zimbabwean arrivals, his government refuses to recognise them as refugees or offer them succour.

We have heard more encouraging messages from others, such as Jacob Zuma, the ANC president, that we should accept foreigners because of past kindnesses to an exiled ANC. But this talk is a short-sighted and dangerous justification for accepting foreigners among us.

Not only will non-ANC supporters balk at this reference to the ANC and exile but also these reciprocal obligations are also narrowly bound by time and generation. Already there are young Zimbabweans and Tanzanians at places such as the University of the Witwatersrand who know little about the ANC freedom struggle and don't feel they should be welcomed here because their parents supported our struggle.

How long will this obligation continue, and will our children welcome Mozambicans because of something our parents did? More worryingly, where does this leave people such as the Somalis, Chinese and Pakistanis who are not from one of the frontline states?

So why should we work to make foreigners part of our communities? Precisely because they are, have been and will be. South Africa is a rich country in a relatively poor region and with that comes a responsibility to share our wealth with those who helped to create it and continue to do so. In many instances, they are foreigners.

We must also develop an approach to international migration that is in line with our commitments to promote South African welfare. Our country will stagnate without the skills and energies of people from throughout the region - not only those of doctors, teachers and engineers, but also those of the thousands of foreign small-scale entrepreneurs who provide services and jobs that South Africa so desperately needs.

Yes, there are times when foreigners compete with South Africans or work for wages below those we would accept, but increased border controls won't stop people coming; they will only marginalise those who are here and force them to work for less. By granting them legal status and union membership, they too can join our fight against abuse and exploitation.

Ensuring such security would heighten migrants' social and material investments in South African communities, something that would benefit us, the migrants and their families back home. In this way, they can become a powerful force for development throughout the region. As Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe become stronger so too will markets for South African goods and services.

Providing legal status would also relieve urban police forces from their immigration-control duties, freeing them to do what we really need - fight crime.

A national discussion about how to build communities that include people from beyond our borders is needed. But we must not limit debate to the poor communities shamed by this month's ethnic cleansing - xenophobia is all too present among civil society and among our academic colleagues.

At Wits University, an institution with a long history of struggle against injustice, we regularly hear not-so-quiet whispers about hiring foreigners or promoting them to senior positions. Is it really better to deny South African students the insights and perspectives of foreigners in order to provide jobs for a few South Africans?

Academic xenophobia is not only about jobs but also about how we work. Much as we complain of United States President George Bush, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown or "Uncle Bob" Mugabe, the Zimbabwean president, many sense that only South Africans are qualified to offer critical perspectives on what is right and wrong in our society. Much of this is rooted in our own insecurity stemming from our years of isolation. We prefer to talk among ourselves rather than to look out into the broader world. This is a problem.

To understand South Africa today, we must move beyond our obsession with technical fixes. While the government demands that the university must produce engineers, doctors and information technology specialists, we must continually question if that is what is needed to create an equitable society. We must support new kinds of research and teaching that will help us to understand the relationships between local situations and broader regional or global trends. This means taking off the blinkers that limit our gaze to our own borders and history.

We are more than willing to work in the service of South Africa, but we need not always work in the service of the government. This week hundreds of academics lined Jan Smuts Avenue in Johannesburg demanding stronger leadership to quell the attacks and intolerance. But it must not end there. We are now asking Mbeki to work with Wits and other academic institutions to investigate the roots of these problems. A panel of party-loyal government experts will not be enough to find long-term and just solutions.

If we have learned nothing else from the misery and fear of the past weeks, it is that we can no longer sit silently by while others stop South Africa from belonging to all who live in it.

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