As the world economy teeters on the brink of recession, many developing countries brace themselves for the potential developmental fall-out that such economic contractions may have.
Ironically, while the epicentre of this crisis is located in the developed North, developing nations like ours will bear its brunt. In terms of the latest projections, this global economic downturn will make it increasingly difficult for several developing nations, including South Africa, to meet their UN Millennium Development Goals, particularly as they relate to the elimination of poverty and inequality, which are intimately connected to lack of access to resources.
Yet the strain this tension will place on these societies is not only financial, but also social, as increasing volatility will expose multiple fault lines that run through communities.
Two recent reports allude to this danger.
According to the United Nations' (UN) 2008 World Economic and Social Survey, increased economic insecurity has in several countries led to the deepening of social divisions and the exacerbation of political instability.
The report warns that: "Their fragile societies are vulnerable to a multiplicity of threats ranging from natural disasters and food shortages to financial shocks, rising inequality and badly handled elections, any of which could tip them into widespread, and even genocidal, levels of violence."
It goes further to note that because governments are restricted in their ability to deliver basic services, the global crisis also has implications for their political legitimacy and hence the rule of law.
In a similar vein, the Oxford Research Group (ORG) in its 2008 International Security Report warns that in the absence of a concerted effort to alleviate the impact of the crisis on the most vulnerable segments of the global populations, "the most serious effect of the crisis will be a substantial increase in radical and violent social movements in direct response to marginalisation".
From a policy perspective, it is of critical importance for South Africa to consider carefully how it will chart its way through this impending storm.
When Finance Minister Trevor Manuel, in mid-November, briefed Parliament on the country's preparedness for the escalating global crisis, he also articulated this concern when he remarked that the crisis would place strain on the government's social contract with the South African people, compelling the government to consider its "ability to contribute to a deep and durable democracy that will lift millions of people out of poverty".
The message is unambiguous.
As unemployment rises and more South Africans are added to the ranks of the impoverished, the government will come under increased pressure to expand its support to marginalised citizens under circumstances that will almost certainly see a contraction in the resources at its disposal.
The manner in which the state manages these circumstances will be critical to the longer-term resilience of the South African state.
To ignore the warnings contained in the UN and ORG reports would be unwise.
Those who dismiss such scenarios out of hand need only to be reminded of the wave of xenophobic violence that washed over the country in May.
When we look more closely at the major accusations that perpetrators levelled against their victims during this period, it becomes apparent that although the conflict manifested along an entrenched xenophobic fault line, its roots were essentially located in the same economic vulnerability that was experienced by poor communities elsewhere in the world, who during the same period resorted to violent actions against the rapid rise of food prices.
In South Africa, the attacks were directed at those whom poor and marginalised communities regarded as the most immediate threat to their livelihoods and their charges focused on three key concerns:
- That migrant Africans took away jobs from South Africans.
- That their uncompetitive business practices undermined the ability of local entrepreneurs to make a living.
- And that they were behind the high levels of criminality within the areas where they reside.
The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation conducted its annual SA Reconciliation Barometer Survey during April and May, as this shameful chain of events unfolded across the country. The results of the survey, drawn from a nationally representative sample of 3 500 South Africans, provides valuable insights into the context that informed these xenophobic attacks.
In comparison with the results of two years ago, when the country was riding the crest of the economic growth wave, citizens felt economically far more vulnerable, physically less secure, and increasingly pessimistic about the direction the country was moving in.
In April 2006, 57 percent of respondents, for example, felt that their personal economic prospects would improve over the next two years. This statistic has shrunk to 39 percent in April this year.
Similarly, optimism about the prospects for an improvement in the physical safety of respondents declined from 51 percent to 34 percent for the comparable period.
Not surprisingly, therefore, fewer respondents in 2008 felt that the country was moving in the right direction. In 2006, the figure of approval stood at 69 percent, compared to the 43 percent in 2008.
Six months after this survey was conducted and the occurrence of one of the most reprehensible moments in the country's short democratic history, this material vulnerability is unlikely to have improved.
In fact, as GDP growth slowed down to 0,2 percent during the third quarter, more people are likely to find themselves jobless or facing the real prospect of joining the unemployment line in the not-too-distant future.
The insecurity that this condition breeds is likely to raise levels of perceived volatility, and with it intolerance among groups or institutions that find themselves on opposite sides of the fault lines that run through South African society. Nothing suggests that such ruptures are imminent, but fertile ground for it certainly exists. How this situation is managed will be an important test for the resilience of this young democracy.
Against this background, it has been extremely disconcerting to note the polarising tone that election rhetoric has already taken in the early stages in the run-up to the country's fourth democratic poll, to be held sometime during the first four months of next year.
Citizens, more than in previous election years, may be looking in desperation towards political parties and leaders for solutions and answers.
History has shown time and again that under such circumstances, the susceptibility of citizenries to short-sighted populist rhetoric increases exponentially. The recurring theme of violence in songs that call people to arms or degrading references to political opponents as rats, snakes, and most recently - chillingly reminiscent of the Rwandan genocide - cockroaches, are not only blatantly opportunistic; they are extremely dangerous.
When South Africans started to pick up the pieces in the wake of the xenophobic violence earlier this year, we had to admit to each other that the warning signs had been visible well in advance of the attacks.
Not only were the material conditions ripe for violence, but these conditions were also fanned by offensive rhetoric that became acceptable in our day-to-day life. Hopefully, we will not make the same mistake twice.