|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.
|Protesters chant slogans during clashes linked to recent anti-foreigner violence in Johannesburg’s Reiger Park informal settlement on May 20, 2008. Photo/REUTERS
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.
Mr Kimemia is a Kenyan economist working as the programmes manager for
Local Governance & Development Facilitation, a South African NGO.
It’s all about competition for jobs, says envoySunday Nation: What is your comment on what is happening in South Africa?
Misimanga: I condemn the attacks on foreign nationals. For many decades South Africans have lived together with people from other countries.
Why are the xenophobic attacks now, only a year to the General Election?
Black South Africans have been isolated for too long. The black community has been secluded and housed according to tribe.
In 1994, our borders opened, but still most South Africans, especially blacks, were denied education.
Because of that, we have over 5 million foreigners, particularly from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi and Pakistan, a majority of whom are economic refugees.
They go to South Africa because of economic hardships in their countries.
Most South Africans are illiterate or unskilled, hence they begin competing with these foreign nationals for odd jobs.
How many Kenyans are affected?
Not many Kenyans are affected. Most Kenyans in South Africa are either students or skilled labour. This is a different category.
It is those from Zimbabwe and Mozambique who are really economic refugees.
What is the result of the violence?
This has created insecurity. Criminal elements have taken advantage of the situation. We, of course, have skilled foreigners but they don’t suffer much.
Is employment the sole cause of the violence?
No. There are quite a number of underlying causes and that is why the government has established an institution to find out the other causes.
Over 200 people have been arrested and will be prosecuted. We want to ensure that violence does not continue to other parts of the country.
But we realise that it will not help to put people in jail and and not addres the underlying issues.
Is this about political succession?
The youth express themselves differently. Just like what happened in Kenya in January, most of the youths involved are simply idle and frustrated.
But the government has to address the underlying problems. We have identified the problems and poverty seems an overriding factor but there is also lack of education.
We are a young democracy, just 14 years old, but just like country with older democracy like Kenya are still struggling to fight tribalism.
We realise it is a herculean task.
Is this a symptom of the failure of the economic empowerment programme, which did to focus on the poor?
With the issue of economic empowerment, our government really tried to empower the black people so that they can participate in the economic mainstream of the country.
But we discovered some flaws which the government is now trying to address.
What has the violence done to South Africa’s reputation?
South Africa is a signatory to the Geneva Protocol on Refugees and will fulfil its obligation to protect all foreign nationals.
The 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention ensures the basic human rights of vulnerable persons and that refugees will not be returned involuntarily to a country where they face persecution.
As a signatory to the protocol, and as a country that cherishes human rights, we have to protect the basic rights of every human being within our borders.
Coming at a time when South Africa is set to host the World Cup in 2010, where does this leave the country?
We are aware that it might cost us a bit and that is why we are working very hard to make sure that it is brought under control.
But it is important to appreciate that it is not happening throughout the country. It is happening in Johannesburg and particularly in the slums.
This is where the problems are and it is where the poorest of the poor live.
What is the government doing to ensure there is no spillover of violence?
All communities are encouraged to actively oppose violence and to report any such acts to the relevant authorities.
Non-governmental organisations are encouraged to use every opportunity to educate South Africans about the need to co-exist with foreign nationals.
Additional report by OWINO OPONDO and SAMWEL KUMBA