I had started writing about the South African situation earlier but I wasn’t quite ready then. I am talking about what has been largely, at least here if not internationally, called the xenophobic violence. I am obviously a foreigner in South Africa so xenophobia should be my concern but I never was convinced that the term in itself quite addresses the problem at hand. Surely what took place falls under the xenophobia, but it’s not all of it. Much like all carrots are vegetables but not all of the vegetables are carrots, and the reason why it’s important to get first a bit stuck with rhetoric is that not being clear about what we are dealing with can be counterproductive and at best confusing and focusing on the wrong things. See, in South Africa xenophobia is a commonly used word. No one here needed to be explained what it means as it’s been part of the public discourse for a good long while and these recent incidents were just examples of that. I have never experienced any hostility as a foreigner and no one has ever suggested that I came here to take the jobs and women although I kind of did (well only one woman, but still).
Having lived four years in UK I must admit that I did experience xenophobia at times, but I never heard the word itself. In Europe we don’t like to use these words but we rather all, silently if possible, agree that there are some citizens who don’t like people coming from other countries. Therefore, when talking about xenophobia in South Africa it has been made to sound more serious problem on non-physical level. I’ll come into the physical damage in a moment and I am not the one to belittle the suffering of people, deaths and thousands who were forced to move to the temporary refugee camps, who lost their property and businesses and who had to, or still have to leave the country. There’s no way one could undermine that horror, but I think that in order to understand we have to look a little deeper. Also, as the country still has a group of people who’d love nothing more than to see the young democracy failing so they could say “told you so”, makes focusing on the immediate problem like trying fix a broken leg with a band aid.
I had a very interesting chat with a friend of mine this week and he said that this has got very little to do with xenophobia and I for one was convinced. I had been thinking about it before, but he just put it so well that I wanted to finally write it down. The reason is of course poverty; an extreme case of it as well. After the 1994 elections many people have raised their standard of living tremendously. There’s a whole new middle class and a lot of capital that is now, unlike before, not under the threat of leaving the country as soon as someone says something like land reform, redistribution of wealth or nationalising any of the stolen resources (I don’t mean BEE - the affirmative action - as it’s tackling the issue from a different angle). There is, however, a large part of the society who hasn’t been helped yet. They still continue to live in poverty and they are not happy about it. While I have no mandate to speak on anyone’s, especially not on their behalf, I’d say that they feel failed by the government.
As sad as this is, I am not sure what kind of miracle workers would have sorted the whole post-apartheid mess which obviously wasn’t created by them, but the main thing is that for many, things haven’t improved despite of the great hopes. I’m not saying government has been perfect, far from it, but fourteen years isn’t a long time in any country’s history.
The new South Africa has since its beginning had the burden of high expectations. From oppression everyone thought that it’d be possible to transform into the most tolerant country in the world in few years and all this of course peacefully. That the people who the racist regime denied to have a proper education would just as if by magic become educated and equality would fall in place. I can’t help but think that this was mainly expected by the so called western world because racism is anyway a sore topic which we’d rather not discuss and the international community and the pan-European world was relieved that we didn’t have to be embarrassed by apartheid any further. South African peaceful transition was also, it seems, seen as a forgiveness for all of the western corporations and governments who supported apartheid and benefited from it. No one ever took responsibility and whole mess was left for the ANC to deal with. Nothing would be more naïve than to think that problems on this scale disappear like that, and it’s pointless to say that “but Mandela said so“, because it was his job to talk about the Rainbow Nation and I doubt that anyone would have done his job better. The task of the government here isn’t very easy; I am certainly not jealous.
So the problem is poverty and the frustration over the government because of it. And extreme problems create extreme reactions and this is what happened here. Of course it’s not just poverty but many things that played their part, but arguably, all the other problems will ease a lot when poverty is eradicated as much as it can be.
I can only talk about countries where I have lived like Finland, Denmark, UK and Ireland, and no doubt in all of these some of the ones worse off blame the foreigners for their shorter end of the stick. I am not even sure why it happens like that, but it does. They use derogatory names, smaller scale violent attacks and so on. And in South Africa it’s no different except that the situation is more extreme and the reaction is more extreme as well. The trouble makers are in all of these places a minority of people and indeed in South Africa the vast majority of the country has raised up to protest against the situation. The public discourse has been impressive and listening to radio’s phone-in shows I can only wish that other countries could reach the same level of taking responsibility and talking about the problem openly. I wish that white South Africans would have had a similar process after the apartheid and more importantly they should have had one during it.
The reason why I and the other people coming from the more expensive countries aren’t targeted is because we generally don’t live where the poverty is worst. This is also part of why I feel that the xenophobia as a term isn’t really explaining the situation and also supports the idea of what is the root of the problem. I don’t live in the most exclusive area, but I do live centrally and I doubt anyone in my building would have any problems with me or anyone including any of the security guards and residents who come from all over Africa like in so many places here.
So in my opinion South Africa is not more xenophobic country than any other. There’s a problem with it, but it isn’t a bigger one than say in my home country Finland. South Africa is probably the most self-critical country with the most cynical media, but not the most xenophobic. It also is the only country where I have lived that has actually, even if just because they had to, taken the issue of xenophobia seriously. It’s a young democracy and while I am not its citizen (although I am a resident) I am proud to be here. I don’t wish to support the notion of us against them especially since the media cannot get enough of it. I am sad by what has happened here and once more I want to emphasise that I am not undermining anyone’s suffering, but I don’t think that it can be credited on hate but frustration which turned into hateful actions. While the government doesn’t talk about it, I’m sure they understand it and the people (or should I say the person) who enjoy the support of the people start showing some leadership and not just hiding behind the lines ready to take over when problem has become much bigger.