June 2, 2008

The Month of May: Xenophobia

The closer I get to the launch of the loveLife Mobile product, the worse I get about blogging…. Time and sleep also seem to be running away from me. But many thanks to everyone who has been checking in. The big issue that happened in the month of May was the xenophobic attacks. They’ve certainly given me a lot to think about….

Many of you saw the headline “Foreigners Attacked in Johannesburg” and sent me very kind & concerned notes. To all I had to reply some derivation of: “Don’t worry. I’m fine. Technically I’m not a foreigner in South Africa. See I’m not Black nor from another African country. So I’m actually welcome here.”

The more I wrote those lines (or tried to explain the phenomenon to my very concerned mother), the more frustrated I became. For one, in my day-to-day existence, living & working in Sandton, the horrific violence could have just as easily have been happening on the other side of the world, even though it was actually happening only a few miles away. Second, everyone knows that the root cause of the violence isn’t hatred of immigrants. The root cause is the lack of opportunity and the festering of unfulfilled post-apartheid promises. Yet in my opinion, no one in the SA government wants to directly address it or do something about it.

On the first point, everyday I read in the paper or heard on the radio about another gross & inhumane act (including the lighting of a man on fire), I became more and more uncomfortable with my “suburban” bubble. I know from a safety perspective, I need to be where I am. But suddenly it became abundantly clear to me how so many White people were able to feign ignorance during apartheid. The way the apartheid government set it up privileged members of society can go about their daily life completely unaffected, while 10 minutes away angry mobs veer towards genocide.

The question of why this is happening in South Africa is a bigger issue with a very simple answer but seemingly no concrete solution for the foreseeable future.

“White people hire the foreigners because they work hard and they do it for less money,” Mr. Booysen said. “A South African demands his rights and will go on strike. Foreigners are afraid.” NYT

I could easily replace the word foreigners with Mexican and South African with American and it would seem like the same tired immigration story. But here in South Africa, that’s actually not the case – simply the only way the media can wrap its head around such a complicated situation. In truth, Zimbabweans and Nigerians have been living side-by-side with South Africans for decades. The issue now is not fear of immigration and unemployment (which already stands at nearly 40%); the real issue is misdirected anger. Deep-seated anger very directly related to the aftermath of apartheid. And in turn, the oppressed are trying to overpower the further oppressed…

According to the media, the violence has begun to subside. Actors have come on TV denouncing xenophobia. The government declares South Africans must love all Africans. And magically, angry mobs have supposedly disappeared. I’m not so convinced the violence is gone. Given ever so slight an excuse (perhaps the pending water crisis in Jo’burg…), I think we’ll see it again. It won’t be until the South African government makes a real commitment to education, skills development, and broad-based economic growth that this country will see true post-apartheid change.

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