How democracy is lived

From nationalism, we have passed to chauvinism, and finally to racism. Why are South Africa's middle classes not mobilizing against xenophobia.

Soweto today (Photo: Roaming the Planet, via Flickr CC).

The World Cup had just ended, and there were stories in the newspapers, telling us that foreign nationals were going to be killed  as soon as the event was over. These stories immediately mobilized many of us in civil society, and it even mobilized the state into action. The army was deployed as a visible deterrent to prevent future attacks. Although I had read reports over the last ten years, and heard anecdotal evidence of threats, attacks, victimization and simmering tensions towards foreign Africans in South Africa’s townships, like many others, it was the violence of May 2008 that brought this phenomena into sharp focus.

If you recall, in May of 2008, in this city of Cape Town, we woke to a horrific image on the front page of the Cape Times. Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave set alight in full view of the residents of  Ramaphosa park, the informal settlement that he lived in. That violence has  left more than 60 people dead and thousands displaced.  A third of those killed were South African citizens. More than sixteen thousand people in Gauteng alone were forced to find alternative living arrangements. According to media reports, the attacks began in Alexandra then spread to other areas in and around Johannesburg, including Cleveland, Diepsloot, Hillbrow, Tembisa, Primrose, Ivory Park and Thokoza. Violence in Kwazulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and Cape Town soon followed.

When the picture of the killing of Ernesto Nhamuave ran on that Monday morning in the daily papers, the caption, and the accompanying story was silent on what happened after. A  reporter recalled a panicked resident warning police that ‘Shangaans are being attacked’.   We were told  that ‘one plump woman … could not contain her laughter…and regaled her audience with details of the event’. This reaction to the photograph,  which brought  laughter to some, and horror to others, marks a disjuncture in how we imagine ‘the nation’, and ruptured certain conceptions of it.

The picture caused what we might describe as a “scandal”. Its  scandal was out in the open for all to see: refugees, the most vulnerable people on this continent, being attacked, and killed by the poor of South Africa’s townships, who  too are counted as amongst the most vulnerable on this continent. Here we are not exceptional. Modern economies, globalization  and colonial empires have moved goods, capital and people for centuries, giving rise to tensions and animosities. Just this week in Europe we read about the Sarkozy government in France victimizing the Roma community as criminals and seeking to expel them. Throughout colonized Africa, indigeneity has become a politicized matter. The colonial state distributed rewards and punishment along these lines, turning where you came from into a political issue.  In his reflections on violence after colonial rule, written in 1963,  Frantz Fanon observed with prescient foreboding clarity: “The colonized man will first manifest this aggressiveness which has been deposited in his bones against his own people… the colonized man is an envious man’.  Without a meaningful decolonization of the society which benefits all,  Fanon warned, this envy  in the post-independence period turns on outsiders:  ‘From nationalism, we have passed to chauvinism, and finally to racism. These foreigners are called on to leave, their shops are burned, their street stalls wrecked…We observe a permanent seesaw between African unity, which fades quicker and quicker into the mists of oblivion…’

But today I want to talk less about how we understand or think this violence, and reflect more on how we respond and are responding and what that says about how we understand the violence.   I am assuming that we are all committed to eradicating or reducing the tensions and violence in this society between and within various communities. And I am concerned that sometimes when a very vocal minority determines the discourse, and the agenda, and how a wrong is to be understood and righted because they posses the cultural, social and economic capital to do so, that it might not necessarily address the problem and may  in fact contribute to it. When the May violence broke out in 2008 I was part of an HSRC research team that was hastily assembled to look into the matter. We read the newspaper reports, and one aspect of the reporting that seemed to be shared by elites, from business leaders, to many in the state, to NGO’s, was the outrage at what had happened. This took various forms. Yet, all implored South Africans to embrace fellow Africans and to seek unity in this thriving diversity.  The newspaper reports, and here not the tabloids, but the mainstream press, also all carried stories on the attacks which were bannered under headlines such as mob nation, describing the perpetrators as thugs, hooligans and barbarians.

It seemed to us that if were going to understand what was going on, we would need to understand the subjectivity out of which this violence was emerging. How could we account for it? How as it being articulated? We decided to conduct focus groups in the communities where the violence occurred to get a sense of these feelings. One of the communities we conducted fieldwork in was Imizamo Yethu in Houtbay. A small but growing informal settlement on the slopes of the mountain,  IY, as it is known, comprised of Namibians, Mozambicans, Zimbabweans, Chinese traders, Malawians and South Africans, mostly Xhosa-speakers descendent from the Eastern Cape. Its demographics and geography give it the character of a microcosm of South Africa at large in some ways. If we started with the notion of an US and Them as the dividing line, it quickly became apparent that we were dealing with multiple US and Them’s. The Us of South Africans of African descent  making permanent their residence in this increasingly formalizing informal settlement. The them of foreign Africans who are both economic migrants and political refugees, trying to make a living and seeking peace away from troubled homes. There is the Us of the white Houtbay  community of middle and upper-class folk. There is the  Them of the entire IY community whom the former would rather have removed from the pristine picturesque valley because the latter gives their exclusive area increasingly the look of a Brazilian favela. Then there is the Us of the older so-called Coloured fishing community. And so on.

IY did not have any physical violence, but shops were looted that were owned by foreign nationals. We found out that IY has a vibrant community life, and that its Development Forum was very active. A range of political organizations operate there,  and there were two very active Community Development Workers, who also happen to be officials of the ruling party. The Community Development Forum worked closely with the Station Commander of the Hout Bay police station, a very innovative woman who has attempted to make the police station a community center of sorts, and she consults and works closely with those who live in the area.

We found out very quickly that the CDW’s were quite angry. They were angry not at foreign nationals. They were angry that two years of community work to build relations between the locals and foreign nationals were being undone by a very vocal and insistent group of residents in Houtbay.  They were angry that the white residents of Hout Bay, having heard the stories about attacks on foreign nationals, went to the Hout Bay police station, and pressurized the police to escort foreign nationals out of the area, to get them to evacuate the area. They were angry that these residents showed up at the entrance to IY and removed the foreign nationals in their employ. They were angry that all of this was done without consulting them. And once the foreign nationals were evacuated, the looting of shops began.

Now, this story is a small one. But I think it is instructive. And it is recurring. In the most recent stories of impending attacks, the CDW’s  and some researchers doing field work have described how some NGO’s, and some young mostly white activists, and residents from the area, arrived and drove through the area with posters and placards, imploring the residents of IY to say no to Xenophobia, and to embrace tolerance, diversity and other Africans.  Again the locals were not consulted. Good intentions were  no doubt behind the actions. But were they useful?  This is the question we must ask and allow ourselves to be asked.

I posed the title of my talk in the way that I did, because it seemed to me that in the rush to find solutions and to act,  the nature of a problem can be assumed rather than probed. And its manifestation can be assumed to be the problem itself rather than being viewed as a symptom. I also had in mind  the German political theorist, Hannah Arendt, who noted that:

No paradox of contemporary politics is filled with a more poignant irony than the discrepancy between the efforts of well-meaning idealists who stubbornly insist on regarding as ‘inalienable’ those human rights which are enjoyed only by citizens of the most prosperous and civilized countries, and the situation of the rightless themselves (Arendt 1968: 278).

There is a disjuncture between what Arendt describes as the rightless themselves, and those most prosperous. But lets adapt Arendt to speak to our condition, to say that we are not talking about the rightless in this instance, but different ways in which rights are being engaged, claimed and protected. And that rather than between a first world and a third world, or a colonized and colonized, or developed and underdeveloped as different entities, were are talking about geographically proximate but economically, socially and culturally distinct communities of apartheid within the same state. In this Manichean world, some are asserting and claiming their rights themselves. And some are asserting and claiming rights on behalf of others, mediating between these worlds. There is therefore an increase in what we might call the judicialization of political discontent in South Africa. That is to say, the addressing of political demands and discontent has corralled politics, after the end of apartheid, into legal channels and constitutional discourses.  The expression of political discontent through judicial mechanisms is an indicator, many of you might suggest,  of the perceptions of the efficacy, transparency and trust in these mechanisms to successfully mediate and regulate the power of the government in relation to the sovereignty of the constitution, which contains the fundamental rights to which all citizens are now equally entitled in post apartheid South Africa. This, at its core, is the vision of citizenship which liberal democracy holds dear.  In historical context,  these are  significant developments which are not to be undervalued in any way. However, they put into play  a set of practices that have important implications for how democracy is lived.

It seems to me, that we  what have are  communities asserting and claiming certain rights, increasingly not only through legal and acceptable ways, but also through ways which we have labeled as  criminal, as thuggery, and as hooliganism. When we conducted the focus groups it became apparent very quickly that there was widespread discontent in informal settlements about a range of welfare based promises that were either slow in the offing, or mysterious and opaque. The provision of housing was not fast enough, where there was new housing settlements there appeared to be irregularities, and so on. There was a lack of jobs, and job creation seemed non existent. There was a lack of consultation, and party branches were weak and instrumentalized around elections. There was a general sense of being ignored. And when the violence broke out, the response by the political elites, the NGO’s, the charities and middle class, mostly white society, was to visit and take care of the foreign nationals and ignore or admonish the locals. We were told this further enraged local sentiments towards foreign nationals.

When we released the HSRC report, their were a number of criticisms of it. Some justified for sure. But some castigated us for reporting the views of these communities. It is as if explanation has been conflated with justification. To understand a phenomena, to make it thinkable, as the product of human endeavour, surely does not mean one is accepting it as right or good?  If we believe that people act out of a sense of conviction that what they are doing is right, then surely we must understand why and how they have come to believe this?

Now, lets think about this abit. Last week, there was a picture on the front page of the Cape Times. There are flames, there is anger, there is violence, there is a man in the picture, there is discontent. Yet consider the difference in response to that picture, and the picture of May 2008. The day after the May 2008 story, the newspapers, as you will recall,  were filled with articles about it, and I myself had an op-ed in the Cape Times reflecting on the picture. The day after this photograph was printed, there was nothing and there has been nothing. No scandal, no outrage, no NGO, nor charity, nor state, no middle class mobilizing.  This violence, protesting the lack of services, has become so normalized for the middle classes, that it does not mobilize us into sympathy nor empathy. Into a feeling of good will and doing good.

I think there is something worth reflecting on here. When do certain violations of rights or lack of fulfillment of rights become scandalous and when do they not?  Currently the mainstream media is dominated by the debate on the media and free speech and there is an outpouring of alarm around it. Rightly or wrongly it is a scandal of sorts for a very small but vocal minority. Even though I suspect for the vast majority of South Africans there is indifference. And when we talk about violence, threats, and animosity towards foreign Africans, we are talking about something that too has taken on the proportions of a scandal and commands attention, energy and action. We talk about addressing xenophobia through the injunction to tolerance, through the allocation of citizenship rights, through the language of diversity and community, through the protection and upholding of human rights. And this is all good and well. But I am doubtful about the efficacy of this response if it is designed and intended to address the violence. It seems to me that an exclusive focus on human rights or an appeal to embrace otherness, tends to either not resonate with the potential perpetrators, or to increase the animosity towards the very victims of potential violence.

Lets look at the images of those who carried out the violence more closely. Many were young men. And we know that informal settlements were the location. We now know that two thirds of South Africa’s unemployed are under the age of 35, and that 75% of those unemployed young people, mostly men, are neither studying nor working and have never had a job in the formal economy.  Some people, like Alistair Sparks, have been saying for a while, that this is the fundamental ticking time bomb. Well, if you look at who the main looters of stores are , the main constituency from which those who carried out violence, it is mostly young men in these townships…the ranks of the unemployed and formally lacking in education. Many  of whom have given up looking for jobs.

The violence towards foreign nationals has become a scandal, and it was manifest and appalling. But we have to ask ourselves, what rights should we be asserting on the terrain of politics, as the object of political struggle, and political contestation? And we have to ask ourselves, why is it that the structural violence, this violence that condemns many unemployed, those lacking  in formal education or job prospects, a violence  that assaults dignity, imagination and hope, why is that violence not the scandal that mobilizes the middle classes, the suburbs, the bulk of NGO’s, the media into action? Is it not an abdication to leave that to the State, and bemoan its efficiency, but not mobilize politically around it?

When the IY residents only encounter white Hout Bay residents, and well meaning activists with placards and banners, coming in to tell them to love their neighbours from across the Limpopo, how do you think they should experience this? When the CDW’s have been trying to organize residents, bring people together, build common social and economic projects in the midst of a hostile middle and upper class that wants them removed or quarantined, how are they  to experience this form of activism?

So, am  I saying that those of us who want to do something we terrible things happen, should do nothing? On the contrary. I am however saying that we must be aware of how we do what do. Returning to the IY situation,  I think it displays the difference between two forms of organization. On the one hand, the local organizations of the community, as present in the IY development forum, made up most mostly of  organizations from the community, and accountable to the community, with elected officials who will have to explain their actions to that constituency. In the case of the political parties, like the ANC and organizations like the SACP, accountable to the party as well. On the other hand, many of the human rights advocacy groups campaigning against xenophobia are NGO’s, not social movements.  Or social movements external to the communities where the violence has taken place.

NGO’s, by and large, bring with them a particular kind of political practice  since they are often driven not from the bottom up, by the mandate of ‘the grassroots’, as democratically representative and accountable, but are professional groupings with particular interests, with paid officials, and often times accountable to the concerns of donor funding upon whom they are dependent, most of which originates in the metropoles of Europe and North America.  This is not say that there is  not considerable variation, or that many NGO’s take as their interest advocacy work related to the needs of marginalized, disadvantaged or vulnerable categories in a society. NGO’s are thus accountable, but not necessarily to the constituency they claim or seek to represent.

In the case of IY, the lesson was that the external organizations, from the Houtbay residents in the middle and upper class houses, to those who recently drove through with their placards saying “No to Xenophobia”, did little to work with and through the local organizations, and to support the slow, less visible day to day work that those who live there are doing. The kind of organizing that recognizes that neighbor will have to live with neighbor. That recognizes that the message of love and tolerance struggles to find traction if not accompanied by a political struggle against the structural violence that places vulnerable people in vulnerable situations, an leads them to do awful things to each other sometimes, locked together as they are in this cheek by jowl poverty. And alongside the inequality, now the highest in the world.  It can only be a  myopic middle class sensibility that does not see that this violence will continue to find its other in the closest and the weakest, for now.  But that that actual violence is also symbolic and a manifestation of a kind of politics, a kind that cares less about the formal institutions of parliamentary constitutional democracy, less about the uproar and outrage of the very small but dominant bourgeois civil society of us, the chattering classes.

My point then is not that we must not act or do or feel compassion, empathy and even outrage. But it is about being self aware too. When we speak out, and speak loudest, we are silencing many others. So before we rush to  speak out, perhaps a different kind of ethical political gesture is necessary. A speaking to, rather than a speaking out. A dialogue with, rather than a diatribe against, a listening rather than a lecture. From this kind of gesture we might then able to do good by not acting against, but by acting with, in concert, in community that is less  about a distinction between us and them, and more and more about  simply  Us;  an inclusive identity rather than exclusive one.

Further Reading

Edson in Accra

It happened in 1969. But just how did he world’s greatest, richest and most sought-after footballer at the time, end up in Ghana?

The dreamer

As Africa’s first filmmakers made their unique steps in Africanizing cinema, few were as bold as Djibril Diop Mambéty who employed cinema to service his dreams.

Socialismo pink

A solidariedade socialista na Angola e Moçambique pós-coloniais tornou as pessoas queer invisíveis. Revisitar esse apagamento nos ajuda a reinventar a libertação de forma legítima.