Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Migration & Refugees

Q&A: "The Poor Have Turned on the Poor"

Interview with Prince Mashele, analyst at the Institute for Security Studies

CAPE TOWN, May 22 2008 (IPS) - Upwards of 40 people are said to have been killed and some 15,000 displaced in South Africa during more than a week of violence directed mainly against foreigners.

Prince Mashele Credit:

Prince Mashele Credit:

The attacks started in the poor Johannesburg settlement of Alexandra, one of the so-called townships established to house black, mixed race and Indian people during years of racial segregation in the country. Within a week, the violence had spread beyond South Africa's economic capital to the provinces of KwaZulu-Natal in the south-east, and Mpumalanga in the north-east.

There has been widespread condemnation of the attacks, variously blamed on poverty, unemployment, and rising prices for food and fuel. Migrants are often accused of taking jobs away from South Africans, and of involvement in the extensive crime that continues to plague the country.

As many as five million foreigners reportedly live in South Africa, which has a population of almost 50 million. Most of the migrants are believed to be from neighbouring Zimbabwe, where political and economic turmoil has prompted an exodus of nationals.

Amidst fears that the police were failing to contain the violence, President Thabo Mbeki this week gave the nod for army intervention in troubled areas.

IPS reporter Stephanie Nieuwoudt asked Prince Mashele, head of the Crime, Justice and Politics Programme at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), for his views on these developments. The ISS is based in South Africa's capital, Tshwane.

IPS: Why did these attacks happen now? People have been unhappy for some time about issues like joblessness and poverty and there have been reports of attacks on foreigners, but never on this scale.

PRINCE MASHELE: The poor in South Africa have no jobs or decent housing. There is also a concern about escalating crime. Based on this, the atmosphere becomes friendly for opportunists to engage in violence, and this escalates into criminality and hooliganism – and opportunists exploit the situation by looting, thieving and beating up victims.

Then there is the issue of trying to find solutions to problems. Poor people spread the message to other poor people that they are in dire circumstances because of foreigners who take their jobs and who contribute to the high crime rate in this country. This may or may not be true.

IPS: Government officials have said that South Africans should remember that supporters of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) were welcomed in neighbouring states during apartheid, when the party was banned – and with this in mind, treat foreigners well. Will people have any sympathy with such appeals at a time when government is often accused of failing to provide basic services, housing, jobs and the like?

PM: There is no question that the people are not happy with the performance of government. But we should not analyse the situation by using 1994 as the point of departure. (The ANC won power in 1994; this year also marked the advent of democracy in South Africa.)

There has been a historic chain of events that pre-date 1994, and which has led to the poverty of the majority of the people. The lack of education goes back a long way to policies implemented under the previous regimes. It could be that the current government is caught in a trap set by the previous government.

There is a limit to what the government can do: it is not possible to employ all the people in the country.

It is also true that many African countries hosted the ANC leadership during the freedom struggle. Without this help, the leaders would not have been able to win the struggle. There is, therefore, a moral obligation on South Africa to help people from other African countries. But it is a responsibility that the government should take on, as the leadership was looked after by other governments during the struggle.

IPS: What can be done to address the root causes of the violence?

PM: The violence can only be stopped through the leadership of the broad political spectrum. This entails a vision for the future and getting communities to understand that the government will address their problems.

It is of the utmost importance that the poor get housing, water, roads etc. A sense of hope has to be created. If there is no hope, people do not take responsibility for their actions.

There is a large body of predominantly black, uneducated people who have not been absorbed into the economy. The means should be created for them to be absorbed. They should not be given houses, but an opportunity to earn money through which they are empowered to buy their own houses.

A strong law enforcement component is needed to ensure stability, and in the long and medium term, education has to be stepped up.

The Department of Home Affairs needs to come to the party. We have millions of foreigners in this country. I cannot understand why Home Affairs has not set up refugee camps…(perhaps) because they did not want to send out a message to potential refugees that they will be welcomed here. It could also be that government wanted to avoid the cost implications of establishing refugee camps. But if the choice is between spending money and violence, I prefer the first option.

The question arises: if the politicians suddenly found themselves living next to hundreds of hungry, homeless and unemployed immigrants, how soon would they have established refugee camps?

The onus is on the government in power to regulate the movement of foreigners into South Africa. We have a war situation where the poor have turned on the poor.

IPS: Although there are many Zimbabweans in the country, it is often attacks on Somalis that make the headlines. Why?

PM: It could be because the Zimbabweans and other foreigners keep a relatively low profile. In contrast, Somalis are very visible. They open shops and many seem to do quite well.

IPS: The army has been deployed. Was this a wise decision?

PM: By sending in the army, the president wants to send a message to the world that he is serious. Personally, I believe there are other avenues which could have been followed. These include sending in the special forces of the police, which are trained to deal with extreme cases of violence.

I believe sending in the army is a political statement. The army can succeed in calming the violence, in which case Mbeki will be lauded. But it can also have the opposite effect: the masses can become really angry and retaliate by throwing stones and shooting at soldiers. This will lead to chaos and destabilise the country as happened in the 1980s during apartheid. In this case, Mbeki will come under fire and be severely criticised.

Republish | | Print |