“zenophobia”

I read a column by Jonathan Jensen in the Times (of Joburg) entitled “The Machetes Of Our Minds.” Great title. It’s on “zenophobia,” as Jensen writes on a blackboard in a primary school classroom. The students immediately correct his spelling; it’s spelled with an X. He’s a bit surprised, but only a bit, that these school children know how to spell the word perhaps even better than their parents. Everyone, Jensen writes, has been throwing the word around during the past few weeks.

Jensen is shocked by the killings that have torn apart townships from Joburg to the Cape Flats: “But is it xenophobia?” He notes that everyone is throwing the word around. He also says that he is in no way downplaying the seriousness of the violence. Still, Jensen questions “the lazy tendency to label a complex phenomenon and then satisfy ourselves that we have a neat explanation for an atrocity.”

That was my point in a previous post.

Jensen writes that it is so easy – too easy – for the government and the police to label the violence as “xenophobia” but also to attribute it to a mysterious “third force” that is never identified by them. Few reporters chase them for an explanation for their use of these two terms, except for those from the Mail & Guardian.

In Jensen’s view, the present violence is the result of frustration with long-standing grievances that the poorest in this country have against the ANC government for failing to control immigration, to build new homes and create jobs fast enough for the original residents while at the same time allowing immigrants and refugees to jump queues by taking advantage of corrupt authorities with bribes and pay-offs. Combine all of the above with a long history of violence in this country that has seen 14,000 people killed in the four years from 1990 to 1994, and the ANC’s first term as national government.

During that same period, 22,000 people were injured in the violence, mostly between the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party. This is many times more than the total numbers of people killed or injured in all of the violence from the 1960s, when townships exploded in anti-apartheid demonstrations, until 1990 when the ANC and other parties of liberation were unbanned and Mandela and others walked out of prison.

The present violence in South Africa, according to Jensen, may be traced to this long history of violence; violence as a means to an end, as a constant facet of society, as the backdrop to everyday life. Look at the endless taxi wars, the break-ins and armed roberies, the gangs, and much more, he writes.

“We are all traumatised by our violent past; this time it was foreigners, tomorrow it will be someone else.”

“If any evidence was needed that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission failed to deal with national trauma, the events this month were it. It does not matter, therefore, whether you spell the word with a Z or an X, the problem staring all of us in the mirror is not xenophobia.”

I don’t entirely agree with his assessment, but it makes one think about the the link between SA’s violent past and how it has affected so much of the population – of all races. I don’t have the personal experience to refute his argument. I hear similar statements from taxi drivers, although in very different language. It’s his assessment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which he states has failed to resolve the national trauma as though there were an inherent promise there.

Everyone I’ve discussed the TRC with has said that it accomplished its main goal – helping avoid a civil war and bloodbath on all sides. It was a compromise arrangement, a stop gap, between the former Afrikaner rulers and the incoming coalition of liberationists. The TRC was designed to allow people from one end of the country to the other to express their pain and anguish, to ask for answers (such as where their loved ones might be buried), to permit them to confront their antagonists, to demand the truth about their perpetrators’ crimes from the perpetrators themselves, and thus allow an amnesty – if and only if they told the truth. But it was not about healing the national trauma.

Because its scope and direction was so limited by the two main opponents (Afrikaner and ANC), the SA Truth and Reconciliation Commission was hamstrung from the start; unable to demand answers from international corporations and businesses that propped up the apartheid regimes for deecades, that funded and supported the former SA regime’s destabilization of other countries in southern Africa (and protecting their business interests in the process), that instigated foreign governments to support, train and fund counter-insurgencies in countries such as Namibia, Angola and Mozamibique. So not everyone was compelled to come forward to testify, to answer charges against them, to tell the truth, to seek amnesty.

Some individuals, like those corporations, got off scott-free.

People know that. They also know that some in the ANC got off with their crimes as well. So did those in the Inkatha Freedom party, in particular Manogsuthu Buthelezi and King Goodwill Zwelethini for ther crimes committed in their names or under their direction. That was the compromise. What the TRC could not do was instruct or direct the incoming elite to NOT order that big mansion, those gas-guzziling Mercedes sedans, those expensive Italian suits, to not resemble so very much the pigs in George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.”

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