Cape Times , 18 June 2008

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I empathise with victims of South Africans' xenophobic violence over the past decade and, in particular, the past weeks, and with everyone in South Africa who is from elsewhere on the continent. This is no balm for the wounds that fellow citizens have inflicted on men, women, children and infants who have sought refuge here. The little hope I had was eroded by the defensive responses of some South Africans at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation-organised (IJR) dialogue at the University of Cape Town on June 3. I am rekindling my stubborn refusal to lose hope. There is no single explanation for this brutality. Deepening economic inequality is a factor. But it is too easy to blame "the poor", so often represented as a homogeneous mass. South Africa has a history of dealing with difference, competition and conflict through violence. The recent violence is a culmination of a decade or more of xenophobic violence. This is partly the result of a lack of political leadership. We have a president who has, throughout this crisis, remained "otherwise engaged". We have absent leaders; leaders with no vision, which they authorise through their presence and practice, and through speaking what they stand for locally, regionally and globally. We have leaders who have not taken heed of early warnings of the seriousness of xenophobia in South Africa. We have leaders who do not utilise, for the public good, knowledge produced on social issues. Refugees have been murdered by South Africans from as early as 1998. The Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) and the Southern African Migration Project produced clear evidence about what was specific to xenophobia in South Africa. They noted first, that compared to other countries in the region, South Africans across race and class revealed among the harshest anti-foreign sentiments. Second, that black people from elsewhere in Africa are the exclusive targets of these sentiments. Third, that the most violent xenophobic practices have been perpetrated by black South Africans. Academic Jonathan Crush reported in 2001 that 85% of South Africans felt that undocumented migrants should be denied freedom of speech and movement, while 60 to 65% felt they should be denied police protection and access to social services. On June 3, when Adekeye Adebajo, executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution (CCR) in Cape Town, presented this factual evidence at the IJR meeting, South Africans, several of them leaders, were unable to hear it, let alone comprehend its implications. Patrick Chauke, chairperson of South Africa's parliamentary portfolio committee on home affairs, told us: "We did not expect this situation." How is this possible, given this and other evidence? Former minister of education Kader Asmal asserted that Adebajo's argument was not evidence-based. As Adebajo spoke, a member of the audience said: "He's angry." Others at the gathering say members of the audience were muttering: "Can he stop now?" This denialism is deeply disappointing. This inability to listen to the voice of a non-South African is itself xenophobic. The trauma of refugees in this country is silenced by this "we did not know" approach. This trauma was silenced on June 3 when South Africans kept referring to the beautiful paperwork that South Africa boasts: the new Refugee Act, the Constitution, etc. This trauma was silenced on June 3 when South Africans referred to atrocities elsewhere. We are told that things in Cape Town are not so bad because the violence was limited to looting. People lost their lives in Gauteng. People lost their livelihoods in Cape Town. These losses cannot be equated. But when we have to resort to using one atrocity to assess the impact of another, we are in deep trouble. We can have all the beautiful paperwork in the world, and a strong civil society, but without a leadership which authorises the vision of this paperwork through their practice, the lives of refugees and civic organisations remain difficult. Two powerful suggestions were put forward at the June 3 dialogue: first, that South Africa considers paying reparations to its neighbouring countries who suffered under the apartheid regime; and second, that emergency documentation be unconditionally granted to refugees traumatised over the past few weeks. Chauke failed to respond to these suggestions. My hope is that he will. Such interventions might begin to build a social conscience in this country. But communities of conscience do not respond only in crisis. They are involved in practices that sustain a sense of interdependence with one's neighbours. The people who have been murdered, attacked, robbed of their livelihoods and displaced are not "foreign guests" - the term President Thabo Mbeki used in his public broadcast. Nor are they "foreigners" - the term consistently used by the media. These are refugees. Some nameless. Some stateless. Some undocumented. Some rightless, despite being documented. Educationist Crain Soudien recently noted that South Africa faces "a conceptual moment". The value of categories and concepts such as "nation", "nationalism", "citizen", "foreigner", "refugee" and "camp", among others, needs to be urgently revisited. The late intellectual Edward Said, in his book Humanism and Democratic Criticism, noted that "the whole concept of national identity has to be revised". The work of Giorgio Agamben urges us to consider the following: given the state of affairs in Africa and globally, the figure of the refugee is slowly becoming the norm rather than the exception. What does this mean for the narrow South African conception of the nation and nationalism? How does the status of the refugee challenge ideas of citizenship and nationalism that attach senses of belonging and basic human rights to birthright and territory? We need to work with the condition of the refugee as the basis for the meaning of human rights. The recent violence provides an opportunity for South Africa to peer beneath its beautiful paperwork to see its shadow. This is an opportunity for constructive self-criticism, an attribute severely lacking in our leadership. Whether or not this becomes an opportunity for reflective practice depends on whether the perpetrators of this violence are prosecuted. It depends on leadership with a humanist rather than a technocratic vision; leadership committed to a politics beyond gesture.