A GREAT DIVIDE

Cape Times, 14 May 2008

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The wave of violence that has swept Alexandra in Johannesburg is, sadly, but the latest symptom of the xenophobia which is so rampant in our society. South Africa is thought to have the highest proportion of migrants - a term which embraces political asylum seekers and economic refugees - in the world. Although it is impossible to gather exact statistics, estimates range between three and five million people. The numbers have been swelled in the past few years, as many Zimbabweans have fled political repression and economic meltdown in their country. And while there are many highly skilled migrants who have been recruited to work here, the majority are simply trying to escape from a very bad life in places such as Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. They hope for a better life in South Africa, for safety and for enough to feed their families. And, too often, they are greeted with violence and hostility. One of the critical problems is that - migrants or not - unemployment is high, poverty is widespread, inequality between the rich and poor is growing, and service delivery in critical areas such as housing, education and healthcare is, too frequently, only patchy at best. So, South African citizens' fear that "foreigners" are taking from them resources they so desperately need is understandable. It is, though, no excuse for the kind of violence we have witnessed in, for example, Alexandra and, nearer home, Worcester. In the longer term, the resolution of Africa's many conflicts is the only way to stem the flow south. Imagine what would happen if Zimbabwe's political impasse was resolved. But for now, the government, civil society, trade unions and faith-based organisations all have a critical role to play in defusing potentially murderous conflict, and they must play that role now. Painstaking mediation efforts have been successful throughout the country. This needs skills and resources, but we cannot afford not to apply these to the problem. Xenophobia is carving another great divide in our society and, heaven knows, we have enough of those already.