'IGNORANCE, STATE FAILURE' AT ROOT OF ATTACKS

Business Day, 28 August 2008

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Poor management of migration by the state , along with many South Africans' ignorance about the rest of the continent, contributed to xenophobic attacks on foreigners five months ago, former University of Cape Town vice-chancellor Mamphela Ramphele said yesterday. She also ascribed the attacks to an inferiority complex that resulted in the targeting of other black Africans during four weeks of unrest that left 62 people dead. "There is a self-image problem," Ramphele said at a panel discussion organised by the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE). Failure to instil an awareness of Africa was among the weaknesses of the school system, she said. However, Ramphele blamed government negligence for the general ignorance about the help that exiled South Africans received from fellow Africans prior to 1994. She alluded to the "cruel irony" pertaining to how the home affairs department treated Africans when South Africans were received with "such gentleness" by much poorer African countries during the struggle days. Ramphele said that in its failure to manage migration and live up to its international obligations on the treatment of refugees, the government had dumped them on the poor. Due to an existing lack of space and opportunities, this was like "pouring oil into the fire". She alluded to a "kind of dissonance" between what South Africans think of themselves and what the market said they were worth, particularly young black males who bore the brunt of the labour market's hostility towards pre-grade 12 dropouts. Ramphele's comments came as a new report by the CDE estimated that Johannesburg's immigrant population was about 14%, or 700000 -- a number CDE executive director Ann Bernstein said was well below the figures that had generated "a kind of popular panic". The figure was still above any level that could be an excuse for complacency or inertia, she said. She attributed the xenophobic attacks to the government's failure to provide direction. "We've had a singular failure in leadership in the country in how to cope with migration," she said, calling for acknowledgment that migration was inevitable given SA's dominant position in the region. Bernstein discounted competition for jobs as a major trigger of the xenophobic attacks, saying there were many jobs that South Africans did not want. "What does that say about people's expectations?" she said. Last month, the CDE called for the government to appoint an independent expert commission, headed by a respected senior judge, to look into the circumstances and causes of the xenophobic attacks. A task force appointed by the government soon after the outbreak of violence did not offer any comprehensive reasons for the violence.