Business Day, 2 June 2008

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During the past two weeks the government has offered a number of inconsistent explanations for outbreaks of “xenophobic violence”. Apartheid elements, third forces and socioeconomic factors and criminal gangs have been advanced and then dismissed as explanations by political leaders and officials. The cabinet was reading from the same page by last Thursday but the paper did not have very much written on it. “The recent xenophobic violence cannot be attributed to a single factor,” spokesman Themba Maseko stated. “It is not necessarily the work,” he hedged, “of a so-called third force.” So terrible has been the suffering that the search for an explanation — and, above all, someone to blame — is certain to go on. Social scientists and commentators have been working hard to fill the explanatory vacuum left by the government. Some commentators argue that long-range socioeconomic factors, such as urbanisation, unemployment, entrenched poverty and poor public services, have predisposed township communities to violence. Scholars are also fond of invoking “relative deprivation” in explaining that people’s grievances depend on the frame of reference in which they are conceived. Analysts have also highlighted longstanding, pervasive violence against “foreigners”, noting that xenophobic and corrupt police forces leave such groups vulnerable. Alongside broad factors allegedly creating antipathy towards outsiders, analysts have argued that recently worsening conditions have turned simmering resentment into potential violence. Numbers of foreign nationals, especially Zimbabweans, have grown rapidly, and sharply rising food and fuel prices have added to the pain. By March this year, the Human Rights Commission was concerned enough to demand new protections for immigrants. African diplomats wrote to the government to demand a response to attacks on nationals. Although the outpouring of socioeconomic analysis has been more illuminating than the government’s obfuscation, certain limitations should be kept in mind. First, it remains unclear how much explanatory power analyses of the influence of poverty or relative deprivation really possess. Human societies across the ages have almost all been marked by extremes of oppression, suffering and inequality. Men, women — and even slaves — have almost never rebelled in the face of inequality or injustice. Second, the wave of “xenophobic attacks” we have seen may turn out to be something quite different. Further violence, and an expanding circle of victims that embraces Tsonga- or Venda-speaking citizens, will awaken the fear of ethnic nationalism voiced last week by Blade Nzimande and Gwede Mantashe. Third, broad socioeconomic accounts make it difficult for us to attribute moral or political responsibility for events. The main suspect appears to be a government that failed to act in time to prevent violence spiralling out of control. When Safety and Security Minister Charles Nqakula commented “intelligence (services) did not think that the conflict would spread and degenerate into violence,” his words suggested the government knew a great deal about the “conflict”. Was the government incompetent, as some critics suggest? Or, as others suppose, did the somewhat heightened levels of xenophobia simply suit a government hoping to discourage further inflows of refugees from Zimbabwe? National Intelligence Agency head Manala Manzini had other culprits in mind. “As SA prepares for another national election early next year”, he commented, “the so-called black-on-black violence that we witnessed prior to our first election in 1994 has deliberately been unleashed and orchestrated”. The alleged orchestrators analysts have identified so far, however, turn out to be a motley bunch: criminals, taxi owners, local business people, apartheid elements, hostel dwellers and Inkatha Freedom Party organisers. It may be that the pathology also has more directly political roots. Perhaps, after a decade and a half of radical change in political institutions, a once-intelligible system of community representation and mobilisation has been replaced by an incomprehensible patchwork of corrupt councillors, distant government departments and opaque executive agencies. For ordinary citizens it is no longer clear where they can express grievances, or how change can be brought about. Discontented citizens cut loose from systems of political representation can only be brought together to rage sporadically about the injustices they believe they endure. Socioeconomic diagnoses can be important and revealing. Yet the new African National Congress leadership’s suggestion that local civic institutions need to be rebuilt from the bottom up, starting with street committees, may well be the best prescription for peace and stability in the immediate future.