Friday, May 23, 2008

Dispatch: Few Words

It seems I would be remiss in not addressing what is happening in South Africa right now, and probably making headlines in your local paper. I’m not an expert, but everyone and anyone who is living here feels palpably the impact and devastation of the xenophobic violence. If you look up Xenophobia on you get a standard definition, but before the definition comes two Sponsored Links – advertisements to lure us to another website. The Xenophobia page on offers us two:

Xenophobia Photos
Watch the Flames of Hate photos with commentary at The Times

Rules Losing Belly Fat
Lose 9 lbs every 11 Days By Following these 10 Idiot Rules.

I don’t know what is more troubling and strange – that someone perceives a connection between xenophobia and belly fat or that The Times is actively promoting their devastating photos of the latest terror here. I am not stupid, I know the Times is a business, I know they need to promote, but I was not expecting to find them with my definition – then again, these raw pictures do define xenophobia.

If you choose to move forward in your exploration of xenophobia and you click on The Times link, you may see something that you have already seen. A man seated on the ground, on fire, burning to death and two policemen trying to figure out what to do. As a student of South Africa I remember reading about the necklace killings in the early nineties, one piece of the black on black violence that raged in some townships, where people would fill a tire with gasoline, throw it around someone, light it on fire, and burn the person to death. This, I had thought, was this country’s past.

To me, this seems to have escalated so quickly – the majority of the violence has taken place in the Gauteng province, but has moved on to four other provinces, including here in Cape Town. Since the attacks began on May 11, 42 foreigners have been killed in Gauteng, 27,000 have been displaced and 400 people have been arrested. Mozambiqan miners have worked here for years. I read yesterday that the governement of Mozambique is organizing to accommodate a mass influx of people, packing busses and fleeing home. Thousands are awaiting busses to go back to Zimbabwe. I just read of one man who moved here 13 years ago from Zimbabwe, just got his South African citizenship last year, but his neighbors said, he must go, because he is of a different tribe. Here in Cape Town, two Somalis were killed last weekend and another was killed last night, in the first major riots that flared up in Du Noon, an informal settlement here.

So how does frustration turn to anger and then violence so quickly? How do community meetings and discussions turn to mobs? How does confusion build?
I have seen too many pictures of the bleeding, the injured, the looting, the burning, mobs carrying sticks and machetes and knives, the dying. So why? Resentment against migrants who come to Gauteng to work has been brewing for years. “They are taking our jobs,” one hears over and over again. Is that rational for this brutality? In higher spheres, some people say that Mbeki should have spoken out about Mugabe and the elections in Zimbabwe sooner and that is a factor.

These foreigners are from all over – not just Zimbabwe and Mozambique, but Zambia, Malawi, and others. As they plead with people to stop the violence, politicians and others often say, these people come from countries that opened their arms to us during the struggle. When our people needed to escape the apartheid regime, to go into exile, our neighboring countries embraced us, often at their own risk. We must remember that, embrace them. I do not argue with that but I do think that it must be hard to remember history when food prices are rising, when you are hungry, jobless, struggling to make ends meet, maybe living in an informal settlement, maybe didn’t get the education you deserve. That is not an excuse or a rationalization. I do not excuse this ugliness, this brutal behavior and it makes no sense to me, but one can think that those factors might have been a seed.

Know as I paint this bleak picture that people are upset, angry, confused about how this could be happening in their country, how blacks could be killing other blacks because of tribalism, how humans could be treating other humans with such disregard – there was a vigil tonight in front of Parliament, people gathering to mourn, to reflect, to turn to their leaders seeking quick action to bring a stop to this. Sunday is Africa Day, it celebrates the unity of the continent, the founding of what is now the African Union. How will South Africa celebrate this year?

At my gym parking lot, I often talk to Patrick, who is from the DRC and works there washing cars. Yesterday I asked if he and his friends are afraid. “No,” he nonchalantly replied. “We cannot live in fear.” But, he also said, that this violence doesn’t make sense. Some of you have met my friend Brian, a law student from Zimbabwe who has lived here for several years making beaded crafts. He stays in an informal settlement about 20 minutes away. I didn’t see him today. I am sure that he is fine, but I will look for him tomorrow.

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