The traumatic events of the past few weeks have revealed South Africans at its worst. An orgy of rage, cruelty and merciless hatred has descended on our society, reminiscent of the worst excesses of the country’s painful transition to democracy in the early years of the last decade. People are asking, and rightly, what kind of a nation we have become? Have the hopes and ideals that so infused the birth of our democratic, non-racial society been irreparably sullied by this unfolding catastrophe?
Part of the tragedy is how much it has undermined one of South Africa’s greatest — and little recognised — achievements. Never mind for the moment the fact that it has happened, to a large extent clandestinely. The reality on the ground is that South Africa has provided sanctuary to millions of African migrants seeking a better life for themselves. Both in terms of economic opportunity and political freedom, this country has been a magnet for Africa’s “huddled masses”. Many have been successfully integrated and in turn have contributed to the prosperity of their new homeland. Of course the sheer extent of the influx, which has been exacerbated by multiple failures at the official and administrative level, has not been a good thing. But it has not been entirely a bad thing either, and it can be counted as one of South Africa’s genuine achievements in the humanitarian sphere.
The xenophobic pogroms sweeping the country have betrayed this proud legacy. In her most recent “Letter from Zimbabwe”, Cathy Buckle has poignantly expressed this sense of betrayal our neighbors must now feel. For the last eight years, she writes, South Africa had been “a place of safety for Zimbabweans — an oasis of sanity and an orderly, law abiding, normal way of life”. Even though the South African government had been silent regarding events in Zimbabwe, ordinary people had been caring, supportive and compassionate to Zimbabweans in their plight. But now, “Our temporary sanctuary, the place where we felt safe and could find food, friendship and compassion has suddenly gone. Which way now for our poor people? Too frightened to stay, too frightened to go”.
But there has been another side to the anti-foreigner agitation, something that has received far less attention but which is surely more reflective of the true spirit of the South African people than the acts of barbarism we have been witnessing. Across the board, we are seeing ordinary caring people coming forward to assist the victims in whatever way they can, regardless of what is written in their passports.
At the beginning of the unrest my organisation, the SA Jewish Board of Deputies, put out an appeal to the Jewish community calling for donations of food, clothing and blankets. Our expectations were not high; we would have been happy to be able to deliver in the end a few bakkie loads of material to the relevant depot. Instead, we have since then found ourselves swamped by a continual flood of donations, including substantial financial contributions into a special fund we have set up for refugee relief.
I have only witnessed at first hand what the Jewish response to the crisis has been, but it is evident that this is mirrored by similarly generous and caring responses from throughout the greater society. Whether at the organisational or the individual level, and almost always away from the prying eyes of reporters and news cameras, countless acts of compassion are taking place, motivated entirely by a concern to alleviate the suffering of others during this time of crisis. The South African public, in fact, has come to the fore when the government, for its own unfathomable reasons, has taken refuge in bluster and denial.
None of this is a reason for complacency. No society where thousands of helpless people are hounded from their homes, robbed, viciously beaten often to death and even burned alive can be called a healthy one. At the same time, the revulsion that has almost universally greeted the xenophobic attacks, and the extent to which this has been translated into constructive action, shows that we, as a nation, at least still possess the necessary antidote to the disease.