One of my failings as an optimist is that I have a disproportionate amount of faith in the goodness of people, not least those who are entrusted to lead others. Having spent just slightly over three decades in this world, I realise that I am slowly losing my look-on-the-bright-side outlook as more and more I allow my perceptions to be tempered by the experiences I have been through. And of all the things I have seen, the conversations I have engaged in and relationships I have had, none have made me more despondent about what is seemingly the hopeless condition of man than the scourge of xenophobia in South Africa and the sorry state of Zimbabwe. More on the latter in another post.
In the case of the recent xenophobic attacks, it is chilling to note how insular some South Africans are becoming. Notwithstanding the reasons for the resurgent attacks, I can confidently say that even if all the foreign nationals are expelled from South Africa, the country will for a long time to come still rank as one of the most unequal societies on the planet. It will still be plagued by crime, poor service delivery and all the other social injustices currently being suffered by the majority who live in townships and shacks. Until and when the leaders choose to take an unwavering and principled stance to always act in the public interest, the very essence of democracy to which the country’s long-term peace and prosperity are tied remains under threat from the very people who fought for such things.
Ironically, it is politicians who have been the beneficiaries of the misdirected public ire towards foreign nationals. Despite the perennial strikes and service-delivery protests, we are yet to witness a wholesale act of national civil disobedience as was the case in the apartheid era. So far, the government has been spared the concerted wrath of the disgruntled majority. No sooner than all the foreigners have been banished from the country will the populace realise that the true enemy was never the Mozambican or Somali immigrant but the government of the day, which failed to swiftly and decisively channel the fortunes of the country to uplift millions of the struggling poor.
After successfully project-managing the hosting of the World Cup, we can safely surmise that the government is not incapable of providing decent housing and creating much needed jobs first for its citizens with some to spare for other skilled workers from elsewhere. Hence, if capability is not the issue, we are then forced to conclude that the crux of the matter is a lack of a resolute focus to prioritise the pressing needs of the nation, over other more grandiose projects.
Unfortunately, in the eyes of those crying out for decent jobs and housing, this lack of prioritisation translates to inattention and worse, a failure to act on their needs. Worryingly, it appears that at some point in the course of this country’s history, someone must have promised the populace the earth. That someone committed a terrible error, because a few years down the line, the unfulfilled promises have spawned a culture of entitlement, crime and dependency on social grants. It is quite an unsavoury cocktail.
To avert the danger that lies ahead, the government must with immediate effect embark on a programme to reorient the expectations of society while doing all it can to resolve the pressing problems of our time. People need to be made aware that social grants without the backing of a healthy employment industry, are unsustainable. They need to know that foreign nationals are also human beings with rights that need to be respected. They must be told, unequivocally, that the current problems stem from many causes, two of which are corruption and government’s initial inertia in tackling the issues confronting the state.
Finally, the government must admit to the people that in the era before the World Cup, there was a mental block which led many to assume that the problems were too much to handle. If anything, the government should now use the palpable sense of belief stemming from the successful hosting of the World Cup to assure the people that it can deliver once and for all, the ultimate fruits of democracy — relative prosperity, peace and security for all. Project plans should be drawn up for each community and stakeholder meetings between government and the people should be held. South Africa can and must win the war on crime and poverty. In the aftermath of a splendid soccer jamboree that made the world proud of Africa, not only is this a fitting legacy to pursue, it is the only one.