This is us. No miracle nation. No rainbow nation. Just us: violent; intolerant of difference — hitting where it hurts. Let’s not try to sweet-talk ourselves. This is who we are. Let’s look ourselves in the eye.

We are lurching from crisis to crisis at every level of our society, the latest being the extremes of inhumanity described by the catch-all term “xenophobia”.

This is not new. We started off badly in the 1990s when the ANC leadership ditched the original Reconstruction and Development Programme for the current dog-eats-dog economic policy. Roundabout that time was also when we thought it was OK to lock up children. How many criminals have we bred in our overcrowded prisons since? And then there was Thabo Mbeki’s denial of the prevalence of rape (we weren’t so concerned about that), followed by his Aids denialism (some of us were concerned about that).

In between it all, the arms deal happened and the ANC leadership just had to pull the teeth of Parliament — no inquisitive public representatives, please! All the while the crime rate was picking up with, in the background, ever-increasing inequality.

We were off to a bad start. We just didn’t realise how bad. So all of what’s happening now is not new. What’s new is the rapid rate at which we have been revealing our social pathologies over the past two years.

The attacks against foreigners are us hitting at an obvious place of difference: nationality. But look at the other characteristics of these attacks: the gender-based violence; the brutality of the attacks; ethnicity/race; the socio-economic dimension.

The latter has given our politicians the opportunity to suggest that the attacks are “merely” criminal behaviour — as though criminal behaviour is somehow outside of society.

This kind of thinking is what got us into this mess in the first place, because it means conveniently projecting our ills on to “the other” and thereby avoiding having to confront what is going on.

“The criminals” are the convenient scapegoats on whom we pin our social disfunction. When in doubt, finger “the criminals”. And when you incite people to “shoot the bastards”, as the most honourable Deputy Minister Susan Shabangu recently did with reference to criminals, you will receive a chorus of ululation from all of us peace-loving South Africans.

But who are “the criminals”? Why, our homes are frequently the unsafest places in our society. Look at the levels of domestic violence: between 20% and 30% of women have suffered violence at the hands of an intimate partner, according to one study. And half of female murder victims are killed by intimate partners — the highest rate in the world.

Gender-based violence is the most primary of violent reactions against “otherness”. That is where some men construct themselves as “dominant” by forcefully imposing a hierarchical relationship on a gendered someone over whom they have the physical upper hand. Most of them get away with it because our society, by and large, finds it acceptable.

Half of the reported rape victims in our society are children — the most vulnerable group. We will probably never know the true levels of rape or of sexual assault of children. Again, these are condoned, usually through silence.

We strike at difference — “the other” in our homes; “the other” in our neighbourhoods. Private meets public. We prefer to lash out at the vulnerable, the marginal. (Why not? They don’t fight back most of the time.) Not just the foreigners, or female partners.

Remember when we used to be shocked by baby rapes? Now some of us (only a few, don’t worry) are shocked by the rapes and murders of lesbian women. Another lesbian recently died, bringing the tally to at least four in the past two years. This means four people have died because of their sexual orientation.

And every now and again we find out about abuse perpetrated against one of the most invisible groups in our society, the elderly. There are also the attacks with only one motive: racism. These are the ones that usually get the most attention as it is an issue high up on the agenda of our country’s elite.

Sometimes an attack doesn’t end in rape or death. But it always involves humiliation — ironically, because the right to dignity has been emphasised in Constitutional Court rulings as the foremost of all the rights in our Constitution.

Most of the time, categories of vulnerability and difference converge in the attacks, as in black, elderly, female cleaner (viz the Free State case).

This is us. To try to blame our favourite “other”, the criminals, doesn’t wash.

Indeed, criminal justice researcher Antony Altbeker calculated in his book A Country at War with Itself that between one in every 25 and one in every 40 men in South Africa committed at least one rape, murder or armed robbery in 2006/07.

“They” are among us. “They” are us.

So, when looking at the current wave of attacks against foreigners, we see our fundamental problem with misogyny is in there. Our fundamental problem with brutal violence, so horribly demonstrated in extreme events of crime, is also in there.

As is racism. Not too many years ago, Mbongeni Ngema, one of our foremost playwrights and a friend of the powers that be in government, released a little ditty called AmaNdiya in which he called on his “brothers” to confront the Indians who “just keep coming from India” and own lots of businesses while black people live in shacks. (Would love to see Ngema’s “shack”!)

Ngema said at the time he was merely expressing the feelings of many Africans. Well, those “feelings” have been put into action. The attacks against foreigners have also extended to Indians and some of the attackers have used the opportunity to get at Shangaans, long a maligned group, and Vendas and Pedis.

And lastly, of course, our other fundamental problem in there is socio-economic inequality and poverty. Attackers have seemingly systematically emptied out the shops and dwellings of their victims. Which reminds one of the tales of Serbs carrying fridges and televisions out of the houses of their Muslim victims during the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. Ethnic cleansing goes well with asset grabbing — which idea came first? But, needless to say, avarice finds less fertile ground in less unequal societies. Which we decidedly are not, being at the top of the global inequality index.

At the beginning I said our society is in crisis at every level. We know of the malaise among the rulers; the abuse of state institutions, the hounding of people with principles, the protection of the corrupt. We also know our state bureaucracy has been floundering. And we know we are really angry and we like to take it out on each other.

But let’s illustrate it from a Zimbabwean refugee’s perspective. Let’s start at the so-called top. The government of South Africa is shielding and aiding the Zanu-PF tyranny through statements by its leader; its approval to move Chinese armaments through South Africa; its actions at the Security Council of the United Nations; and its relative inaction in its bilateral relationship with Zimbabwe and its multilateral relations within the Southern African Development Community.

As the tyranny’s bloody grip on Zimbabwean society tightens, you make it across the border wires and past the South African customs officials into South Africa (the latter may involve bribery). Eventually you make it to Pretoria and to the Department of Home Affairs. When you finally get to the counter — after sleeping on the street in the queue for several days or more — you are face to face with the South African bureaucrat. If you’re a man, you will probably get away with paying a bribe to have your paperwork as a refugee processed. If you’re a woman, rape may also be required. After all, this is South Africa.

Then you’re on the streets of this sunny country. And we know what happens there.



Christi van der Westhuizen

Dr Christi van der Westhuizen is an award-winning political columnist and the author of the book Working Democracy: Perspectives on South Africa's Parliament at 20 Years, available for download...

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