These are dangerous times to be an immigrant, legal or otherwise. As an increase in xenophobia slowly creeps across Europe I was stunned, but not entirely surprised, to see images of South Africans killing their fellow Africans on the streets of Johannesburg. Killing the citizens of the very countries that harboured their leaders during the days of apartheid.
I was taken aback as it appeared to come from nowhere. But did it?
Recently we have seen the poor rise up, rioting against the mounting cost of just staying alive, in various countries across the world. Haiti, Bangladesh and Egypt have all seen violence related to the increased cost of living, led by the escalating cost of food and oil.
However, if you had asked me to guess where in Sub Saharan African the rioting would occur, I would not have guessed South Africa. Zimbabwe, perhaps, though the ability to revolt may have been beaten out of the long suffering citizens of that country.
I would never have thought the South Africans would rise up in this way, having personally bought into the brand they have been pushing, which seeks to depict them as above this kind of thing. They may have a crime problem but they are working to resolve it, we are often assured; they are not like those “other” Africans, as one of their ministers was quoted as saying in August 2007, in short they are better. They are hosting the World Cup in two years time for goodness sake! This is the holiday destination of choice for many Europeans; they are the special ones.
But looking at this situation I wonder for every educated, well-travelled, middle class South African, how many are living in abject poverty?
For an African country, South Africa’s official unemployment is relatively low, estimated at 23% last September, according to the figures provided by the government’s website. They are a middle income emerging markets country, with resources beyond most countries widest dreams and they are supposedly coping well with the burden of the large underskilled section of their population.
Despite this, there is obviously a fundamental problem in South Africa that needs to be addressed. The poorer, mostly black, people are not seeing the benefits that they thought they would fifteen years ago, having watched for over half a centaury as the minority government and it’s favourite children, their white brethren, enjoyed the fruits of their motherlands.
I am not experiencing the life of a South African nor have I lived there but from my observation during my recent visits, those black people that were able to take advantage of the freedoms afforded them after the move to black majority rule, are doing better than their predecessors were at this stage of their lives. I am not speaking of the Cyril Ramaphosas or Thabo Mbekis of this land, but the growing black middle classes; those well heeled balck South Africans that you meet in the Sandton Shopping Centre, the ones who share the plane with you on their way to holiday in Europe or the United States.
So who are these people killing their neighbours?
They are the forgotten, the ones that the nation would like to hide; many of them are the people who suffered through the final years of apartheid, supporting the ANC and giving their time and energy to the cause. The common people, those who could not find a way to go abroad, could not be educated in readiness for things to come. They are the people who danced and sang in the streets when Nelson Mandela was released, the ones whose time had surely come.
But as several images from the past 14 years have shown, their time was not nigh and may never come. They are the in between people, that cannot be helped because there is no means to assist them. South Africa has no benefits system; there is no dole for these people to fall back on in times of hardship. They are the urban poor, the statistics that live on less than a dollar or two a day and work in the informal sector, sometimes in the most humbling of conditions.
And therein lies their reason to be angry. The difference between them and their white collar brethren is that they are competing directly with the illegal immigrants who are pouring into their country. These people are taking food off their tables, clothes off their backs and money out of their pockets. South Africa’s extensive immigration laws do not protect the people who are part of these mobs, nor do they benefit from the various black empowerment and affirmative action programmes instituted by the ANC government in a bid to assist them out of their disadvantaged positions. They are out of reach of the laws that are supposed to help them, and now they are desperate.
They are feeling the changes in the world economy more acutely than their well-heeled country men and have decided to make themselves heard. Last year they got rid of Thabo Mbeki, perceived as an elitist academic, as head of the ANC and replaced him with Jacob Zuma, a supposed man of the people. This year they are attacking the illegal immigrants that are themselves mostly fleeing from economic hardship in Zimbabwe.
The unfortunate thing about this situation is that there is very little that can be done. Prices may be fixed as the government in Haiti proceeded to do in a bid to ensure people are able to afford the basics, but subsidising anything costs money and the middle classes in South Africa are already feeling the pinch of relatively high interest and tax rates as well as the effects of the falling Rand. Introduction of a high minimum wage would discourage the informal sector and result in several of these people losing their jobs, exacerbating the problem.
So as I counter helpful arguments with unhelpful answers, you may ask what is the solution? Unfortunately the solution can only come about as a result of something the rioters don’t have. Time. Time for the reforms to bear fruit, time for this fruit to trickle down to the urban poor. But perhaps by then it will be too late.
Picture by Sipiwe Sibeko/Reuters