Quote of the week

[Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro] possesses, however, few of his predecessor’s resources, lacking not just oil revenue but Chávez’s surplus of charisma, humour and political skill. Maduro, unable to end the crisis, has increasingly sided with the privileged classes against the masses; his security forces are regularly dispatched into barrios to repress militants under the guise of fighting crime. Having lost its majority in Congress, the government, fearing it can’t win at the polls the way Chávez did, cancelled gubernatorial elections that had been set for December last year (though they now appear to be on again). Maduro has convened an assembly to write a new constitution, supposedly with the objective of institutionalising the power of social movements, though it is unlikely to lessen the country’s polarisation.

Greg Grandin
London Review of Books
30 June 2009

How others see us

Oh dear, maybe  I am turning into a version of that uber thin-skinned man called Thabo Mbeki (being absent from South Africa for a while can do that to a person, I suppose). How else to account for the deep irritation I felt when I read that FIFA President, Sepp Blatter, “awarded South Africa’s organizers of the Confederations Cup an encouraging mark of 7.5 out of 10 on Monday”, but warned there is still work to do to improve transport and find accommodation for next year’s World Cup.

The statement seems rather patronising to me. Is it my imagination or is there more than a hint of Afro-pessimism in such remarks? Oh, you Africans are not doing too badly – all things considered. You might just be able to pull this off. I am sure Blatter did not give Germany – a European country – 7.5 out of ten after they hosted the Confederations cup. But I guess they are European, so they did not have to demonstrate to the headmaster that they were going to host a successful world cup. After all, the Germans were efficient enough to exterminate 6 million people in a very short while – just what one can expect of good Europeans.

But one should keep a level head, I suppose, and not bridle with indignation when those lovely people from FIFA give us a patronising pat on the back. Yes the same FIFA who forced Cape Town to build a R300 million stadium near the Waterfront, far away from informal settlements, so that TV viewers would not have to see the poverty that is part of our daily lives.

Sometimes it is important to listen to other voices as well and to see ourselves through the eyes of others – even when their gaze has a tinge of the imperialist about it. One may even learn something or be reminded of something one knew but which our own media is too sloppy to pick up on. A case in point is a report on crime in South Africa published in the New York Times today, which starts:

The two robbery suspects had already been viciously beaten, their swollen faces stained with rivulets of red. One of them could no longer sit up, and only the need to moan seemed to revive him into consciousness. The other, Moses Tjiwa, occasionally stared into the taunting crowd and muttered, “I didn’t do anything.”

The suspects were awaiting the final cathartic wrath of the mob, the torment of being burned alive, wrapped in the fatal shawl of a gasoline-soaked blanket. Then suddenly they were saved from that hideous death by the brave intervention of a local politician. “Let the police handle this,” he implored.

As usual, the police arrived late on that recent evening, and many in the mob angrily objected to their being there at all. Finally, one police inspector shouted: “Get back or I’m leaving this place and never helping you people again. I hate Diepsloot!”

Crime in South Africa is commonly portrayed as an onslaught against the wealthy, but it is the poor who are most vulnerable: poor people conveniently accessible to poor criminals. Diepsloot, an impoverished settlement on the northern edge of Johannesburg, has an estimated population of 150,000, and the closest police station is 10 miles away.

To spend time in Diepsloot over three weeks is to observe the unrelenting fear so common among the urban poor. Experts point to the particularly brutal nature of crime in this country: the unusually high number of rapes, hijackings and armed robberies. The murder rate, while declining, is about eight times higher than in the United States.

In Diepsloot, people usually bear their losses in silence, their misfortune unreported and their offenders unknown. If a suspect is identified, victims usually inform quasi-legal vigilante groups or hire their own thugs to recover their property.

The debate on crime in South Africa has been hogged so thoroughly by the elites that it would be easy to lose sight of the reality depicted by the New York Times report. One way to respond to this, is to deny that crime is a problem or that anything those irritatingly patronising foreigners say might be true. This is what Thabo Mbeki  did for a while, famously mocking the notion that walking to the SABC would get one mugged only days before a soap star was mugged outside the SABC offices in Auckland Park.

But maybe it would be better to ignore the patronisng attitude of the foreigners and just get down to the business of addressing the problems. Who cares what foreigners say or think. It is what South Africans experience every day that counts. We should address crime – and all the other problems – not to impress foreigners but to build a better life for ourselves. After all, unlike those snooty bloody foreigners, we actually live here.

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