Quote of the week

Excluding refugees from the right to work as private security providers simply because they are refugees will inevitably foster a climate of xenophobia which will be harmful to refugees and inconsistent with the overall vision of our Constitution. As a group that is by definition vulnerable, the impact of discrimination of this sort can be damaging in a significant way. In reaching this conclusion it is important to bear in mind that it is not only the social stigma which may result from such discrimination, but also the material impact that it may have on refugees.

Mokgoro J and O’Regan J (dissenting)
Union of Refugee Women and Others v Director, Private Security Industry Regulatory Authority and Others (CCT 39/06) [2006] ZACC 23
26 May 2008

¨Ordinary¨ South Africans stand up…. but what does it say about our nation?

Sitting in an Internet cafe in Madrid I was deeply moved by the column by Justice Malala in The Times today in which he talks about all the ¨ordinary¨South Africans who have actually done something to assist the foreigners who have been hounded out of their homes by xenophobic mobs. Writes Malala:

I heard of “ladies who lunch” from Sandhurst driving to Alexandra township at night to deliver food to the hungry. I heard of people braving the night to get to the East Rand, where the worst of the barbarism had hit. In schools, shopping malls and churches, ordinary men and women held out their hands to their fellow human beings.

Some of these people are habitually referred to by the president of the country, Thabo Mbeki, as racists, coconuts, unpatriotic and by other epithets. But while Mbeki lunched with international businessmen and fled to Tanzania, these ordinary people — black and white, young and old — were not just twiddling their thumbs.

I received many SMSs entreating me to join the march in central Johannesburg on Saturday to say: “This outrage is not me and it must not happen in my name.” These were ordinary South Africans saying: “I am Nigerian, I am Zimbabwean, I am Mozambican and I am South African.”

But after a few minutes, I started wondering about why it is that while many middle class people have tried to do something, when Jacob Zuma went to Ekurhuleni informal settlement yesterday, he was confronted by 8000 angry ANC supporters railing against foreigners.

The difference is, of course, that those of us who talk about how terribly the xenophobia is, generally have jobs and cars and cellphones. We have food to eat and Internet connections. We generally feel quite chipper about South Africa – despite disappointment in the ANC government – because we have done well.

But those people who shouted at Jacob Zuma do not feel that they have done well. Relative to the white and black middle class, they have not done well, although they are probably better off than the average person in Maputo, Harare or Luanda.

But in South Africa the harsh differences between the ¨haves¨and the ¨have nots¨ are so clear and in your face that it must breed terrible resentment. I imagine it helps to fan the flames of xenophobia and allows the spreading of rumours, of how ¨they¨ are taking our jobs and ¨our¨ woman. And what a very sexist thing to say, my middle class sensibility tells me, people who see woman as belonging to ¨them¨.

Is this perhaps a sign of the chasm between ¨ordinary people¨ who are middle class and that other ¨ordinary people¨ who are poor and dispossessed? This is perhaps the tragedy of the ANC: while the poor give them their vote, the ANC leadership have long since stopped being poor and cannot see or feel the pain of the people who are.

So people still vote for the ANC  – who is holding this all together – but they are not listened to and this intensifies the problems we face. Are we destined to drift further apart – a new deracialised middle class from the poor mostly black underclass?

This is very uncomfortable stuff and reminds me of the part in A Dream Deferred where Mark Gevisser recounts how when he interviewed President Thabo Mbeki he seemed terribly disappointed with black South Africans. Are us in the chattering classes now the same and if so, can we do anything about it?

Surely it would be wrong to make sweeping generalisations but the discourse of ¨them¨ and ¨us¨ might just be getting worse, with ¨us¨ celebrating our wonderful Constitution and the values of diversity and respect for difference while ¨they¨ seeth with resentment at the ungodly, foreign values of the Constitution that says foreigners have the same rights as South Africans. 

I wish I had answers about how to deal with this, but what I see now looking at my country is not a pretty sight. And it is also a bit scary. How do we create a society with shared values of tolerance and respect? Can this even be done when the disparaties in weatlth are so obscene?

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