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I am in Serbia on a social visit and I thought I would record here some of my initial observations about stuff we might learn from this country about some aspects of SA politics and culture.

Cultural Betrayal

Firstly, I am in Belgrade – a city of 1.6 million people built on the confluence of the Danube and the Sava – and a peculiar mixture of modern flash, Soviet-era bland and medieval tatty. The scars of the Nato bombings are still dramatically evident in a sort of carefully preserved tableau, a series of monuments to that seminal betrayal, that you can’t miss on your way in from the airport

Serbian/Yugoslav Army HQ? Taken a few minutes ago (thanks Jaimo) – I will double-check what the building’s original function was … before it (and a few of its neighbours) were bombed on May 1 1999, becoming (permanent?) monuments to Western perfidy

Why betrayal? Because everyone my age here has the same (as me)  … memealogy? (okay, I made it up – memes are cultural genes and you can work it backwards from genealogy). The cultural literacy is all Rolling Stones, Sam Peckinpah, Bruce Springsteen, Warren Zevon, The Alien, Bob Dylan, The Beatles and Billy Joel (you dredge up the cultural icon from the 60s, 70′s and 80′s and I bet I share it with Serbians of an appropriate age – except they are more culturally literate. Interestingly, just like in Yugoslavia, in SA we got this stuff a few years late – in SA because of apartheid and National Party awfulness, in Yugoslavia because of a slightly different set of transgressions.)

… and then one day their beloved Americans and English cultural tutors bombed them and killed the firemen trying to save people from the buildings – ostensibly to stop some new, particularly ugly, transgressions. Oh the treachery, the faithlessness …

Ethnic uniformity

The second thing that strikes me is the populace is ethnically identical. They are all white. There are no black people, no Arabic looking people; no any kind of people who are in any way different looking from what I think of as Slavic – which is just a minute variation on your bog standard white person – the men with chiseled features and the women with unusually long legs and everyone with white skin … not olive or dusky or anything, but white – in the old Apartheid conception of the skin colour.

“The city was more cosmopolitan”, my Serbian friend tells me, “before the disaster of Slobodan Milošević – before then you could see more  Croats, Bosnians, Macedonians, Montenegrins, Muslims, Slovaks …”

We are wandering down a medieval street crammed with crowds of handsome young people. I ask him to show me some individual examples of these groups that survived the virtual and literal ethnic cleansing that accompanied the collapse of Yugoslavia.

His attempt seems half-hearted, even dispirited.

“Hmm maybe she is Croat,” he says indicating a woman flicking through some blouses at a street kiosk. She is one of the tall, long-legged, light-brown haired, chiseled cheek-boned and haughty beauties that shoal in these alleys, as ubiquitous as sardines at the right time in Durban.

“Ok, maybe not” he shrugs as I frown at him in confusion.

We finally manage to agree that “those gypsies” selling knock-off Ray-Bans look ethnically dissimilar to the majority. But to me  it’s a margin call – any one of them could have been my old ‘Leb’ Catholic chinas in the Johannesburg of my youth; definitely ‘white’ under apartheid’s racial taxonomy.

Remember it took the terror of ethnic cleansing to create this level of uniformity, but even before that, in the old Yugoslavia, the full range of ethnic diversity could have been encompassed by the differences between, say Rafael Nadel and Charlize Theron …

Let’s compare monstrous barbarisms

Everyone here above a certain age seems haunted by what happened after the collapse of Yugoslavia. You would think that this lot would be immunised to bombs, betrayals, racial and religious purging and radical disjuncture in their social organisation.

It started with the Celts invading  the “Paleo-Balkan tribes” in 50 000 BCE  (okay, I’m exaggerating) who in their turn were replaced by an endless Roman occupation; sacked by Attila the Hun in 442 and then one thousand five hundred years of bloody, impossible to follow conquest, resistance, sacking, rapine, pillage … I could go on and on. It was the Byzantines, the Franks, the Bulgarians, the Kingdom of Hungary, the Crusades, the Serbian Empire (briefly) the Hungarians again, the Ottomans (for five hundred years! … and yes, they did persecute the Christians but not half as badly as the Christians did to almost anyone of any other faith during the Crusades … and there are a whole lot of beautiful and ancient churches that the Ottoman-Turk conquerors and rulers left standing) and the Austrians.

And of course, that is only before the First World War, and as you know all the important stuff happened since then.

I know our African and South African histories are important and it is appropriate that we wrestle as long as it takes – which will be forever, obviously – with the ongoing consequences of slavery, colonialism and apartheid.

But being here does tempt me to wish my countrymen and women had a slightly less myopic view of our own trials and tribulations.  I read this morning that Belgrade is trying to scrape together the finances to build a memorial to Judenlager Semlin, the largest German-run concentration camp in Southeast Europe where in May 1942 the Nazi’s proudly announced one of their first major European campaign successes: Serbia was “Judenfrei”. The men had been executed earlier, but the last 7000 Jewish women and children were killed in the camp in the first few months of 1942.

By May Serbia was Judenfrei.

And this is not a The Holocaust trumps all kind of statement – I just mention it  in the context of the previous 2000 years of European history. The Germans might have achieved a unique scale with their technological and organisational excellence, but the great rivers of cruelty and tears are old, deep and cold here and they flow through every valley of this geography – and not only to and from the mighty lake that was The Holocaust.

The Economy and the European Debt Crisis

The Serbian economy has hit the wall and the government is trying to decide on a balance between cutting public sector wages and salaries by about 6% and increasing VAT to about 22%. The options are limited and there is an absolute consensus that extremely hard times have arrived. This is the European debt crises writ slightly smaller – because Serbia is not part of the European Union.

But what I see are people eating and drinking in restaurants – and partying as hard and as healthily as it gets.

There are almost no beggars – and those that there are are obviously professionals with studied acts:

  • the near-sighted (with ridiculously cute thick glasses) slightly retarded child playing – very badly – the violin, every item of clothing and scuff on his thick medical black shoes a carefully choreographed act that everyone consents to and ignores.
  • An old hunched-backed crone, her nose not six inches from the floor, tapping along on a short, gnarled staff, an arthritis crippled hand held out blindly above her … I am convinced she is a 22-year-old actress who couldn’t find a waitressing job.

The point is there are none of the streams of dead-eyed, exhausted people searching and researching the refuse; people you will find in any South African city. There is a medieval character to Belgrade, which means there are a million nooks and crannies and little hollows in ancient buildings and monuments everywhere. In South Africa those would all be occupied – where they were fenced, the fences would be broken and tunneled under – there would be evidence that someone was eking out an existence in every hollow, in every gap.

But here, nothing.

Sure, there is an occasional drunk sleeping on a park bench, but that is pretty much as bad as it gets. I have absolutely no doubt that I am not seeing the whole picture and certainly there are large areas of the city with awful Soviet-era council housing-type tenements, covered for 10 metres from street level with graffiti that looks to me just like Cape Town’s gang signs.

In South Africa we feel like we are bursting out of our seams, with the poor competing intensely for the leavings of the rich and thereby driving some kind of desperate but highly energetic economy. Here it feels older and emptier, certainly dowdy in places, but calm and stoic.

Everyone has time for a coffee and a rakia.

Don’t get me wrong. These people descend from women who have thrown their babies onto invader’s spears; their forefathers and mothers have eaten dogs and rats and stones to stave off the inevitable rape and slaughter that awaits the fall of the castle walls; they have catapulted the last live chickens at their enemies who have besieged them for years, and successfully convinced the invaders to just give up and go home.

So I  am not exactly saying that this is tired old Europe with nothing left to do but casually sip a coffee in the shade, sneering at the inevitable heat death that comes with impossible debt, dipping personal income and stagnant growth – of the economy and the population.

I am also not exactly saying that we are fresh and chaotic and ready to burst onto the global stage with the vigour and desperate energy of youth.

But there’s something in there, some little kernel or nugget – maybe a hope that I haven’t quite allowed myself to feel yet …

But it’s mid-afternoon and so hot that it is impossible to process this any further. Time for my first rakia and 4th double espresso – I’ll think about this tomorrow.

Jacob Zuma said at a press conference in Sandton yesterday:

I’m not certain whether there have been threats of xenophobia. I know that there have been rumours that have been reported. (Reported in The Star)

As I drove towards Cape Town on the N1 on Sunday people were already streaming north, belongings in those huge carrier bags – they lined the side of the highway on the Paarl end of the tunnel. At that time spaza shops belonging to Somalians were already being burned in townships around Paarl and Franschhoek.

Outside of the Western Cape it might be true, as the president says, that the xenophobic threats are “a rumour”. But ethnic cleansing does not require current violence; it requires a history of violence and a promise of the same. The history is clear (here for previous post on this issue, here for a devastating M&G photo gallery of the May 2008 riots) and the promise of further violence has been reported constantly since late 2009.

It seems to deepen the injustice  that the current round of ethnic cleansing is taking place just as South Africa and its citizens are being hailed for their hospitality and general warmth during the Fifa World Cup.

Much is happening on the political front that I would love to be discussing here, but paid work is, thankfully, taking up my time this week. Thus the following is broad brush and a little rushed – the point I wanted to make is that the issues are all connected – in dark and unsettling ways.

Julius on Nationalisation

Parliament started public hearings on the establishment of  a state-owned mining company. Malema  gave the ANCYL’s views and he repeated the call for the immediate suspension of mining licences to prevent the current holders “looting” the mines. Jacob Zuma later in the General Assembly said: “If this issue causes such excitement, then debate it with Mr Malema. He is there.” See Business Report’s take here.

DA Success

The Democratic Alliance made serious gains in by-elections earlier in the week – this from The Cape Times (IOL) this morning:

IN a watershed night in South African politics, the DA trounced the ANC in two of its strongholds – Gugulethu and Caledon – gaining two wards where there was not a single white voter and the majority were blacks, not coloureds.

In Ward 44 in parts of Gugulethu and Heideveld, where the DA received 21.6 percent of the vote in the last election in 2006, the party received 60.5 last night.

And in Ward 12 in Caledon’s Theewaterskloof municipality, where the DA received only 6.6 percent in 2006, the party garnered more than 60 percent.

We are obliged to do some work on these numbers (how many people voted, demographic and other changes since 2006) but it implies a surprising level of disaffection with the ANC in areas that can only be described as ‘previously safe’ ANC wards.

Xenophobia

I have been picking up from African foreigners living in townships around Cape Town for at least the last 6 months that they were being threatened that post the Fifa World Cup and post the obsessive media focus on South Africa associated with the soccer they can expect to be driven from their homes – I discuss it here and this is the key paragraph from this March 24th 2010 post:

It has become something of a legend and commonly accepted “fact” by foreigners living in South African townships that post the World Cup and in the lead-up to the local government elections in 2011 the xenophobic violence will erupt on a scale beyond anything that has happened in the past.

The issue is breaking across the spectrum of the South African news media as I write.

The Hidden Connections

The ANC government is failing in service delivery and the evidence is everywhere that there is a degree of panic in the party’s ranks about the 2011 local government election. The ANC is under various kinds of threat, but the threat that concerns its leadership most is the possibility that they lose the support of the poor. This environment gives voice to the worst of those who have found a home in the ANC; those who understand the power of the call to take back what is “rightfully ours” – the land and the mines; and those who covertly would harness the rage and fear rife in the townships – a strategy indistinguishable from the early activity of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. The older ANC members would be genuinely outraged at any suggestion that they would countenance these strategies but it is difficult not to conclude that these forces are unleashed in our society as a direct result of the failure of ANC leadership.

The local state – its politicians, agenda and bureaucracy, is under popular attack

It is starting to be whispered that there is a “hidden hand” in the service delivery protests*.

The problem (of the protests) is serious and threatening and government is starting to worry about high-profile violence during the World Cup.

These protest share a strong crossover constituency and architecture with the xenophobic violence that occurred May 2008. At that time, Thabo Mbeki’s spooks argued that a hidden hand was at work – in one bizarre version Zimbabwe’s Central Intelligence Organisation was fingered as triggering the violence to punish the Mbeki government for some impenetrably Byzantine set of motivations.

This time around the speculation is that the spreading protests have something to do with Alliance tensions i.e. the conflict (endlessly discussed in these columns) is fueling service delivery protests – I suppose that would mean either the ANCYL or Cosatu/SACP using popular discontent against the sitting council dominated by either the leftists of the nationalists respectively.

To argue that Alliance tensions is the (or even a) main driver is a bit of a stretch. The protesters themselves foreground slow delivery of housing and the whole gamut of services (toilets, sewerage, water, refuse , telecommunications, roads) but also have a sharp focus on corruption, maladministration, nepotism – and therefore, indirectly, on cadre deployment.

From M&G – Modderfontein Road in Ivory Park after service delivery protests

The protests appear to be coordinated. They have similar beginnings: “elders” – or the moral equivalent -  meet in a town hall to discuss grievances; they decide to march to the municipal offices in the town centre; they carry placards about Eskom, housing, corrupt council officials; on the way they are joined by youth and the unemployed, and the march swells; somewhere near the edge of the town centre police stop the now more threatening and chaotic march; stones are thrown and rubber bullets fired; the protest breaks into smaller groups and spreads; councilors and council property are targeted and running skirmishes with the police occur over a few days; the ANC sends a SWAT team to the area and this team either moves against the council or stands firm against “anarchic” and “violent” protesters. At any point during this process the attention of the mob can turn to the foreigners – Zimbabweans, Malawians, Somalians , Mozambicans, Angolans, Nigerians and those from the DRC.

It has become something of a legend and commonly accepted “fact” by foreigners living in South African townships that post the World Cup and in the lead-up to the local government elections in 2011 the xenophobic violence will erupt on a scale beyond anything that has happened in the past.

The Davies-J Curve – the real hidden hand behind the violence

One of the reasons the government and the intelligence agencies are suspicious about the violence is that it occurs always in municipalities where there has been a degree of successful service delivery. The violence does not seem to happen in areas that are absolutely poor and unserved and have remained so for some time.

Interestingly this is precisely the situation predicted by US sociologist working in the late 1950′s, James C Davies. His theory is that rising expectations is related to the possibility of armed conflict but only when rising expectations – brought about by, for example, some degree of service delivery – meets a downturn. His theory became known as the Davies J-curve.

What happens is that when material and other conditions are improving, expectations rise faster than the individuals own situation. The system seems to be able to cope with this, except when there is a downturn of some kind – this is the sharply curved “Reality” line in the diagramme above.

This predictive framework (usefully discussed by the Centre for Security Studies here) almost perfectly mirrors what has happened in townships and poor municipalities since 1994. The violence seems to spike in early winter and it seems to be concentrated in areas that have had by-elections. In general it seems to be at its worst after national local government elections.

We must assume that in the lead up to such elections the ruling party and its councils push service delivery and the promise of service delivery. After the elections delivery collapses.

Thus the expectations are on an ascending path as the reality of delivery veers sharply downwards.

Violence results and often the weakest and poorest are both the victims and perpetrators of that violence.

* Orange Farm, Sedibeng, Siyathemba township in Balfour, Leandra, Lesilie, Oogies, Accornhoek near Bushbuckridge, Chochocho near White River in Mpumalanga, Protea-Glen, Dobsonville-Gardens in Soweto, Ennerdale in Fine Town, Reiger Park in the East Rand, Parys, Diepsloot, Attridgeville and Mamelodi – all names of service delivery protest hotspots culled from recent press reports. While I cannot place all these towns on a map (and am not even sure that some are not colloquial names for the same place) it seems clear that there is an unfolding crisis of governance in many of South Africa’s 283 municipalities , especially in the poorest, semi-rural communities.

I am an independent political analyst focusing on Southern Africa and I specialise in examining political and policy risks for financial markets.

A significant portion of my income is currently derived from BNP Paribas Cadiz Securities (Pty) Ltd.

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