Tuesday, July 15, 2008

'Xenophobic' Violence in South Africa More than Coincidental

By Yazir Henri and Anis Saleh

While it is alarming, it is not altogether coincidental that South Africa is experiencing this type of ‘xenophobic’ violence at this particular time. It will not be strange if this violence escalates and evolves toward violence against ‘other’ local ‘ethnic or colour’ groups in the not so distant future. The current violence is tantamount to an advanced phase associated very closely to the normalised violence happening in poor peri-urban and peripheral zones around South Africa’s urban centres all the time.

There is undoubtedly a direct link between this violence and the ever deepening impoverishment among already poor South Africans. The projection into the future of this bi-social ill is bleak given the inability of relevant state actors to respond effectively to this particular crisis and suggests that the ‘xenophobic’ violence in South Africa could easily resurface and may well be replaced, in the future, with more intensive internalised violence directed at the self and against groups locally identified as ‘other’. What is certain in this case is the violence in South Africa will not vanish and it will not be wished away. We all know that the normalised violence in South Africa is not just a result of an extreme conditionality of impoverishment but that it is also the result of the previous socio-economic policies forced onto those people who today make up South Africa’s most poor. Structural abjection did not arrive overnight; it was sanctioned and actively promoted by the Apartheid state.

Right now impoverishment among the urban ‘black’ poor is being intensified by the escalation of the price of oil and petrol. Related price increases include bread, maize meal, paraffin and transport that have direct impact on the ability of those living in this abject economic context to survive, daily deepening the experience, the feeling and the reality of life in emergency and temporality - more importantly it feeds the hopelessness. Over the last few years the price of oil and petrol has escalated dramatically. All basic commodities have in turn increased by almost fifty percent and in some cases more. The implication of this increase in the prices of commodities means a gross and rapid reduction in the affordability levels amongst the poor. In some instances affordability levels are 75% of what it was last year. This, together with an uncaring public policy toward the same poor, the lack of service delivery, and failure of municipal and state structures to spend their budgets on delivering basic help, is a recipe for trouble.

This has been exacerbated further by the ‘unemployability’ rates among the urban poor not improving significantly. The hike in lending rates and the simplistic, multiple and myopic calls by the reserve bank to simply tighten our belts makes it even more difficult for those who have no belts to tighten. His calls could quite easily be interpreted as tightening the noose around one’s neck instead of the belt around one’s waist.

Inviting in the army to halt the ‘xenophobic’ violence may have been necessary for temporary relief but it will not denaturalise violence nor will it resolve the structural problems affecting the poor in South Africa. Now that the violence has abated and the situation is more or less calm, the state needs to act urgently in more humane and consultative ways to improve the conditions at the root of this violence in order to avoid a repetition.

Several short- to medium-term interventions are immediately necessary. Among the first steps, and in addition to relief for the humanitarian crises facing those displaced by the violence, more affirming public economic empowerment initiatives should be created directly impacting the poor in order to develop individual and collective self-sustainability. In the absence of the shops destroyed, publicly-owned shops should be created, empowering locals as well as migrants and refugees to compete in this growing local market. Communication and transport must be made more affordable and more encouraging efforts must be made to localise and stimulate food production. For this, more autonomous economic and development structures need to be created in partnership with communities affected by the violence. The unspent money in government and municipal coffers must be unlocked and those not delivering must be held accountable. The huge civic effort witnessed at the onset of the violence needs to be multiplied and also directed at stopping the violence that we all so easily come to accept as normal.

The above entry is excerpted from a longer article that can be accessed here.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

On Africa Day, Khulumani Support Group 'Speaks Out' against Violent Attacks

Khulumani Support Group deeply regrets the violent attacks of the past two weeks by some South Africans on vulnerable migrants forced to seek shelter within their communities. Sadly, these attacks have resulted in loss of life, rape, forced displacement, arson and the looting of hard-earned property, all human rights violations of which Khulumani members themselves were victims over the many years of apartheid-era political violence. Khulumani members will take a stand to express outrage about this violence and will stand in solidarity with fellow Africans, in a range of public actions planned for Saturday, May 24 in various parts of the country, including a march from Marks Park to the Library Gardens in Johannesburg. For Khulumani, the attacks represent the antithesis of the vision of the African Union that honours May 25, the date of the founding of the Organisation of African Unity in 1963, as Africa Day. Khulumani condemns the attacks and mourns the loss of life. These events will be remembered by Khulumani with shame.

But for Khulumani, the greater shame has been the failure of the South African government in the ten years since the closure of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to respond to Khulumani's continuous requests for government to partner it in systematically redressing the consequences of the violations of the past and in building communities where everyone can be accommodated in line with the principles of the African Union. Every effort made by Khulumani to present government with programmes of action, policy proposals, memoranda and other submissions since 1998, has fallen on deaf ears. The standard response of government to these requests and submissions, including the most recent engagement in Ekurhuleni on May 10, 2008 with officials representing the TRC Unit of the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development, the Missing Persons Task Team of the National Prosecuting Authority and the Special Pensions Office of the Government Employees' Pension Fund, were the statements that their “hands are tied” and that all they can offer as remedies to the issues affecting survivors are to promise to inform their “political principals”.

Just as government has failed to confront the reality that Khulumani members have been abandoned to contend with the lifelong consequences of gross human rights violations and their subsequent social distress, government has also failed to confront the realities of the thousands of migrants who have been forced to seek shelter and a minimum level of survival in South Africa. It has in fact been government officials who have attacked, harmed and harassed migrants in South Africa, criminalising them in the process.

Government's practices fall short of the provisions of our much-admired Constitution. While we have a democratic state, we have failed to build a democratic society that supports its citizens to effectively manage local challenges. Rather than being a critical partner to Khulumani networks within these vulnerable communities, government has been a major obstacle to the resolution of the problems on the ground. The frustration of citizen agency has reached the point of exploding in rage and frustration, with the situation being made worse by the public statements of members of the Cabinet. In their public utterances about their puzzlement and confusion, Cabinet Ministers have revealed their complete disconnection from the realities of the lives of ordinary South Africans. The attribution of the eruption of violence to “third force agents” represents a true failure of government to understand the fact that growing numbers of South Africans are themselves being forced to live in situations of extreme social distress within marginal communities which carry the additional burden of having to accommodate migrants fleeing political oppression and other desperate situations in their own countries.

The communities where violence has erupted, have effectively been abandoned by our government. This situation has been common to all post-liberation African countries. In South Africa, as elsewhere on the continent, government has failed to use the years since the political transition to build “inner links to the poor” and to systematically address the legacies of the past amongst those least equipped to deal with the challenges. (Ramphele, M. Laying Ghosts to Rest, 2008. Tafelberg)

The year leading up to a national election is an obvious year for citizens to intensify their efforts to draw government's attention to the urgency of the situation, facing poor communities across South Africa. Rather than engage with these vulnerable communities, government has focused its attention on continuing to support the interests of local and multinational corporations, while neglecting the interests of its own citizens. Khulumani calls on government to begin to work in genuine partnerships with these citizens.

From the perspective of Khulumani Support Group members, it is the South African state that is in fact xenophobic – it is xenophobic in the way it deals with migrants on a daily basis – allowing the harassment of persons deemed to be 'too dark' to be South African; it is xenophobic in its refusal to acknowledge oppression perpetrated by political elites in neighbouring countries; and it is xenophobic in its failure to extend the values underpinning the South African Constitution to everyone who finds themselves in South Africa.

As an organisation comprising members who find themselves amongst “the poorest of the poor” and having networks across many of the affected communities, Khulumani will continue to offer its social capital to mobilise and organise these communities towards enabling their members to achieve the self-reliance they so deeply aspire to and to be able to embrace and support those sheltering temporarily within their communites. Khulumani members call on government to realise the human rights of all victims and survivors of political violence. Khulumani requests government to get behind it to work within local communities to assist people to create a “space in the sun” for everyone presently living in this country. Government officials, sitting as they do at the top of the pyramid, insulated from the realities of the harsh lives of the poor, need to reach out to the networks of organisations like Khulumani in genuine partnerships that are effectively resourced, to end this shameful period in the construction of a nation of which we all want to be extremely proud.

Statement issued by Khulumani Support Group. For fiurther information, please contact:

Dr Marjorie Jobson, Acting National Director, Mobile: +27 82 268 0223 or Telephone: + 27 46 636 2715

Mr Tshepo Madlingozi, National Advocacy Coordinator, Mobile: + 27 82 496 9914

Ms NomaRussia Bonase, Khulumani Ekurhuleni Facilitator, Mobile: + 82 751 9903

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Commentary on the Conference - by Yazir Henri, Director of the DACPM

Since Working for Peace: Black Men Transforming Identities and Memories of Violence took place, we at the DACPM have had time to reflect on what happened and what was achieved there. Currently we are working on a conference following up! This intensive engagement on this complex issue of historical and structural violence impacting poor community’s men, women and children has to be spoken about and transformed – as we agreed at the conference, it is all our responsibility to ensure it is not just another talk shop. Not just another feel good walk in the park! Below is some of what we see as crucial outcomes of the conference, and we would greatly appreciate any additional input from those who were present and others reading this who were not. Let’s not fear talking hard with care.

Central among the conference’s achievements was that it broke from old ways of talking about violence in South Africa. It created a space for those affected by the violence and working with violence to speak directly to themselves. We claimed our positions as concerned activists, intellectuals and experts and physically changed the dead space so usual for conferences and workshops where “experts” studying our work, experience and lives generally talk at those they consider either being the problem or not really having enough experience to deal with the problem. Oftentimes such ‘experts’ talk with an active blind spot to their own subjectivity and complicity in the violence being spoken about.

This is not helpful for finding better solutions to manage the endemic violence engulfing communities born out of violence, now almost stuck in violence that is structural, political, economic, psychological and historical – with devastating gender consequences for women and children. Together we were bold enough to question, expose and offer alternative practices to the mainstream stereotypes underlying current social discourses addressing the question of masculinities. In our gathering, even when we were silent - just sitting together, convening in Central Cape Town coming from several major cities in South Africa - we lived for two days the fact that the question of addressing male identity and its relationship to violence is much more complex than is seen in the narrow social and mainstream media approaches which have at its base a fundamentalist assumption: putting poor black men in the subject location of simply the perpetrators of the most atrocious forms of the violence.

This totalizing approach essentializes the colour black and the associated gendered experience of black men not only to violence, but also to their relationship to white men and white women in South Africa. It disregards the social violence perpetrated against particularly black men still trapped in present-day poverty… A legacy which is made even more complicated in a society still dominated socially, economically and psychologically by white South Africans in general and white South African men in particular.

It was stated clearly at the conference: ‘violence in South Africa in all its forms is also a systematic, societal problem’ with structural, historical and socio-economic administrative antecedents which were directly and violently related to legalised systems of mass oppression, without negating the fact of individual implication, complicity and responsibility of those living its full negative impact. The legacy of the dehumanizing, violent and criminal systems of Slavery, Colonialism, and Apartheid impacts seriously our ability as human rights activists, professionals and intellectuals regardless of our colour, class, gender or sexual persuasion to manage successfully the violent consequences of previously sanctioned white systems of administrative violence and injustice against the black body.

It is not coincidental that these Apartheid beneficiary and settler groups at the core of these historical systems of violence remain largely unaccountable as the violence rages on. It is, however, too easy given our everyday reality to point fingers at any one group for this problem. To simply call the violence crime without recognizing that it is much more hides where the responsibility for the systemic structure of the same violence lay. It is important that this is discussed, debated and these learning’s integrated into our resistance against the violence along with its multiple sources. An important part of this resistance would be also to hold those who benefit from these violent systems in South Africa accountable for their role in the ongoing violence that faces us all daily. For an example, white South African men whose identity in particular remains stuck inside of a colonial and Apartheid social experiences cannot be let off the hook so easily. Whilst addressing this issue we must in the same process also honour the experience and efforts of those individuals and organisations resisting this violence in their everyday - in the past, in the present and in the future.

Violence in South Africa is also a gendered issue- not just a gender issue. Everyone in this society must take responsibility if this scourge is to be defeated; men and women, blacks and whites, and every other category of human that exists. Widespread cycles of violence cannot simply be blamed on one group of people or on one category of gender. The broader socio-historical context must be taken into consideration and when this is done carefully it becomes apparent that we are all in some way responsible. Therefore, it is the responsibility of all of us who live inside of this society to act to transform this burning state of affairs.

There are many routes and steps towards such a transformation. A crucial first step is to reach a common awareness and recognition about what the problem consists of, where its historical roots lie, what drives it to continue today, and what kind of change or transformation is desired. The conference acted as such a first step by gathering dedicated activists, intellectuals, and community leaders from many sectors of society and areas of South Africa to explore these issues and to work to change it. The event was very successful in this regard, and it is hoped that we as individuals have returned to our respective communities and areas of work to spread the ideas and strategies that were discussed amongst ourselves at the conference.

We cannot expect white South Africans who perpetrated this violence against the South African people -men, women and children of all shades to end the ongoing cycles of violence. We must take responsibility and end it ourselves! This is not a time for simple finger pointing and we should resist easily casting blame, lamenting our own victim hood whilst not acting to provide solutions. Let us pave the way for building a safer South Africa together! Let us build the respect, dignity and humanity that we have fought slavery, colonialism and Apartheid for - in ourselves so that we may live it together with our children, women, men and communities.

This is our position and not necessarily the opinion of everyone at the conference. Please do not hesitate to comment, question, disagree.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Dear all speakers and participants,

We offer our greatest thanks for helping to make Working for Peace: Black Men Transforming Identities and Memories of Violence successful. We hope that everyone made it home safely and have been well since. We will be on a short break from working on the conference, but will be in touch soon. In the meantime, please feel free to post all comments and feedback below.

In peace,
The DACPM Conference Team

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Thinking about Men, Violence, and Peace-Making

On 3-4 March 2008, the Direct Action Centre for Peace and Memory will host a national working conference in Cape Town, South Africa on masculinities and violence. This website will serve as a way to connect the hosts, speakers, and participants before and after the conference, as well as ensure that the event is well-organized beforehand, and that its outcomes and impact are long-lasting afterwards.

For information on the conference, please see the links to the left. To post thoughts or questions on the conference and the topics that will be discussed, please click on the "comments" link below. Any suggestions about how to best utilize this site are also welcome.