OPINION: Xenophobia: Something had to give
The unemployment level, economic performance decline, ratings downgrades, power crisis, high levels of crime and corruption and service delivery problems - it is no secret that our country is in a state of crisis. Government and the ANC, however, have been happily putting out the "good story to tell" narrative to counter negative sentiment. The 2015 Budget provided a reality check of just how bad the outlook is and load-shedding is a daily evidence of the power crisis worsening.
In the midst of all these problems, government has run away from taking responsibility for many things that have gone wrong. With basic services and the electricity crisis, the explanation has been that the democratic state is a victim of its own success, unable to keep up with the demand as it rolls out delivery. President Jacob Zuma has blamed many of South Africa's problems on the legacy of the Apartheid government and colonialism, rather than acknowledge weaknesses in the state and the failure of leadership.
For far too long, the state machinery has been operating on autopilot with no sense that something extraordinary needs to happen to get a grip and reverse the cycle of decline.
Over the weekend, we got a sense of how members of the executive should be operating to earn their high salaries. But ashocking story with accompanying graphic pictures in the Sunday Times displaying an attack on Mozambican Emmanuel Sithole that resulted in his death also brought home the reality and brutality of the violence to the nation.
The spread of xenophobic violence in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng meant Zuma and his Cabinet were finally forced to buck up and respond to the crisis. Last week, Zuma deployed a team of ministers to deal with the attacks. By Thursday, the security cluster took charge nationally, while the Premier of KwaZulu-Natal Senzo Mchunu and Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba were dealing with the situation in KwaZulu-Natal.
On Friday the presidency somewhat nonchalantly announced Zuma would be flying off to Indonesia for a state visit and to attend the Africa-Asia Summit. On Saturday, when it became clear that the xenophobia contagion was worsening, it was announced that the president cancelled the trip and he would be visiting displaced foreign nationals at a camp in Chatsworth, Durban. The president's visit was met with some hostility, and some foreign nationals expressed frustration at government's sluggish response. Zuma also visited the Umlazi township to discourage the attacks.
By Sunday, as the violence escalated and foreign nationals continued to flee back to their home countries, government ministers held a briefing in Pretoria to map out their full response to the crisis. Gigaba, who led the briefing, said their actions have gone beyond condemnations with "critical interventions" taking place.
He said the president would "lead a stakeholder outreach programme around the country to engage communities to start a conversation within our society". No further details on this programme have been provided as yet. It is hoped government realises that only meaningful intervention and not empty PR exercises will quell the attacks. This means going into the belly of the beast to address the attackers and not grandstanding from a safe distance.
If government does not bring a halt to the violence soon, it will not only dent foreign relations, it will also undermine South Africa's mediation efforts on the continent. It would be bizarre for South African leaders to be involved in facilitation efforts elsewhere when they cannot get a grip on the situation in their own country.
Gigaba issued a stern warning that those involved in the attacks or inciting public violence would be dealt with harshly, "regardless of their standing in society". "We will find you and you will be dealt with to the full might of the law," he said. So far, 307 people had been arrested in connection with the attacks.
And yet, government continues to pussyfoot around the role of Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini in stoking the attacks through his comments about foreign nationals. State Security Minister David Mahlobo said at the briefing that the king had been "quoted out of context" when he said foreign nationals should pack up their bags and leave. Speaking in Durban at the launch of the "We Are One Humanity" campaign, Police Minister Nkosinathi Nhleko said the king had in fact been urging government to deport illegal immigrants and had not intended to incite xenophobic attacks.
On Saturday the monarch spoke at the installation of a new traditional leader but did not mention the attacks. All eyes will be on him on Monday when he is expected to address the matter at an imbizo of traditional leaders in Durban.
Gigaba announced that food, shelter and other necessities were being provided to displaced people in shelters in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, as well as counselling and debriefing services. Government has warned against false messages being distributed via social media warning people of imminent attacks. "These messages appear to be orchestrated by elements bent on taking advantage of the unease in communities and instil fear amongst the people. Government reiterates its resolve to stamp all acts that seek to plunge our country into anarchy," Gigaba said.
Churches and civil society organisations, meanwhile, are rallying to campaign against the attacks and co-ordinate relief efforts for victims of the violence. The South African Football Association announced on Sunday that the national football squad would play two international friendly matches against neighbouring countries to raise awareness of the evils of xenophobia. Details of the games are still to be announced.
On Sunday night, the ANC announced it would be holding a "stakeholder forum" on Monday "that will bring together voices of African compatriots against this scourge". "We have further called on the people of Africa to unite against these atrocities being committed in the name of South Africa and the law enforcement agencies to act decisively against those criminal elements who perpetuate violence under any guise," ANC spokesman Zizi Kodwa said.
Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema will visit Alexandra Township on Monday as part of his party's anti-xenophobia campaign. "The EFF branches will do door-to-door and host community meetings to explain to our people that xenophobia and its associated violence is not the solution to social and economic problems confronting society," the party spokesman Mbuyseni Ndlozi said.
It took the life of Emmanuel Sithole and six other people, as well as thousands of people to be displaced, to get South Africa speaking together in condemnation of the xenophobic attacks and working to stabilise the country. The worst in our society is bringing out shades of the best we can be - compassion, hard work by public officials, determination to eliminate criminal behaviour and a united effort promote respect for human life.
It is perhaps the silver lining in another awful episode in South Africa's history. While the priority is to restore peace and stability in the country, it would be disastrous to resort to the autopilot position once the violence ceases.
There is general agreement that the attacks arose as a result of multiple crises colliding, including weak immigration controls, competition for resources, high levels of crime and almost zero effort to promote tolerance and nation building. If we learn nothing from this experience, it is bound to recur, multiply and mutate. And one day the time will come when it will be impossible to stop. This column first appeared on Daily Maverick.
This column first appeared on Daily Maverick.