We find ourselves, again, at a fragile and dangerous moment in our democracy. The spate of calls by several political leaders and community activists for migrants to be removed from their homes or workplaces should raise alarm bells. This unabated hostility towards non-South Africans is nothing new. We have heard politicians claim that migrants crowd hospitals, take jobs or destroy our cities.
The claims mimic international anti-immigration discourses and are the thinly veiled faces of authoritarianism, xenophobia, toxic nationalism and racism. We need to see them for what they are.
These confrontations by political leaders, vigilante groups and neighbourhood militias are dressed up as a protection of South Africans. But they are at best a smokescreen to hide poor governance and at worst they are an attack on all that protects those who live in our democracy.
The concerted attacks on migrants are an attack on the rule of law, on due process and on accountable government. If we hold these as foundational to our democracy, then this is an assault not only on migrants, but on all the protections that every South African needs to live and thrive in this country. Until we comprehend and reveal the underpinnings of these actions, all South Africans will continually be deceived by the present smokescreen of our current political landscape
Truth telling — clearing the smokescreen
It is time for truth telling.
Poor South Africans are faced with a battle for survival and their life circumstances have worsened in recent years. The blaming of migrants for these hardships is a deliberate tactic by leaders to abrogate responsibility and redirect contempt in light of deepening equality.
The truth behind the smokescreen is that the government has continually failed the poor. And that our economy is stacked against the poor.
The post-apartheid project of redress has failed to progressively lift ordinary South Africans out of poverty. This has culminated in a growing and disenfranchised poor population. Poverty rates have worsened in the past decade; joblessness is the worst on record at over 46%; and the youth unemployment rate, measuring job-seekers between 15 and 24 years old, has hit a record high of 66.5%. South Africa remains the most unequal country in the world, allowing a system whereby top-end earners earn five times the average wage for low-skilled jobs.
Spatial inequality is profound and deepening. The housing benefit, a flagship of the democratic government’s delivery record, should have changed spatial apartheid. Instead, it has located large developments in far-flung locations, away from jobs and services. Service delivery has weakened. Perversely, this is especially the case in poor and already underserved neighbourhoods. Communities struggle for water and electricity while battling high crime rates.
Corruption, maladministration and ineptitude have cost the country trillions of rands that might have been spent improving township conditions and narrowing the gap in living standards between rich and poor.
The culpability for systemic failures can be put at no other door than a state perverting what is left of this democracy. This dereliction of duty by the government is an assault on the poor.
Yet politicians routinely take aim at the poor and disenfranchised. The state readily uses its policing power to oppress shack dwellers, informal traders, migrants and homeless people.
Business cannot be a benign bystander to this misery either. The combination of governmental inertia and outright corruption has given the private sector the opportunity to further exploit the poor, as showcased by the Zondo Commission. Big capital has overseen an economy that has shed jobs and consolidated benefits in the hands of the few. Economic elites have kept amassing wealth with no governmental hindrance, and with little obligation to change the ways that wealth is distributed or that business is structured to ensure societal benefits.
Let’s lift the smokescreen
Amid poverty and unemployment, non-South African workers’ relative success stands out. National and party politicians have adopted the tactics of xenophobia to harness authority in a context where a divided and disenfranchised population is seeking answers and quick wins.
Political opportunists have fed on residents’ disillusionment with poor living conditions to fuel anti-foreigner rhetoric. Taking away the rights of migrants to make a living will not transform socioeconomic conditions for poor South Africans. It is a cynical mechanism to shift blame from the state for the difficult lives that many South Africans live.
South Africans should critically observe the campaigning of their local and national political leaders. If we follow their rhetoric we will see the rise of neighbourhood militias that become increasingly violent and are not accountable to anyone. An attack on migrants quickly becomes an attack on all who are perceived as “other”. When one scapegoat fails to be the panacea for societal problems, society will turn to the next. People are targeted because of who they vote for, who they pray to, how they identify or who they love. And it goes without saying that these actions are nothing but another smokescreen.
Awareness campaigns provide little recourse for hatred. The only viable intervention is to address the underpinnings of this hatred and provide a way for a new political agenda.
A pro-poor agenda
The Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation calls on all South Africans to truthfully name and address what is happening in our country. Archbishop Desmond Tutu persistently called out South Africa’s income inequality as the country’s greatest threat. He warned of a poverty powder keg and cautioned against programmes that advanced already wealthy people in favour of the poor.
The foundation calls on all businesses and government departments to demonstrate programmes that are consciously pro-poor. This demands a commitment to direct state funds towards pro-poor programming for realising the basic income grant, for the development of small and micro enterprises, for reducing the barriers to entry for start-up enterprises and for recognising informal work as work.
It requires that township economies be opened to small businesses and be protected from the large monopolies. It means the government and business are accountable to uphold a rights-based approach where all workers and economic units, including foreign nationals, are treated equally.
This requires that state funds, buildings and land be used to create a just, urban, pro-poor landscape. It means investing in affordable transport to places of opportunity, developing housing for the poor in established areas and developing facilities to serve poor neighbourhoods. It means actively addressing poor environmental conditions of flooding, inadequate water and sewerage infrastructure, lack of solid waste removal and pollution control. It also means prioritising the safety of women and girls in public spaces through policing and environmental design.
It requires business to actively commit to rooting out public and private corruption at every level: from tenders to the ethical degradation of professional associations. Further, it requires business to accelerate the training and skilling of this country’s youth to meet our economic needs.
Furthermore, business needs to shine a light on the realities behind the spurious claims that stoke tension. It matters to business to push against the forces that are unravelling our democracy. The private sector cannot afford the high cost of violence and of further job losses.
The foundation also calls on civil society to hold leadership accountable. Every Cabinet minister, every provincial MEC, every municipal councillor should be held to account against a pro-poor barometer.
It is time for pro-poor politics. Let us elevate accountability and make space for new, young political leadership, with the vision of a less unequal country and the courage to stand against a culture of impunity that has for far too long scorned the poor.
It is only once the smokescreen is lifted that the violence will stop.
Piyushi Kotecha is CEO, Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation.
Photo Credit: Jonathan Torgovnik/Getty Images
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