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The Dream is over; 25 May 2008

Experiencing South Africa’s Outburst of Xenophobia overseas

Lutz van Dijk

                                                   

While on a fundraising tour in Germany and Holland for a township housing project in one of the poorest communities in the Western Cape the recent outburst of Xenophobia in South Africa became breaking news all over: Beyond shock, sadness and anger the overall reaction is here that nothing since the days of Apartheid has damaged the international image of South Africa as much as these daily horrible pictures of hateful masses killing, burning and chasing innocent foreigners.

 

It is not that people in Europe don’t understand the desperation of millions of poor South Africans around jobs and housing. Their huge disappointment grows by the day as the present South African government not only still avoids to take full responsibility for the long predicted violence because of extremely bad service delivery to the poor and unresponsible talks of “millions of illegal foreigners”by the Minister of Home Affairs. And even now in the moment of highest emergency: Where are the leaders, cabinet ministers as well as the ANC leadership, while houses and people are burning ?

 

It is not enough to send in the police and army while shifting the blame around and arranging a panel. Clear, undoubtful and symbolic actions of a personal commitment beyond words are urgently needed. Everybody knows that refugees from South Africa were welcomed by most neighbouring countries during Apartheid. What happens now is unforgivable. It betrays the dream of a just society which respects human rights for all. As Nelson Mandela said on 14 May 1994: “Never, never, and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.”

 

But read well: The dream ! Don’t call it “promises” and blame Madiba for what is a continuous task to realise for all citizens! A country without a dream is a poor country. South Africa lost more the past three weeks than any donor money can pay. It lost the trust of the international community to show the serious will at least to try hard to realise this dream. In a historically shortest time it lost most of its moral leadership to guide other parts of the African continent out of poverty and bad governance. If the South African government and ANC leadership is not waking up very soon we all should fear for the worst.

 

So far it were – like in Apartheid days – mostly organisations and individuals of the civil society who grew up to the challenge by organising shelter, medical aid and spiritual support for the victims. This can’t be valued enough.

 

During my recent meetings with European donors – private people and businesses, donor organisations and government agencies – I tried my best to explain some of the background of these horrifying pictures of hate against poor foreigners (the rich ones still seem to be safe or are maybe just better protected by expensive security). I insisted that our township of Masiphumelele will not follow the bad examples as with only 30.000 residents it is a relatively small one and most people know each other, even the refugees from Somalia and Zimbabwe.

 

Since two days ago I am proven wrong. Also in Masi poor foreigners were chased away, women with children running for their life while on-lookers laughed or threw stones. The colleagues and friends I phoned said that they couldn’t do much against the mob, but meetings in churches and the school will be held soon. By now, a committee has been formed which – together with the police – will demand the stolen goods back and will visit the refugees in their shelters to apologise and assure them of a safe return. Is their still trust possible ? The effort is crucial, as well for the foreigners and their families as for the community itself known as peaceful for a long time.

 

In less than a week I will be back in the country I started to call “home”. In the 1980s I was refused entry to South Africa as a human rights activist. In 1997 I experienced first hand the work of the TRC and decided, as many others, to support the peaceful nation building with my modest means. In 2001 we moved from Amsterdam to Cape Town to help children and youth affected by HIV/Aids and since 2006 I also work as a volunteer for a housing project in the same community. Maybe the next round of Xenophobia is against all foreigners ?

 

As if it is not enough: One day before the hate exploded also in Masiphumelele officials of the provincial housing department informed our residents’ team that the urgently needed MEC’s final approval for our more than R 60 million housing project for about 350 poorest of the poor families can’t be given, because the “department’s agenda is still too full” and a first new chance to put it on the agenda can be earliest on 9 June. It is known to the officials as to the MEC, Minister Dyantyi, since months that an offer of crucially needed R. 11 million private donor money will expire by the end of May, the new delay endangering the whole project to collapse.

 

Which message shall I give to our new potential supporters for more millions of Rand before returning to South Africa ? Maybe there is only one: The dream of a new South Africa seems to be over. It became an ordinary country where the new elite of black millionaires do equally not care for the poor majority as the old white ones. Poverty is growing, instead of being eradicated. Most politicians are looking after themselves and their “political friends” and only a few are left who care for the poor and the future economic stability of the country.

 

But even if all this is true: I keep telling our potential supporters in Europe and anywhere else: Don’t give up on the dreams of Steve Biko and Chris Hani, of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu as their dreams have been universal ones. Don’t give up on those who form the silent masses like anywhere else in the world. Those who look on and don’t think they have any power to change anything. And even those who are vulnerable to populism and violent “solutions”. Words will be not enough anymore. The dream is not lost yet, but has never been so endangered since Madiba made his commitment exactly 14 years ago. We owe it to him and his generation.

 

Dr Lutz van Dijk

Amakhaya ngoku Housing Organisation, Masiphumelele

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