Written by Jay Naidoo
Primrose refugee camp is filled with hundreds of men, women and children who like millions of others came to South Africa looking for a better life. For many, their dream of our miracle nation lies in ashes of burned homes. Meeting these refugees brought back memories of the deadly violence in the early 1990s that claimed so many lives in our contest against the apartheid state. The bitter irony is that this time it has happened on OUR WATCH.
Not far from where I visited lies the site of the “flaming man” which became the symbol of a violent madness that has swept our country. He had a name and an identity – Ernesto Alfabeto Nhumuave. A father, a brother and a husband arriving from Mozambique three months ago full of hope that Jo’burg, ‘the city of gold’, would give him the opportunity to put bread on the table for his children.
Every democratic South African has been shocked by the scale of the brutality and hatred that raised its head so ruthlessly. The events of the past few weeks have affected the lives of real people in ways we haven’t even begun to fully understand. The question on all our minds is why? Why, when our neighbours have sheltered tens of thousands of political refugees including many of our present leadership? Why would many South Africans turn on our African brothers and sisters?
We have failed as leaders in the community, in organisations, NGO’s, as Government and as society by not responding to the early warnings we had on this catastrophe. The reality still hidden from our sight as it was under apartheid is that absolute poverty has almost half of our population in its deathly embrace. Alexandra and Ramaphosa informal settlement are all areas blighted by overcrowding, joblessness, crime and a fierce competition for scarce resources.
Several reports released this year alone attest to the alarming levels of poverty; deprivation; and lack of adequate health systems, infrastructure and interventions to deal with HIV and AIDS in South Africa. It is clear we will not meet some key global MDG targets and those we have set as a society. The reasons are complex and there is no quick fix solution. Although, part of the solution does lie in us acknowledging that we have a problem.
In this environment, especially with the collapse of community structures in many areas that were the backbone of our struggle for freedom, a vacuum was created into which opportunistic elements were quick to step in. Added to this, is our collective failure to act sufficiently on the economic and political meltdown in Zimbabwe, which has exported its own set of challenges to South Africa. The world, including us, stood by while a third of Zimbabwe’s population of 12 million fled the destruction in their country. An estimated three million of these crossed our porous borders and flocked to our cities, aggravating an urban infrastructure already strained by the internal migration of millions of South Africans fleeing the poverty of our rural areas.
The consequence was a deadly cocktail of communities restless and frustrated by slow delivery; angry at legitimate problems and combined with opportunism, which swept into the dustbin our country’s human rights culture and international reputation.
This is a national disaster. Let us have a comprehensive response. The social and economic cost of not taking the right actions is too ghastly to contemplate. Let us acknowledge the status of the foreign nationals who are genuine refugees that are here and work with the UN and those organisations and institutions both in the non-governmental and public sector that allows us to respond more effectively to the crisis. And let us not send the wrong message that South Africa is hostile and closed to the people from the region and the rest of the world. And let us not forget that hundreds of thousands of South Africans work, live and invest in the region and overseas.
We cannot deny that our people have the right to demand their economic and social rights – enshrined by our Constitution.
This is our wake up call as a nation. Our “rainbow nation” is skin deep and it does not take much to burst the festering tensions of ethnicity or xenophobia. Let us, at every level of society, from religious to political, from community to Government, from media to sports leaders, to every individual SA citizen acknowledge our mistakes and resolve to find solutions. Our fragile nation requires sincerity and not grandstanding.
We must also acknowledge that a climate of heightened political tension – soiled by violence, which has disrupted the social fabric of our communities, requires us all to conduct ourselves in a sensible, responsible manner. Any loose comments can stoke the fire of the conflict. This applies to all of us – our political leaders, community organisations, social movements, and the media.
As a priority we must help further to ensure a smooth and democratic run off election in Zimbabwe. We should further help, together with SADC, that there are tens of thousands of peace monitors for the 9300 polling stations to ensure a free and fair election. There should be crystal clarity on this point. A free and fair election and a smooth transition are imperative for the peaceful return of millions of Zimbabweans fleeing the economic and political meltdown in Zimbabwe. Then we must work hard to integrate the genuine asylum seekers, refugees and permanent residents into our communities.
It has been inspiring to witness the massive outpouring of support by so many of our people – many of whom have expressed solidarity and opened their hearts. On our part, the DBSA, together with the IDC has contributed R20m to immediate humanitarian assistance and will dispatch Senior Executives and project managers to work with local governments and NGO’s towards integrated sustainable community development. We need to build on this momentum and need our leaders to take more and bolder actions.
As I think of Nora Machava (7) the innocent wide-eyed girl child that I met a few days ago at Primrose refugee camp, who is terrified of her future, I am reminded of the wisdom of President Mandela at the inauguration of our new democracy: “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world”.
Chairman of DBSA and the J&J Group Development Trust