In the murky wa­ters of xeno­pho­bia, SAHRC finds a vil­lain

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - ISSUES -

IN 2008 a wave of attacks against refugees and mi­grants from else­where on the con­ti­nent swept South Africa, killing scores and rav­aging the lives of thou­sands. The brit­tle side of the “rain­bow nation” was ex­posed and the shame lingers.

The SA Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion (SAHRC) has re­leased its re­port into vi­o­lence against “non-na­tion­als”. The re­port is pretty much summed up by the eu­phemistic pom­pos­ity of the word “non-na­tion­als”. Is “for­eign­ers” or “aliens” too emo­tive? Which, though well-in­ten­tioned is con­signed to in­ef­fec­tu­al­ity by SAHRC’s fail­ure to ad­dress po­lit­i­cal chal­lenges re­sult­ing from those aw­ful events.

The first net­tle is that of a de­nial­ism re­gard­ing xeno­pho­bia as

- per nicious as that which once paral­ysed the gover nment’s re­sponse to HIV/Aids.

For­mer pres­i­dent Thabo Mbeki in­sists to this day that the attacks were not aimed at for­eign­ers, while Na­tional Po­lice Com­mis­sioner Bheki Cele told a me­dia con­fer­ence this year: “I will only be­lieve there is xeno­pho­bia in our coun­try if com­mu­ni­ties stand up and tell for­eign­ers to leave.”

The be­lief that black South Africans are in­ca­pable of any­thing but fra­ter­nal good­will to­wards other black Africans is an ar­ti­cle of polit- ical faith for many in govern­ment. It is thus un­sur­pris­ing that the po­lice were hope­lessly un­pre­pared for the 2008 attacks and, un­less there is a change in at­ti­tude, are un­likely to do any bet­ter in the fu­ture.

De­nial­ism paral­ysed the govern­ment in 2008, with vi­o­lence rag­ing for a week be­fore Mbeki mo­bilised the mil­i­tary.

The SAHRC glosses over this ab­ject fail­ure of lead­er­ship, merely not­ing mildly that there still is “no ev­i­dence of in­tro­spec­tion by the Pres­i­dency of the tim­ing or over­all ef­fec­tive­ness or ap­pro­pri­acy of the ex­ec­u­tive de­ci­sion to de­ploy the army”.

The need for pres­i­den­tial vigour in re­spond­ing to ex­plo­sions of so­cial con­flict is not even men­tioned in the main SAHRC rec­om­men­da­tions. Nor, for that mat­ter, does the SAHRC find it any­thing more than “re­gret­table” that the de­fence min­istry, among un­named oth­ers, failed to co­op­er­ate with the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

An­other net­tle is that of jus­tice. Of­fi­cially, 62 peo­ple were killed in 2008 and at least 670 wounded, dozens were raped, and at least 100 000 peo­ple “dis­placed” – that’s of­fi­cial­s­peak for “fled for their lives” – with prop­erty worth mil­lions looted or de­stroyed by lo­cal res­i­dents and their lead­ers.

Yet not a sin­gle per­son has been jailed for murder and of the only 597 prose­cu­tions of any kind that were brought, a mere 159 have been com­pleted, with 98 con­vic­tions. These are dis­tress­ing statis­tics, es­pe­cially given that only a frac­tion of crim­i­nal acts led to charges, but the best SAHRC can do is the fee­ble ad­mis­sion that there was a “limited at­tain­ment of jus­tice for the vic­tims”.

Then there is the po­lit­i­cally ex­plo­sive mat­ter of ac­count­abil­ity. The SAHRC notes that there were many claims that the po­lice used “ex­ces­sive force, were ac­ces­sories to attacks or loot­ing, in­cited vi­o­lence… or stood by while crimes took place”. The SAHRC makes no find­ing on this and ap­pears not to have pur­sued this wor­ry­ing ac­cu­sa­tion with the po­lice min­istry.

Fi­nally, there is the net­tle of lo­cal govern­ment struc­tures where “poor in­fra­struc­ture, un­der­ca­pac­i­tated po­lice and pri­va­tised, au­thor­i­tar­ian lead­er­ship struc­tures may in­ter­sect to cre­ate con­di­tions where the rule of law barely ex­ists and im­punity reigns for rogue lead­ers and com­mon crim­i­nals alike”. The SAHRC so­lu­tion is ba­si­cally to ask the po­lit­i­cal par­ties to en­cour­age their rogue lead­ers to be­have bet­ter in fu­ture.

The only time that the SAHRC tor­toise boldly sticks its head be­yond its cara­pace is when it comes to the me­dia. “It is likely,” the SAHRC opines, “that me­dia im­ages and re­port­ing made vis­i­ble the level of im­punity en­joyed by many per­pe­tra­tors, re­duc­ing the dis­in­cen­tive to com­mit­ting crimes pub­licly”. Ah, at last, the vil­lain!

The SAHRC’s re­port is on the Par­lia­men­tary Mon­i­tor­ing Group site,

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