Saturday, May 24, 2008

More Frantz Fanon Than Xenophobia

I watch with sadness, but no great surprise, the horrors being played out in the townships of South Africa: they were inevitable. Overnight, the arcane term xenophobia has become part of African discourse, describing seemingly incomprehensible, irrational violent acts by a section of South African society.

The extent of African leaders’ cognitive dissonance over this issue is exemplified by the Kenyan Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula in a recent comment, "[A]long its bumpy road to independence, South Africans were scattered all over the continent, including Kenya. "We gave them tremendous and admirable hospitality (...) The last country anybody would imagine would engage in xenophobia is South Africa."

The Minister has lost the plot. This tragedy is not a manifestation of racial or ethnic hatred. It is about economics in its crudest form. Outsiders, legal or illegal, Zimbabwean or Ugandan are hated because they are competing, often successfully, with poor South Africans for jobs and wealth. Despite the rosy picture of South Africa as the economic engine of the Continent, social and economic inequality is institutional. The gap between rich and poor is a chasm, at its deepest in the townships around the big cities, where the majority of the population are young, poor and uneducated. The nation has an unemployment rate about 40%, much higher in the townships and the majority are young men. South Africa has an unenviable reputation for violent crime, mostly perpetrated by the poor on the poor

Over the past decade, despite expansive promises from the government, little has been done to improve the lot of the urban poor. Their seething anger has finally exploded into awful violence against the nearest and most vulnerable, poor immigrants.

It is ironic that a Kenyan political leader would announce, he was perplexed by South Africa’s crisis. His inability to draw parallels with recent events in Kenya is depressing. The trouble in South Africa has similar echoes. I was not surprised then either.

The Kenyan crisis was a long time coming, but the factors have been in place many years; ever-increasing population pressure with over 80% of the population squeezed onto less than 10% of the land. Kenya has a very young population (average age, 18 years) and an economy unable to keep pace with population growth, rapid urbanization and the ever rising expectations of the poor urban young. There is a yawning chasm between the rich and the poor, a leadership shamelessly misappropriating the nation's resource and endemic corruption at every level of society.

The result is a vast number of young men without jobs in Kenya. I contend the most dangerous creature on Earth is a young man without a job. This is as true of Newcastle, New Orleans and Najaf as it is Nairobi. Young men without jobs view themselves as outside of society, disenfranchised and owing nothing to their communities.

Not only do they [young Kenyans] not have a job; there is little hope of the majority finding one. Moreover, and here there are clear echoes in South Africa, though tourism is a vital part of the economy it also enables poor Kenyans who come in contact with relatively affluent tourists, to see 'how the other half live' and to contrast their own lives and prospects.

These angry young men are fertile ground for the seeds of anarchy. The portent to the recent storm had long been obvious in the high levels of violent crime endemic to the country, not for nothing is Nairobi known as 'Nairobbery’ and comparisons made with Johannesburg. The rise of the secret and violent Kikuyu sect Mungiki, and its mirror organization, the Kalenjin Warriors, were also harbingers of terror to come.
Even through the narrow prism of the TV camera, it was clear that the majority of those committing violence were young men; their common denominators, anger, frustration and poverty. They had nothing; so having nothing to lose, focused on destroying all and everything. The gangs on camera in Kisumu looked and behaved exactly like the ones in Gauteng.

For those who still cannot see the writing on the wall, I suggest Frantz Fanon's, The Wretched of the Earth. What we see in Gauteng today and Kibera months ago, he describes as 'catharsis through violence’.

Those who prefer their logic on a bumper-sticker will continue to cluck and prattle about tribalism and xenophobia. What we are witness to in Africa today, is much more; the concatenation of three irresistible social forces: the unequal distribution of wealth, population pressure and the revolution in rising expectations.

The ‘have-nots’, particularly the urban poor, can see how little they have, measured at first hand against the urban ‘haves’. They want a share. If anyone wants to know what comes next, try A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.

So what of the future? The violence in South Africa will simmer down much as it has in Kenya. The young unemployed, will return to violent crime, mostly robbing the poor, occasionally the rich, and the anger will slowly build up until it explodes, more violently, in the future.

Spinoza offered, "There is no hope without fear and no fear without hope". Maybe the fear created by this current bout violence will galvanize South Africans and Kenyans into radical change. It will take much moral courage and huge effort. In practical terms, there must be a more equitable distribution of the nations’ wealth, mainly through the creation of jobs, lots and lots of them.

A word to the wise; Uganda must draw lessons from both these crises. I see the same dark clouds on the horizon. Corruption is endemic, the gap between the rich and the poor, huge. The population is growing at a frightening rate and the nation's leadership is in an advanced state of denial on this issue. It is even younger than Kenya’s at less than 15 years. As optimistic as I am about Uganda and its wonderful people, it is plain to see that current economic growth is an order of magnitude behind the population boom and the people’s ever rising expectations.

Moreover, the young are rapidly rejecting traditional lives as agriculturalists and urbanization is almost as rapid as population growth. Not because there is no land to work, but because the young envision more than what they see as life in a hut, with a paraffin lamp and hoeing a row of maize, far from friends and the Premier League on GTV. Yet many who migrate to the towns and cities fail to make a living. The ever-rising crime rates across the nation and the recent terrible spate of violent crime in Kampala are testament to the growing anger and frustration of the urban poor

Prediction is no more than entertainment, but without radical new thinking and bold action, I am gloomy about the future of South Africa, Kenya and indeed Uganda. I offer only this from a man much cleverer than I.
“A world of this magnitude of inequality is inherently unstable. Peace is in the palm of the devil” - Fouad Ajami

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