The xenophobic violence engulfing the country is not only about foreigners taking jobs away from local black people. The underlying problems are deeper and more sinister than that. President Thabo Mbeki’s suggestion that a task force be set up to debate the issue is correct, although, as usual, his erudite approach missed the reality and immediate urgency of the problem.
In truth, the capacity for evil lies within us all. The things that stop most of us from errant behaviour, in no particular order, include the threat of authority and imprisonment, our own sense of morality (social capital), and the fear of being ostracised from society and our families. The problem in our country is that there are a substantial number of people who are not constrained by any of these shackles. These people are a danger to all inhabitants of this country as shown by the recent attacks on foreigners.
Mobs are made up of a variety of dangerous miscreants. There are the disgruntled, the cowardly and the criminals who only see opportunity in attacking defenceless individuals. Mobs are not made up of middle-class citizens with wives and children waiting at home for them. What is important to understand is what makes these people erupt and morph into a dangerous out-of-control mob. The problem has its roots in the apartheid regime during which discriminatory legislation led to the breakdown of family structures as men moved to the cities in search of work. Families were left in the homelands and a gradual disintegration of the framework of their society occurred. Large groups of displaced people began to live lives without the structures of a family unit. With no responsibilities or social capital, some of these lone wolves evolved into a dangerous criminal element.
In the late eighties and early nineties violence engulfed the country with schools in particular becoming battlegrounds where pupils and police clashed daily. For thousands of people any hopes of an education disappeared as schools burnt and exams were abandoned. Most of those people are now in their 30s and find themselves marginalised, frustrated and angry. Although the lives of many black people have improved post-1994, there remain thousands who are no better off. These people represent a dangerous rogue element that threatens society. The rainbow nation has passed them by and the grim reality of a life of poverty has embittered and angered them.
The xenophobic violence we are witnessing is little different from the violence we see in our society on a daily basis. Today the flash point is foreigners “stealing jobs”; tomorrow it will be back to rape and pillage. In this case the sight of foreigners, many of whom are better educated, are acquiring assets and getting ahead, serves only to bring the reality of their problems and frustrations into focus. Looking for someone to blame, they seize on these poor unfortunates. Others in the mob are simply criminals who use the opportunity to rob and assault people who are total strangers to them.
A study of history shows that the most dangerous people are those with nothing to lose. The underlying anger of this rogue element of our society should not be underestimated and it is not a problem that is going to disappear. It will continue to fester until the government does something to uplift these people by giving them proper housing and creating employment for them. Letting people live in horrific squatter camps with no prospects of a better future is looking for trouble.
Although the government has inherited this problem it must be the key driver in finding a solution. It needs to be assisted in this by community leaders and the church, and indeed by all the people of this country. There is no immediate solution but a start must be made if we are to live in this country free of fear.
• Mark Lynn is an attorney and businessman practising in Pietermaritzburg.