I was newly arrived in Johannesburg in 1993/4. Hostel dwellers were running amok with their traditional weapons. Seemingly random but deadly attacks were taking place on suburban trains.
The events of this May have conjured up a terrible déjà vu. Once again there have been mobs of stick-armed men on the streets, some of whom clearly emerged from the hostels. Once again the trains have been unsafe. Our domestic worker (a South African of Swazi origin) told us that on one day she travelled to work by taxi because the hostel dwellers were boarding the trains and terrorising the passengers by demanding that they reveal their origins.
In 1993/4, the target was supporters of the African National Congress. Today it is foreign African immigrants, although some South African minority groups also have been targeted, prompting a black colleague who lives in Soweto to bluntly label it tribalism.
The brutal violence, especially that image of the Mozambican man being burnt to death, recalling the horror of the necklace, prompts one to ask whether we have moved on at all since 1994. When we start to look with hindsight at the warning signs — the weekly reports of violent protests against lack of housing, unemployment and generally poor service delivery — it seems that it’s business as usual in our economically and ethnically divided land. Methodist bishop and struggle hero Paul Verryn stated prophetically on BBC TV that until the gap between rich and poor is narrowed, these problems would not go away. A priest in Alexandra township has been warning the authorities for some time that a particular hostel was a powder keg. It all sounds depressingly the same as in the bad old days.
Of course one can be so mesmerised by the sense of sameness that one misses the obvious differences. The men on the march are not the same as those who marched in the early nineties. It is a new generation and at least one commentator has suggested that the majority were not hostel dwellers because hostel dwellers are rather older than the teenagers and 20-year-olds on the cruel cutting edge of this particular wave of violence. Back then there clearly was a third force at work, stoking and manipulating the terror; this time the talk of a third force has the hollow ring of politicians who seem mentally stuck in the past, desperately seeking scapegoats. Perhaps local instigation was behind some of the attacks, but the conspiracy theories, such as that it is the Zimbabwean CIO creating a media diversion for Robert Mugabe, seem far-fetched.
The fact is that settlers of any race or colour who live cheek by jowl with impoverished natives to whom promises of a better life have been broken, are likely to be resented. Add a time of rising food prices and power cuts, and, as one analyst put it, you have a perfect storm.
But the sense of déjà vu continues to haunt me especially as I recall to mind that doleful phrase coined in the struggle: “the lost generation” — those young people whose human and academic formation had been disrupted by the combination of Bantu Education and its collapse. I wonder whether what we are seeing is the manifestation of another lost generation.
A nightmarish incident which happened to a friend of mine, a religious sister, might be another of those straws in the wind which only now start to make some sense. She, along with the drivers of several other vehicles, was pulled off the road in a rural part of KwaZulu-Natal by a large group of people. She was dragged from the car and assaulted. Luckily, a local youth who seems to have known her, whisked her away before she was badly injured. Others were not so lucky and one woman was severely sjamboked. Her vehicle was recovered full of bullet holes. The point of relating this story is to record what she said about the attackers. They were all so young, they included young women and this took place in a country area with houses round about and people simply looking on.
Is this a snapshot, not only of a lost generation, but of one which is out of the control of its elders? Perhaps the most serious aspect of this sense of déjà vu is the reminder that the effects of Bantu Education are still with us.
• Chris Chatteris is the media liaison officer for the Jesuit Institute of South Africa (Jisa).