Xenophobia: Nine causes of the current crisis

The SAIRR says the violence is the result of a series of policy failures by govt

The South African Institute of Race Relations this morning described the wave of violence that has gripped Johannesburg and surrounding areas for the past week as a direct response to policy failures on the part of Thabo Mbeki's government. According to the Institute, poor and ineffective governance had created a tinder box of unmet expectations which exploded in Alexandra and has now spread to several other areas - similar to many of the causal factors that contributed to apartheid era unrest. Essentially these failures contributed to create a perfect storm of lawlessness, poverty, and unfulfilled expectations which has now erupted into violence. The Institute identified the following key policy failures:

1.) Failure to maintain the rule of law
The government's repeated failures to bring levels of violent crime under control contributed to an environment which saw people resort to violence without fear of arrest or successful prosecution. In failing to maintain the rule of law the state had conditioned many poor communities to violent behaviour.  The failure to protect communities from criminal elements and to remove those elements had allowed criminals to take full advantage of chaos and disorder to rob, rape, and loot during the violent uprisings.

Incompetence in the ministry of safety and security, falling standards in the South African Police Service, corruption up to the highest levels of the police, and affirmative action had eroded the capacity of the police to provide a safe and secure environment in South Africa.  This was further exacerbated by the poor performance of the prosecution service in securing convictions for offenders and the failure of the department of correctional services to rehabilitate offenders.  South Africa was faced with an effective breakdown of the organs responsible for maintaining law and order.

Warnings to this effect from a variety of sources had been largely ignored or treated with arrogance and contempt from the office of the minister of safety and security downwards. That not a single minister or deputy minister responsible for law and order, justice, or prisons was dismissed over close on ten years of Thabo Mbeki's presidency suggests that the government was either unable to identify the risks presented by lawlessness or had resigned itself to the consequences. 

Regardless of which of the two options is correct the failure of the state to maintain law and order is the first direct contributing factor to the violence.

2.) Border control
The collapse of proper border control mechanisms saw literally millions of people gaining entry to South Africa illegally. The responsibility for this law enforcement failure rests jointly with the army, police and the government who saw fit to hand many border duties to the police when it should have been obvious that the police were unable to handle the responsibility. The closure of the commandos is instructive in this regard as it suggests a government more interested in ideology than in pragmatism. During a period when South Africa experienced some of the highest levels of violent crime in the world the state saw fit to close down one of the key organs responsible for rural policing. 

Poor policy decisions and simple incompetence in border policing therefore contributed directly to the presence of a large illegal population in South Africa. Without adequate legal standing in the community these people became easy or soft targets for mob violence. The police's own heavy handed raids on illegal immigrants further created the impression that they were fair game in South Africa.

The policy response to the cross border influx revolved chiefly around a programme of arrests and deportations often without regard to the human rights and due process issues that should have applied. This policy continued long after it was apparent that it was having no effect on the number of illegal immigrants in South Africa. Again no senior political official with responsibility for this critical area of policing was dismissed for underperformance despite the obvious threat to national security. 

3.) Corruption
Corruption in the state sector became endemic under Thabo Mbeki and very little was done to curb it. The examples of Travelgate, Armsgate, and Oilgate served to create the impression that the South African state was corrupt up to the highest levels of government.  Such corruption in turn filtered down into the various government departments at local, provincial, and national level.  In the home affairs, social welfare, and law enforcement areas literally tens of thousands of officials were implicated in corrupt dealings.

Anger by South Africans at immigrants with illegal documents getting access to services is therefore understandable and was brought about in large part by the failure of the police and the department of home affairs to crack down on fraudulent documents. 

Evidence of widespread corruption was uncovered by a host of agencies and the media. The government, however, failed to act with due diligence and most corrupt officials got away with a slap on the wrist. Even where the law took its course as in the case of Tony Yengeni the ANC saw fit to carry him into prison like a conquering hero.

Confidence in the state was substantially eroded by corruption policy failures and poor judgment on the part of government. Consequently it is not surprising that communities saw the need to take their anger onto the streets. Widespread corruption undermining the role of the state is therefore a further direct contributing factor to the violence.  

4.) Employment
With close on 40% of South Africans failing to secure a proper job it is not surprising that scores of youths were able to conduct days and nights of violent campaigns in informal settlements around Johannesburg.  Unemployment was therefore a direct contributing cause to the violence. 

Among young black South Africans the unemployment rate extends to over 50% in some areas. Overall only 50% of African households get their main source of income from employment. Social welfare which now reaches 25% of South Africans was never going to be sufficient to meet communities' expectations of a better life.

Warnings as to the risks of sustained levels of high unemployment were largely ignored by government. Labour legislation, hopelessly inappropriate for a largely unskilled workforce, has contributed to keep many mainly black South Africans out of jobs. Immigrants were able to secure employment as these labour policies did not apply to them and were in many cases able to make a living free from government grantsor regulation. Policy responses such as the Expanded Public Works Programme were a case of too little too late to prevent the turbulence that has gripped parts of Johannesburg for the past seven days.

The government showed limited urgency in dealing with an unemployment crisis that required dramatic changes in policy to address. A host of talk shops, forums, and strategies were substituted for actual progress. It is a valid question how the government could ignore such an obvious political risk factor for so long without an adequate policy response. Partly the answer may lie in the ANC misjudging its electoral support for satisfaction with its policies.   

5.) Education
This has been government's biggest failure and carries much of the blame for the high unemployment levels. It is arguable whether current state education is in its totality any better than that under apartheid. Only 1% of black matriculants achieve a good HG maths pass. The output of the school education system was therefore far from adequate to free households from state dependency or to acquire the skills necessary to find employment in a heavily regulated labour market.

The education system is a good example where policy failures in one area compounded those in another. In this case poor education compounded the inappropriate labour market policy which in turn compounded the unemployment problem.

Many warnings to government in this regard have been dismissed as alarmist and sensationalist. That combined with critical policy misjudgments such as the adoption of outcomes based education and the closure of teacher training colleges sabotaged any chance of rehabilitating the education system. The failure of education is therefore a further direct contributing cause to the violence. 

6.) Slowing economic growth
The failure to take proper advantage of a global boom in commodities meant that South Africa attracted limited benefit from the economic climate of the last five years.  Empowerment policy, affirmative action, and bureaucratic interference in mining for example saw South Africa's mining sector stutter over a period when it should have boomed. In many cases racial bean counting, self enrichment through economic empowerment, and ideological arguments for transformation trumped the need to boost economic growth rates above 4.5%.  South Africa was therefore unable to use the global commodity boom to establish subsidiary industries or to invest in its industrial base.

Policy failures in electricity supply and telecommunication technology in turn further hampered the economic growth rate in South Africa and further compounded the failure to adopt an industrial policy aimed at facilitating growth off the commodity boom. Education and skills shortages share some of the blame for this. 

In many cases ideologically driven beliefs in the state's role in managing the economy overruled pragmatic policy responses.

Agriculture is a prime example where the governments' policy on commercial producers could best be described as hostile even as food prices begun to rise. Increasing food prices directly compromised the welfare of poor communities and must be identified as one of the key causal factors responsible for the violence.  

Rising inflation is a second key causal factor for the violence where a failure of the Reserve Bank's inflation targeting policy has largely undone much of the anti-poverty impact of social grants spending.  Again this is an example of one policy failure compounding failures in a host of other areas.

Both food prices and inflation together with rising fuel costs directly impacted upon poor households and must have forced them to cut down on basic staples. That alone may have been sufficient to spark much of the anger visible in and around Johannesburg this week. These three factors directly undid the efforts of social grants in alleviating poverty as they undermined the value of those grants. Two of the three factors were in government's direct policy responsibility to address.

An analysis of economic policy failures would not be complete without examining the role of empowerment policy in establishing a very small and often politically connected black middle class. Government saw fit to celebrate this limited success even as the majority of black South Africans continued to live in relative squalor and poverty. In retrospect it is extraordinary that government would flaunt such limited participation in the broader economy by a select group of individuals when most of its supporters had no hope of ever becoming the beneficiary of an empowerment transaction. The now regular site of a high speed government convoys of black luxury sedans escorted by scores of police shoving through traffic points to a similarly misguided and extraordinary arrogance on the part of those who had promised a better life for all in 1994.

Warnings of political risk accompanying such policy blunders where sharply disputed by government most notably in the example of Tony Trahar who was admonished by Thabo Mbeki for raising the issue of political risk in South Africa. 

7.) Foreign policy
Particularly in the case of Zimbabwe foreign policy was wholly inappropriate and incompetent. Thabo Mbeki's quiet diplomacy provided a lifeline to the ailing Zimbabwe regime that kept it in power longer than would otherwise have been the case.

The failure to condemn initial violence and electoral fraud in Zimbabwe contributed directly to the massive inflow of foreign immigrants. Such quiet diplomacy stands in strong contrast to the unanimous condemnation by government of the current violence in South Africa and creates the impression that violence targeted at Zimbabweans was acceptable as long as it took place in Zimbabwe.

Seen in light of South Africa's inability to secure its borders our foreign policy on Zimbabwe was destined to have only one effect - the inflow of illegal immigrants. 

It is far from convincing to argue that the best South Africa, as Africa's economic superpower, could do was to quietly engage the Harare regime. Targeted economic and financial sanctions together with clear criticism of human rights abuses in Zimbabwe were a perfectly feasible alternative policy.

As in almost every area of policy failure warnings directed at government were scoffed at and dismissed. In the Zimbabwe case Thabo Mbeki's government was quick to describe as racist any criticism of his Zimbabwe policy. Need one only remember the tumultuous reception Robert Mugabe was given at Thabo Mbeki's inauguration? Ideology again trumped pragmatism, a failure for which South Africa is paying heavily.

8.) Service delivery
While a host of government targets were met service delivery provision was far from adequate to meet expectations of a better life for all. A policy failure is again at the heart of the problem as the state took it upon itself to provide services and jobs and thereby tied households to its ability to deliver. Where delivery appeared to falter public protest was the outcome and literally thousands of protests, many of them violent, have been directed at the state over the past 36 months.

In many cases the government relied on corrupt and incompetent local authorities to implement its policies. Despite much bluster and posturing not enough was done to bring these authorities into line even as a growing trend of protest actions became visible over the past 36 months.  The failure of local government in delivery was never adequately addressed and communities lost faith in the willingness of government to address their queries when these were made through official channels. Communities learnt to express their dissatisfaction violently and this is set to continue as long as local authorities remain corrupt and incompetent.

High unemployment was again a further contributing factor exacerbating other policy failures.

The protests of the past 36 months have in the main been isolated and sporadic but should have sent a clear warning to government that dissatisfaction with delivery could spark large scale unrest. Government however continued to insist that it was on the right track and that dismissed criticism as alarmist or aimed at threatening the national democratic revolution.  

The government effectively miscalculated that continuing strong voter support for the ANC translated directly into support for its delivery efforts. This has proven to be a tragic misjudgment. 

Current legislation pending in provinces to ‘eradicate' informal dwellings is a perfect example of a type of heavy handed delivery blunder that has characterised the government. If implemented it will no doubt aid in creating exactly the kind of havoc currently experienced around Gauteng. It is in a sense a good measure in deciding whether the government has learnt any lessons from this week's violence.

9.) Race relations
Thabo Mbeki's efforts at re-racialising South Africa and the numerous pieces of race based policy and legislation that accompanied his time in office undid much of the progress in improving race relations accomplished under Nelson Mandela.  Mbeki's tenure re-enforced differences and assigned values based on race.  It was not surprising therefore that racial conflict could be an end result of his government's numerous policy failures. That that conflict is black on black and not black on white is unsurprising considering that levels of latent ethnic tension remain present in South Africa.

Obsession with black on white racism meant that the apparently more widespread form of black on black racism was never adequately addressed. Overzealous self censorship and political correctness prevented many commentators from speaking up clearly about a possibly far more deep seated racism between black and black than existed between black and white.       

What can be done?

Combined failures in these key policy areas have come together to create a virtual tinderbox of dissatisfaction with government delivery and the protests originating in Alexandra where merely a matter of a spark igniting the tensions at the right time in the right place. 

Similar political risk factors exist throughout South Africa and there exists the danger that the violence could spread further at a point in time. A second danger exists that the violence could come to take on a more ethnic nature and devolve into a renewed conflict particularly if it spreads in KwaZulu-Natal. It is a risk that South Africa will have to live with for several years as there is no quick fix solution for the current crisis.

The appointment of a panel to investigate the violence is a useful academic exercise but is again a wholly inappropriate policy response to resolve the crisis. This is equally true of revitalising the failed Roll Back Xenophobia campaigns and the like which cannot adequately capture the underlying causes to the violence.

The short term response should be a well thought out and coordinated law enforcement response that aims to identify and arrest anyone responsible for inciting violence or the destruction of property while isolating violent hotspots and saturating these areas with police personnel. It should be intelligence driven and managed by detectives. Tragically it is questionable, however, whether the police have the skills or equipment to conduct such an operation effectively.

Employing the military in a civilian capacity risks a major disaster. They are not trained, equipped, or prepared for such a function. There is a real risk of the army shooting into a crowd with live ammunition and causing casualties that could inflame tensions even further and will almost certainly see a nationwide uprising against the state.

The violence we have experienced over the past week can be directly attributed to a series of policy failures on the part of Thabo Mbeki's government. Warnings to that effect were too easily dismissed by government spokespeople who accused analysts of racism and ‘doom and gloom' scenarios. A ‘worst possible scenario' has now materialised and requires a more mature and measured response from government. Failing that we should expect that similar unrest could occur with little warning in any area of South Africa.

*Frans Cronje is the Deputy CEO of the South African Institute of Race Relations. This is an edited version of an article published by the SAIRR on May 20 2008