The events of the past two weeks, in which marauding gangs have unleashed an orgy of destruction against foreign nationals, have shocked and shamed the nation.
It is now clear that we stand on the brink of a systemic breakdown in respect of border control, asylum seekers and law and order in affected areas. President Mbeki as usual is conspicuous by his absence, not even deigning to visit the afflicted areas to see for himself what is driving the violence.
Perhaps an even greater indication of the leadership vacuum is the absence of Jacob Zuma who is also overseas. We cannot hide from the fact that many of those carrying out the attacks in Gauteng are Zulu-speakers allegedly singing his signature anthem, umshini wami. According to press reports, some of the victims have blamed Zuma for saying to local people that when he is President he would get rid of all the foreigners.
Zuma has rightly distanced himself from the perpetrators. But he should be doing more than that. He should be actively campaigning in the trouble spots to quell the violence. He should be on the ground preaching a message of tolerance.
And, predictably, instead of admitting its failures to address both the symptoms and causes of the violence, the government has cast around for excuses. From the Pahad brothers, we have heard that the violence is being perpetrated by a "third force" (Aziz) and that it is a "right wing plot" (Essop). Even more bizarrely, the National Intelligence Agency has claimed that the violence has "been deliberately unleashed and orchestrated" ahead of next year's elections.
In addition, of course, the ANC has set its sights on me. Trevor Manuel, of all people, has accused me of fomenting violence after I went to Mitchell's Plain late one night last week to do precisely the opposite - prevent violence recurring in a community outraged by the extent of the illegal drug trade that is destroying a generation of young people. I acknowledged the perception that much of the drug trade is driven by foreign nationals, but stressed that generalisations were untenable and that nothing could justify resorting to violence. I committed myself to supporting non-violent protest against the drug trade. The journalists who were there reported what I said, but predictably the ANC distorted it to mean the exact opposite. This is symptomatic of what government communications have become.
In contrast the DA believes in being honest about the complex, interrelated causes of xenophobia so that we do not only address the symptoms with politically correct rhetoric that does nothing to solve the problem.
But honesty has never been the preferred policy of the ANC. It cannot face the fact that the state's failure to stem the tide of illegal immigration and the almost total incapacity to process the wave of refugee applications was the short term catalyst for the violence. The ANC elite will never face the fact that poverty stricken South Africans bear the brunt for government's policy failures.
Nor can the ANC acknowledge what is obvious to everyone else: That xenophobia is also driven by growing impoverishment and the perception that every foreigner's opportunity comes at the expense of a South African's. This is merely a reflection of the ANC's zero-sum approach to development, which is not aimed at growing the number of opportunities available for all, but manipulating access to existing opportunities for the benefit of the politically-connected few.
This approach to economic development establishes the conditions for ongoing conflict about access to the limited opportunities and resources available, and sets up entrepreneurial foreign nationals as scapegoats.
This is what sociologists describe as ‘relative deprivation' - the experience of being deprived of something to which one feels entitled. This feeling of deprivation is all the more acute when one believes that another person or group is benefiting at your expense. When people feel deprived in this way, the seeds are sown for revolutionary insurrection.
The refugee crisis is a reflection of an additional key failure: The government's policy of quiet diplomacy in Zimbabwe. This policy has been driven by the imperative of solidarity between former liberation movement leaders, rather than the interests of the people of Zimbabwe. The total economic and political implosion in that country must, at least in part, be attributed to South Africa's failed foreign policy. This has been the "push factor" propelling many Zimbabweans (and citizens of other sub-Saharan states) to seek sanctuary in South Africa.
Despite the extent of poverty in our own country, there are several "pull factors" that make South Africa an attractive destination. One is the opportunity to plug into South Africa's welfare and housing system (sometimes through corrupt means), or the services of health and education institutions, which are far more functional than those in several war-torn countries across the sub-continent.
The tragic irony is that our procedures for asylum seekers and immigrants are so cumbersome and contradictory, that many foreigners prefer to live illegally in the country than submit the necessary applications. Those who by-pass the system entirely have better prospects than law-abiding citizens who comply with procedures, especially as the state has very little capacity to police compliance.
A case in point is a highly skilled entrepreneur who heads a multi-billion rand enterprise in Cape Town and wishes to become a permanent resident. He is unable to do so because he cannot prove that his job was advertised and that no South African could be found to fill it. The Department of Home Affairs does not seem to understand that his job could not be advertised because he created it when he came to invest billions in our country.
It is time for the ANC to face the facts. It must admit that its immigration policy has failed to stem the tide of illegal immigrants and succeeded in shutting out skilled people that our economy needs. It must admit that quiet diplomacy has been an abject failure.
Most importantly, it must be honest about the material conditions of the majority of South Africans. The relative deprivation that people feel is the direct consequence of a government that has promised so much but delivered so little. It is true that this can never justify the killing of another human being, but it is equally true that people are angry and desperate.
Unless government takes proactive steps to address the root cause of the violence, what we are experiencing may be less an aberration than a taste of things to come. But to do this, it must admit where it has failed and craft a way forward.
The only way forward is to break the cycle of dependency on a state that does not have the capacity to deliver. This is the crux of the DA's vision of an open, opportunity society which maximises opportunity, self reliance and personal responsibility rather than creating permanent dependence.
In such an environment, immigrants with skills and initiative are not a threat, but an asset. The economy is not a zero-sum game of "us" against "them," but an arena in which all can thrive to the mutual benefit of others.
This article was originally published in SA Today a weekly online letter from the leader of the Democratic Alliance, Helen Zille, May 23 2008