Third Force Is the Anger of the Poor (May 2008)

Between 11 and 25th May 2008, South Africa, a country with a long history of "othering" within its society, experienced the horrors of xenophobic violence. In those dark days some spoke of a third force instigating the violence. In this piece penned by Helga Jansen in 2008, she says the anger of the poor is the third force.

HBF march against xenophobia

I sit here on a Monday evening after my fourth day of assisting the displaced African nationals who have come to Muizenberg from across the Peninsula. They have come from Westlake, Vrygrond, Maitland, Philippi, Nyanga, Khayelitsha and Gugulethu.

I am exhausted, and my only joy tonight has been that we were able to find safe accommodation for 20 Zimbabweans who had been sitting on the Foreshore in Cape Town since Friday.

Our little committee is stretched, exhausted, and some of us are deeply ashamed to be South African. Our desire to jump in and help comes from a place that wants to be reminded that we are still human, and perhaps to buy some goodwill in the event that the next time, it may be us who are refugees. It may be us who are shell-shocked. It may be us who have lost everything, including the ability to determine the next 30 minutes of our lives.

Horror stories are becoming commonplace and I am beginning to remind myself to be shocked, to express outrage, to feel anger - to feel nothing is to lose a bit of my humanity. On Saturday evening, the reality hit us hard.

A Somalian and his son came to us from Westlake, scared and almost catatonic with fear. They had arrived in South Africa a week ago. On Friday, their friend was killed on the trains in a xenophobic attack. Each of us hugged this father and son. I couldn't apologise enough - all I kept saying through my tears to these total strangers was: "I am sorry." The son walked over to me, held and comforted me. How weak I must have seemed to him.

On Wednesday I went to work after a weekend of horror - where we comforted people, fed them, tried to assure them they were safe. Every time I made this assurance I wondered if I was lying. If my own government couldn't ensure people's safety, how could I?

There have been moments these past four days when briefly my faith has been restored. On Saturday evening a Congolese man was stabbed in the local pub. The patrons ran up to the church hall and begged our friends to "stay inside, keep quiet, they will hear you. We don't want you to be killed." These were white South Africans. Ordinary people walking into the church hall to apologise, to hold a hand, share a smile with a traumatised child, greet a fellow human.

Our group of volunteers have worked tirelessly, calling on old networks in foreign embassies, sending messages on the local community radio station to send relief, send food, send baby clothes, anything to ease the discomfort - and perhaps ease our consciences.

On Saturday evening a restaurant manager and her staff asked the owner if they could donate the unsold food from that evening. He said no. They took it anyway and brought it over to the church hall. Ordinary South African women, in their 20s, whose reality is boyfriends, clothes and living a secure life. And all they said was, "We are here to do our bit."

Our provincial government services have been amazing - but their own resources are stretched. And in the general inertia and absence of a clear strategy for any clear communication we remain in the wilderness, doing the best we can.

In our group we have taken a decision - we will not participate in any integration strategy if we cannot give 100 percent assurance of people's safety. We have put the options to our displaced friends: we will ensure that they stay with us for as long as they can; we will support and assist them to return to their country of origin if they choose. We have also given the assurance that we will not send anyone to the tent cities. Tent cities send the message that the situation is long-term or indefinite.

Our president has said too little, too late. Our mayor plays politics and displaced people are caught in the middle of a nightmare. The coastal resort of Soetwater is housing 1 500 displaced people and to date there is no plan to return them to their homes. Officials are over-stretched. Leadership is weak.

On Saturday evening my Congolese neighbours living in Muizenberg streamed into the church to find a fabled black notebook.

Word had got out that the displaced people had organised a register of immigrants. When I asked my neighbour why he wanted to sign the book he said that if anything happened to him he wanted evidence that he and his children had once lived. He said he had been through the Congo in 1993. What could I say? I showed him the book and he signed it.

How much longer must we live in this pressure cooker where the labour of the poor continues to produce unbelievable wealth for a minority? What more will it take for our government to recognise that the system of wealth creation in this country is not working? That hungry people are indeed angry people?

The third force exists - it is the anger of South Africans who continue to wait for a dream constantly out of grasp, but enticingly in sight - achievable by only a minority.

We thought we would awake to a changed country on Tuesday - shocked by the past weekend's events. Instead South Africa's "news and information leader" led with the Fidentia fraud case. The Speaker of the House hosted a lunch to commemorate the victory at Cuito Cuanavale. No clear condemnation of this past weekend's horrors, no message of hope to displaced persons, no word of apology to African nations whose people were slaughtered as an expression of South Africans' anger towards their own government.

The lack of leadership and clear strategy reminds me of a report I read of Hurricane Katrina which devastated New Orleans a few years ago - some say it wasn't the hurricane which destroyed people's lives, it was a lack of leadership. The xenophobic attacks of these past days are South Africa's Katrina.

Happy Africa Day.


This article was first published in the Cape Argus in 2008.