Almost by chance, Rhiannon and I landed up watching one of the events that is part of the Tri Continental Film Festival, at the Cinema Nouveau at Rosebank. It was a screening of a number of short movies, as well as some public service shorts shown on TV, all based around the xenophobia riots that broke out in May around Johannesburg.
The films were really good, and obviously very moving. The first covered the events before and during the riots, from the ground, and I think managed very well to avoid imposing interpretation on the motivations and actions of the people concerned. The other movies focused on the displaced people (foreigners as well as South Africans from smaller language groups) and some of their stories in the refugee camps.
The riots were and remain a huge national shame, I think — that a country like South Africa, with our historical focus on human rights, and huge resources, should need to be pitching UN High Commission of Refugees camps within Johannesburg, reflects a huge failing at all levels of society. This includes the poeple involved in the violence, but also government and society at all levels, for the poor response to the crisis.
But today’s event certainly helped me understand what happened a lot better. The films were followed by a panel discussion, with all the directors, as well as a number of speakers and many of the people shown in the films. It’s quite clear that in the township of Alexandria, for instance, there were and remain major grievances around housing. The government has been building RDP (Reconstruction and Development Programme) houses, which are supposed to be made available free to otherwise-homeless inhabitants of the township. But it seems that many have been given or sold instead to people not from Alexandria, allegedly as a result of bribes. Some of the people who have landed up in the houses are foreigners, which led to some anti-foreigner sentiment in marches that happened before the full riots started. As so often is the case, the defenceless landed up suffering for the failings of others.
Taking a step back, however, it was fascinating how almost every person at the screening had a different interpretation of the underlying problem and solutions for dealing with xenophobia. We had (some very animated) diatribes about how:
- The government’s capitalistic “neoliberal” economic policies don’t help the poor, and cause widening inequality
- The real problem is that government leaders didn’t provide leadership at the time
- Continuing black-white inequality is the real problem
- It’s important to think about white guilt, and some people perhaps being pleased that black people can also do bad things
- People have legitimate grievances
- Grievances are not legitimate if they lead to violence
- The marches against xenophobia that followed the riots show that lots of people recognise our shared humanity
- (And back to the start) Marches against xenophobia are only any good if they aren’t led by Trevor Manuel, servant of The Capitalists (Trevor Manuel being the minister of finance
I may be exaggerating a little by the end, but if you take everything that people were saying seriously, then the way to prevent xenophobia is to create a utopia. To summarise: (1) everyone arrived at a different key insight as a result of the riots, and (2) no-one likes Mbeki (the president).
It was certainly very entertaining, with lots of underhand comments and funny asides. But now I am quite exhausted, and also have had a major kick in the social conscience. Maybe I’ll go start a school or something.