#TshwaneUnrest updated my outdated perception
There’s a pernicious lie told in many parts of South African society — that the reason so many South Africans are out of work, is because they are lazy.
I’m referring to the mainly-black, mainly-poor people living outside of the major city centers, where most of the welfare money seems to go, while at the same time there are constant protests about service delivery.
The news media does an excellent job of portraying these desperate people as greedy, wanting more services at the expense of the taxpayer, without being willing to put the work in.
Until today, I used to dismiss the argument that it was the foreigners causing all the trouble. I reasoned: These foreigners (Nigerian, Zimbabwean, Somalian, and more) left their own countries to come here, already demonstrating more ambition than the South Africans that already live here.
Surely they should be given the opportunities that South Africans have left by the wayside, in their laziness? And surely this violence is pure malice, driven solely by hatred of the people that are doing a better job than South Africans could?
That’s a worldview mainly informed by the “classic” immigrant story — people willing to risk everything, leave their homes behind, and travel to a foreign land in the hopes of a better life. We tend to think of them as brave, noble people.
Except, perhaps, in South Africa.
That’s a 3-page memorandum delivered by the concerned residents of Mamelodi, to the police. It makes a few of the same points over and over again, but one thing is clear:
The reason foreigners seem to be doing so much business, according to this memo, is that they’re doing it illegally. They’re driving unlicensed vehicles, they’re lingering across the border for longer than they should, and there’s even an implication that they’ve smuggled in illegal products and tanked some local industries in the process.
The police are apparently no help. It’s common knowledge that policing in poorer areas is sub-standard, and if you’re operating outside the bounds of the law, you can probably afford to bribe your way out of any trouble.
The honest South African businessman, on the other hand, is at every disadvantage. They can’t drive unroadworthy vehicles, they can’t renew their licenses without being forced to pay fines, they can’t operate premises or any sort of trade without local authority approval.
The simple version of the argument: they’re hamstrung by the law, while foreigners are not concerned at all about being bound by those restrictions.
Of particular interest to me was the complaint about Uber. The disruption that Uber’s bringing in this case, is enabling potentially undocumented foreigners to operate what amounts to a meter taxi service. I don’t know what Uber’s verification processes are, but if there’s truth to that, then there’s at least some truth to the argument that foreigners are taking South African jobs.
(And right now, I would not place much faith in Uber’s PR, what with the Susan J Fowler whirlwind.)
Now, we’ve all heard these arguments before, and the media is quick to paint these incidents as simple “xenophobic” violence, always managing to make the South Africans look like the monsters, and the immigrants as the victims.
But then again, the media is not exactly known for always reporting the unbiased truth about events, which is why I’m particularly grateful to social media, and the raw, unedited footage coming out of today’s events.
If you think this is just another excuse to justify xenophobic violence, and the residents of Mamelodi were just spoiling to start a fight, consider this: They believe what’s in that memo, and today they put their bodies on the line in the fight for what they believe in.
As always, with protests of this nature, you can bet the last rand you have that provocateurs were in the mix, looking to escalate the violence. And if not the violence, at least the violent narrative.
Definitely don’t paint the violent South Africans with the same brush as the ones who just wanted a peaceful protest. Every grievance they have is real: The economy is at a crawl, unemployment is high, the police are ineffective and their opportunities are dwindling.
For my part, #TshwaneUnrest has updated my perceptions on this issue. This doesn’t excuse the violence, the looting, and the vicious beatings — but it does prompt the question: Are we doing all we can to help the unemployed in South Africa find decent work, and lead dignified lives?
Welfare (now under threat) and social safety nets are clearly not enough. That’s the real problem we should be tackling.