It's About Time Our Bubble Burst

By Saliem Fakir · 29 May 2008

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Picture: Johnathan Gill
Picture: Johnathan Gill

The Free State students who made the racist video are perhaps breathing a sigh of relief that they’re no longer the centre of the world’s attention. It was too much for them too soon. The world was shocked then too.

At least they too know, no matter how revolting their little show, malicious prejudice conflicts with the idea of democracy and they are not alone in harbouring ghastly prejudices. They have something in common with all of us. Even a quiet prejudice seeds it’s acting out in others – its unwitting.

South Africa is full of it and the past few weeks have proven that behind all the claims of greatness, we have a hollow interior.

Mamphela Ramphele called it a 'false paradise'. If its not white on black racism, then its the majority against minorities, minorities against the majority; if its not race then its foreigners, women, gays, lesbian, Jews, Muslims, Zulus - the list goes on.

I too have my dirty thoughts about Nigerians. I too am guilty. We all have one or two dirty little thoughts for those who are different from us and having them somehow seems to make us feel better. It makes for conversation at dinner, the pub or at the coffee shop.

We all know it is wrong.  We all know it perpetuates a culture that is not consistent with the values we preach or what we want to portray to others. Yet we do it and it makes for the invisible relationship between a quiet dirty thought of one’s own and the act of violence against the 'other' done by somebody else in our name.

We never mean for our prejudices to turn out violent but they do – often carried out on our behalves by this unwitting link: this quiet sharing of dirty thoughts by the one who means not to act it out and the other feeling there is legitimacy in the maelstrom and so acts it out.

Prejudices are powerful things and if we are not open about them they acquire a propulsion and life of their own. They become uncontrollable creations – thoughts can be like germs; a genie that is difficult to put back in the bottle. We all harbour small or large prejudices. We should acknowledge them and so take responsibility by doing something to ensure they do not lead to harm.

This is the air that brought about the horror of the last few weeks – all our quiet collective dirty thoughts we thought would never play themselves out, resulted in 30 000 displaced and 42 dead.

Our politicians stood there astonished. They came in, in trickles – some didn’t even dare to show their faces. They came in their black cavalcades racing down the highway and pushing cars off the road as they usually do – they came with suits and ties as if this was another cabinet meeting. They came to stare in conceited amazement and to blame.

They looked so embarrassed. Helpless, clueless and full of blame on phantom forces: they simply did not see it coming. This is as much as our Minister of Intelligence, Ronnie Kasrils, admitted. The same Ronnie Kasrils who grabbed the arm of a political analyst, rushing down a corridor, before the Polokwane ANC Conference, saying in a fit of excitement: "Its in the bag! We've done it" - a reference to the fact that Mbeki would win the ANC Presidency and unseat Zuma's bid. Then too, he did not see the Zuma tsunami coming.

They knew that xenophobia existed they just didn’t believe that fellow South Africans would go this far. Nor did we.

The State fumbled not knowing what to do. Mbeki’s call for a commission of enquiry was the last thing needed given the emergency on the ground. He was reluctant to call in the army, but the ANC demanded that the army be deployed, as the police could no longer cope.

A government is told what to do by the government in waiting. The ANC at Luthuli house takes charge. Its top leaders fan across the country going to different hotspots to speak to people. At least it showed some leadership.

Where the State failed, at least citizens rallied support and took on the task of housing, caring and ensuring the safety of the victims of xenophobic violence. Citizens came from all over: the township residents, businesses, churches, mosques, synagogues and sports clubs – everybody you can think of. They gave of whatever they could: tears, sweat, food, their houses, their factors, their cars, whatever to ease the sorrow and pain.

Perhaps it was their way of assuaging their guilt – guilt for harbouring this quiet prejudice even though they did not mean to harm anybody with it. Guilt for not doing enough when so many Somalis and others were killed, just before this explosion. They did not mean their quiet dirty thoughts to give life to monsters with machetes. They now know even their prejudices are no justification for acts in their name.

Mbeki’s response is a far cry from the response of Hu Jintao, the Chinese President. The head of a one-party state and a country not best known for democracy or liberal values. A country that earned the ire of the world over its dealings with the Tibetan opposition.

Yet Jintao was on a plane two hours after an earthquake hit the Province of Sichuan. He was personally commandeering relief and was on the ground for five days getting little sleep.

He ordered 100 helicopters, over 130 000 soldiers and allowed private and civic organizations to assist. China called on the world for more tents. China declared three days of national moaning for the dead.

When it mattered most their President was on the ground and not asking the Communist Party to set up a Commission of Enquiry. This was not another intellectual ruminating moment that could be churned into a fat leafy volume of commentary and recommendations. The situation demanded decisive action. People were dying. There was no time to look into the where, the who, the when and the but.

Mbeki's "I am an African" speech laid besieged and submerged as the rage of xenophobia hit the streets. Not too long ago he was seen as the leader who could lead Africa's Renaissance into the 21st Century, the New Economic Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) was a promising venture then. It had the attention of the world's developed economies, in particular the G-7.

It was and still is a good idea, but all good ideas die a slow death if they are filled with contradictions. Contradictions that bring out scalding apprehension and the vote of no confidence.

There is also the SADC's failure to deal with Mugabe. Notwithstanding, the government's nervousness when the African Peer Review Mechanism's (a key product of NEPAD ) report on South Africa was not as complementary as they had expected - there was intense lobbying to make sure the report gave a more positive spin.

And now there are the xenophobic attacks that will put to rest once and for all the idea that we can just stand up, lead and punch above our waist.

South Africa was made the poster child by Europeans and North Americans – a harbinger of hope, democracy, economic success and scientific progress. It was too much for us given our hollow interior that grew hollower still, with each passing year since 1994.

South Africa played to this paternalism because it advanced our own interests. It suited us, so to speak. On the back of this, we won the bid to host the 2010 World Soccer Cup - remember we did it in the name of Africa.

So, tired of telling Africans how to govern themselves these former colonialists didn't have to point to themselves anymore - they could point South and hope the 'natives' could learn from their own.

South Africa helped save our former colonial masters the ignominy and guilt of coming across as patronising. In many ways, we took on the mantle of pomp and patronage and showed off to the rest of Africa our stellar democracy, non-racialism and well-tuned economy. We became the darling of the world. Funds flowed in and delegations came to appraise our little miracle and pat us on the back. Our ego grew too large with time.

This year we seem to have disappointed ourselves with a round of mishaps. The bubble has truly burst. Embarrassed Europeans who so paraded us as the shining example of a future Africa will no longer point South again so easily. They know very well where the rest of Africa will tell them to go.

At least with the xenophobic attacks we have become an ordinary nation again. There cannot be imagined greatness without a solid foundation. We have the world’s most liberal Constitution but its been shown that there’s no point in having a Rolls Royce if you have to keep it parked in the garage all the time.

At least we have blemishes now and do not have to put up that act of self-importance. Perhaps a burden has been taken off our shoulders. We can walk embarrassed, but at least it will humble us. No more smug and arrogant bureaucrat, politician, businessman or citizen.

History privileged us in 1994 but we have betrayed it. Other Africans will be cynical and smug pointing to our false ideals of Africanism. In two weeks xenophobic attacks have put to question the promise of Africanism. Maybe it was a good catchphrase but deep down we know how empty it is. We lived with our dirty little thoughts – everyone of them and about everyone else.

Fakir is an independent writer based in Cape Town.

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520530 Verified user
28 May


Imperfection, generalisation and prejudiciousness is a trademark of human existence and most of us are, at some time or the other, guilty thereof. Constructive criticism and the right and duty to point out and warn must nevertheless not be confused with discrimination.
Having no allegiance to the DA and its fat-cat discriminatory political policies it must, without prejudice, however be agreed that the lack of law and order on our borders leaves our social system open to abuse by foreigners. This is a condition that SA cannot financially afford due to our critical socio-economical circumstances. Without a proper system to ascertain whether an entrant into the country is in actual fact a refugee and not a criminal fleeing across the border to escape home justice, the application of refugee status cannot be effectively applied.
I disagree that the South African bubble has burst, it just never existed in the first place; it was a mirage created by foreign need to access and loot the wealth of Africa. South Africa with its apparent sound infrastructure and mineral wealth was the logical launch pad. Reliant upon the emotions attached to the political victory of 1994 which was devoid in substance from economical benefit, the deliberated illusion served its purpose well until now but is rapidly being replaced by the stark realities of the day.
South Africa might be considered a wealthy country due to our natural and mineral resources but ownership and control of these resources are not vested within the power of the state. The bulk of the profits derived from the exploitation of the resources are channelled into the pockets of a few while the country is left only with social decay.
The ability of the democratic electorate to unemotionally demonstrate its resistance to current conditions and call for social reform will assist a representative government to negotiate an improved dispensation for the state. The majority within the voter base consist of an oppressed labour force, unemployed youth and a disillusioned urban population. They are the key to social evolution.

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