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Reports from South Africa Focus on Crime and Ignore History

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Dateline South Africa—The black priest spoke of all of the places, of the great hills and valleys of his country. He also spoke of the sickness of the land, and how the grass had disappeared, and of the dongas that ran from hill to valley, and valley to hill. He spoke of how the “tribe was broken” and the house broken and the men broken. The group of concerned citizens of the township spoke of the sickness of the land, of the broken tribe and the broken house, of “young men and young girls that went away and forgot their customs and lived loose and idle lives.”

They talked of young criminal children, and older and more dangerous criminals, and of how white Johannesburg was afraid of black crime. One of them went and got the newspaper and showed him in big, bold black letters, “Old couple robbed and beaten in lonely house. Four natives arrested.”

This story could have been ripped from the headlines of South Africa today. And many of you reading this have been lulled into thinking that is so.

This summary passage was actually written by Alan Paton in what is probably the most important novel ever written about South Africa. “Cry the Beloved Country” was published in 1948 and details life in a beautiful country, engulfed by racial hatred in the days before and during apartheid. It is a novel steeped in hope and love and celebrates the dignity of humanity in the face of evil and oppression. The poor, the dispossessed and the forgotten in South African Townships face even greater challenges sixty years later.

Our mailbox has been flooded with pleas from South African white and black friends alike, asking us to stay on top of the stories coming out of their country these days. What the European Union has been reporting, and mainstream US media has been parroting, are stories of black on black violence which neatly fit into our colonialist ideals of a savage society that will only thrive under the mantle of white guidance and rule of “law.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Speak with black men and women in any country of the great continent of Africa, and you will hear the despair in their voices as they explain that the old tribal systems have been dismantled by “progress.” Tribal systems were the guardians of tradition, morality and convention until colonialist interventions dismantled this system and failed to offer anything in return except societal breakdown.

Our personal prism of western privilege allows us to view and define remote villages and “uncharted” regions of the world with “savage” and “tribal” elements. Our perception of the urban industrialized landscapes of the first world as “advanced” blinds us to the realities of the greater world community. In the rural areas of Africa the people’s lives and histories revolve around their intimate communities and connections with people, the land and tradition. To people living in Africa, white and black alike, the land is not exotic, wild or foreign, it is “home.” And home does not always provide safety and comfort.

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In South Africa, the scourge to the Homeland is HIV and the menace of emerging resistant strains of tuberculosis. It is poverty and grave economic insecurity. One US dollar converts to almost 8 South African Rand. That is an increase of 2 Rand since this writer was there ten months ago. In Rwanda it is the legacy of the genocide. In the Democratic Republic of Congo it is the 1,000 people a day who die from starvation and disease in war-torn Kivu Province. The thousands of women and children who are raped, mutilated and set on fire are the true unlucky ones, for they are still alive. In Zimbabwe it is a corrupt dictatorship which has forced famine upon a fertile land. Consider that here are an estimated 5 million immigrants in South Africa who are often willing to work for low wages, inciting resentment and violence from the indigenous black population that has been faced with dismal standards of living for decades. Unemployment is nearing 40 percent. But who, or what, is really inciting violence? Is “inciting” even the correct word to use in this instance?

This in our box from an OEN reader:

“There have been incidents where South African citizens have been attacked, the media has started using phrases like ethnic cleansing and I have started hearing the words Civil War. There is a great deal of fear and distrust. The SA Government has been very slow to respond although the President addressed the nation yesterday (Sunday 25/05/2008), but from where I stand not much has changed, personally I feel that South Africa is on the knife edge, I hate to think what will happen in the coming days and nights.”

The only thing I can offer to the South African citizens who have emailed me to keep focus on this story is a dispassionate appraisal of the old journalistic tenets of “who,” “what,” “where,” “when” and a “why” that remains to be decided by a global community that has propped up, no questions asked, the “leadership” of President Thabo Mbeki.

The world press has been reporting the “what” of this story for the past two weeks. Xenophobic violence has claimed the lives of at least 50 people and forced 35,000 men, women and children to flee for their lives as violence has spread from the Zulu heartland (Townships) of Johannesburg to the countryside, Capetown, Durban, and beyond. The South African military is on the streets in the first display of force since the “end” of apartheid. President Mbeki directed the display of military force after a mob attacked a Nigerian-owned bar in Umbilo, located in the KwaZulu Province.

The presidential decision was announced after police said a mob of up to 150 armed men attacked a bar owned by Nigerians in Umbilo on last Tuesday night, injuring six people. Yesterday, 100 people returned to Umbilo, demanding foreigners leave the KwaZulu-Natal province. This province is located near the tourist playground of Durban. When protesters armed with stones and bottles attacked a men’s hostel in the tourist district, the rules seemed to change with the arrival of the military to quell the violence. However, refugees from African countries which include, Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe were being set on fire in the townships of Johannesburg a week earlier. There was no comparable government response like there was in tourist-dependent Durban. Make of it what you will.

After the violence in Durban, the province's safety and security minister, Bheki Cele, a member of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), accused the mainly Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) of being behind the attacks. He said: "There was a meeting of the IFP branch in Dalton yesterday [last Tuesday] and I know it was them,” according to reports in the South African press.

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Georgianne Nienaber is an investigative environmental and political writer. She lives in rural northern Minnesota and South Florida. Her articles have appeared in The Society of Professional Journalists' Online Quill Magazine, the Huffington (more...)

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