Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Didn't we see it coming?

"TURNING and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity."
WB Yeats

Did we really not see it coming? The South African government has been running conferences and trying to find solutions and figure out what to do since the first attacks on Somali refugees in Cape Town. The government's approach to development is designed to, slowly but surely reduce inequality.

Poverty is a powder-keg. But it's a very particular kind of powder that cannot be ignited by just anything. Criminal elements don't just suddenly raise a community to a frenzy of violence. Service delivery didn't suddenly get worse in Alex and Diepsloot. The spark that generally ignites poverty to violence is more poverty. Desperation.

The violence in South Africa is no different to food riots in Haiti and Egypt. It manifests differently but the spark is the same. The government is learning a hard lesson - hungry people are hard to govern. It's unfortunate, but not in any way unexpected, that this manifests here in othering. The rest on the world's shock that attacks on other people, slowly but surely tarnishing the image of SA - who they expect, totally unrealistically, to be less divided that their own nations - would be less sickening if the were responding actively, instead of shaking their heads and retreating in moral indignation. The root causes are far deeper than Xenophobia. But the spark is fairly predictable (in the sense that the Russian Revolution way the inevitable result of oppressing the peasants). Hungry people are ungovernable.

My greatest fear for this situation, apart from the terrifying image of tanks rolling back into the townships, is that the reaction, the calls to send in the tanks, will create a backlash that will spread the violence further by demonising poor South Africans. The route to calm isn't tanks and terror and fighting fire with more violence. Hungry people are ungovernable and every government makes a choice - to react to the 'anarchy' with tanks and soldiers or to flout sound economic policy and give the people a sandwich and a soup and find a way to cushion them from inflation.

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