Xenophobia: Was Mandela just a blip on the screen?

This country has been a ship without a rudder for a long time. The xenophobic mayhem sweeping it, shaming us all, is one symptom. The great leaders who steered us during those heady days from apartheid to democracy two decades ago are gone. Mandela, Sisulu, Slovo and the others. They have been largely replaced by midgets. Perhaps the turmoil we’re experiencing now is the natural progression after any ‘revolution’, before a new generation of real leaders steps in to chart a fresh course.

You hear bold statements by our current bevvy of politicians: “This violence against foreigners is un-South African, un-African, inhumane, etc.” But it’s not convincing. Nobody seems to have the gravitas to stop the thugs running around with machetes and knives and filling their bags with looted goods from foreigners’ shops after the owners have fled terrified into the darkness.

Remember those wonderful phrases at the time of the 1994 democratic elections? The rainbow nation. Ubuntu. We touted ourselves as an example to the world: “South Africa has taught every nation a lesson in dialogue and reconciliation.”

Tough questions have to be asked. Was Mandela’s magic just a momentary – in historical terms – thing? Is the pot of gold at the end of our rainbow nation actually a pit of vipers? It is painful to think that maybe this beautiful land is not the tolerant society of ubuntu we imagine ourselves to be. We lived through more than four decades of apartheid – we even gave the world the term for this ‘crime against humanity’, as the UN defined it. The separate ethnic pieces this country was divided into, are still there. And the foreigners float among them, sometimes tolerated, sometimes hated as the ‘Other’.

The Jewish community did what most white groups did during apartheid. In the main, it went along with the racist system – or at least didn’t protest very loudly, except for a few heroes: The Joe Slovos and others of his ilk who went into exile and fought from there, and some gutsy Jews who opposed apartheid from within, often at great cost to themselves. Jews and other white communities did the same act of lying low and keeping out of trouble.

Apartheid did not arise from nowhere, but out of our chequered history of colonialism, tribal wars, and ethnic clashes. Then Mandela came and convinced us that we could fashion from this fraught mixture a compassionate, tolerant society. Could it be that he was just a blip on a screen who lifted us high on his shoulders, then left us to come down to ground level again? Hard to imagine. Yet why is it that we put up with such second-rate, visionless leaders like President Jacob Zuma and his cohorts today, and the corruption and incompetence that come with them?

The abomination of xenophobia is a test: How we meet it will show who we really are. When Mandela died, a huge crowd gathered outside his house in Houghton, bringing flowers, candles and messages, and singing together. They were from all races, classes, ages, religions and countries. He made us believe we were something special as a nation. We betray him if we don’t throw the thugs who are killing foreigners into the jails where they belong.

Jews know what it is to be newcomers to a country. Our forebears came here – from Lithuania mostly – about a hundred years ago, generally penniless and often discriminated against by the locals. They did then what the small shopkeepers from Ethiopia, Mozambique and Zimbabwe are doing today – eked out a living, but with an eye on the future, gradually building themselves up to stand on their own feet. Today, Jews stand firmly on their feet, and are powerful in the economy and elsewhere. They have the capacity to help today’s terrified foreigners with moral and material support. They should do that loudly and clearly.

Would it be too much to hope that out of this disgrace will come a leader to take the rudder again, to give this beautiful country a vision and dream again?

(First published in SA Jewish Report, April 24, 2015)

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