In a series of short films being shown at the Mall of Rosebank as part of the 2008 TriContinental Film Festival, a group called Filmmakers Against Racism (FAR) explored the xenophobic attacks that happened in May this year.
Last night’s selection – Affectionately known as Alex, Angels on our Shoulders, Two Camps, and Martine and Thandeka – was gut-wrenching to watch. The violence was abrupt and awful, the aftermath painful to see.
For those who somehow missed these events, a series of riots raged through South African townships in mid-May. Enraged township residents marched, burned buildings, and attacked foreigners, whom they blame for their miserable material circumstances, killing 62 people, including at least 21 South Africans (see the Wikipedia entry on the attacks).
The attacks resulted in the displacement of up to 100 000 people, according to estimates from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. As many as 42 000 of these refugees ended up interned in large, temporary camps, where Home Affairs functionaries attempted to process them and manage their reintegration into the communities that attacked them. Those without proper documentation were deported, while many others were issued with temporary ID documents.
These camps, which still house some residents who remain there because they fear for their safety if they pursue reintegration, now face closure, (see Displaced foreigners prepare to vacate temporary shelters as deadline looms). The courts have granted a temporary stay in the closures, but uncertainty remains (see Court reserves ruling on refugee camps).
The attacks were a frightening and shameful expression of a number of tensions within South African society, and FAR attempted to begin an exploration of these themes.
Last night’s FAR films focused on the experiences of the foreigners involved in the attacks; the filmmakers went into the townships and refugee camps to uncover their stories.
The most interesting work, Affectionately known as Alex, was filmed over several months, starting before the May attacks. Filmed by a visiting American student, Danny Turken, the work features interviews with Alexandra residents who express their dissatisfactions and anger.
In various interviews, Turken’s subjects claim that the RDP houses they should have received were being illegally sold to foreigners by corrupt local officials. One group with which she interacted, the Anti-Privatisation Forum in Alex, presented local government with a petition demanding access to housing and basic services, while chanting anti-immigrant slogans.
From Turken’s film, it seems that, in Alex at least, residents were targeting anger about poor service delivery and poverty at the foreigners living among them.
Naturally, at last night’s showing, the emotive material drew a strong response from the audience, which was fortunate enough to have three of the filmmakers present to answer questions.
The debate was heated. Blame was tossed from target to target – the media, the government, the ANC, the IFP, the President and a dozen others culprits were named as culpable. Arguments erupted about the role of tribalism, and particularly the role that Zuma’s Zulu-focused campaign for the ANC Presidency played. Voices were raised, along with heckles.
It all reminded me of the great Chinese proverb, “talk does not cook rice”. The problem here, it seems to me, is less to do with politics and ideology than with an age-old human struggle for resources.
The people of Alex, and other townships, are very poor. As citizens of South Africa, they expect government to prioritise their needs, and as voters, they expect their leaders to help them. As citizens and voters, they are entitled to a range of social benefits, from childcare and old age grants to free water and electricity and low-cost housing. They are angry because government ineptitude has meant that they are not getting these things.
What South Africans need is not a series of speeches about African brotherhood, but rather effective, efficient, honest government.
The people interviewed in Turken’s film were very clear. They were angry at the failure of local government to distribute housing in a fair, uncorrupt way. They were tired of struggling to get the water and power connections they had been promised. They wanted government to hear them, and to respond to them.
In a telling scene, ANC president Jacob Zuma addressed a large crowd of angry Alex residents. Although Turken cut most of Zuma’s comments from her film, she and her fellow filmmakers said that Zuma attempted to calm the crowd by reminding them of the debt ANC exiles owed to African nations that supported and housed them during the fight against apartheid.
But the argument didn’t work. Residents told Zuma that they were tired of rhetoric, that they wanted action on their list of complaints. The ANC government has set itself ambitious targets in the field of upliftment and human development. A comprehensive programme of grants and funding should, theoretically, be helping people like the residents of Alex improve their circumstances.
But inefficiency, corruption, laziness and a lack of accountability mean that many areas of government do not function competently. Although the violence against foreigners is inexcusable, and all South Africans should be ashamed of what happened, it is at least comprehensible.
Desperately poor people perceive themselves to be in a pitched battle against their neighbours in pursuit of the scarce resources distributed by government. It is unsurprising, if disappointing and heart-breaking, that their frustration should land on a defenceless group who can be victimised without repercussions.
Government and leaders failed South Africans twice in this sad tale. First, they failed to govern fairly, honestly and effectively, and to thus prevent the violence. Then they failed to condemn, punish and stop the attacks.
The people of South Africa deserve better.