Opinionista Gushwell Brooks 24 April 2015

#NoToXenophobia: Civil society has found its voice

Now that civil society has sent a clear message that xenophobia is not on, and society, government and everyone else listened, will we see the re-emergence of a robust civil society, one that is not just responsive, but one that might halt the runaway train before it ends in tragedy?

In as much as a Constitution, laws, policy and a sincere desire for the welfare of ordinary folk should inform the leadership at the helm of politics, media and business, the reality is we as ordinary folk need a watchdog to ensure our rights are enforced and protected. Once those in power’s payslips grow to five- and six-figure monthly salaries and they ditch stale filling station pies for salmon and rocket salad for lunch, our leaders seem willing to only serve themselves and those useful to them. They forget about those on the ground – you read about that here every single day.

Civil society was created to plug this hole, organised groups that ensure those in power do their part in realising our guaranteed rights, do not limit these rights, lobby for the establishment and respect of new rights or a combination of all these. Civil society in South Africa has a rich history. Speak to founding secretary general of Cosatu, former minister in the Mandela Cabinet and current chairman of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), Jay Naidoo, and his eyes shine as he speaks of how civil society closed ranks in opposition to Apartheid and saw to its fall. With a new democratically elected government and Madiba at its helm, civil society and everyone else thought the honeymoon would never end. So many who once led these vibrant movements went into government, gave up, lost funding along the way and only a very few still fight the good fight today.

But strong civil society organisations still exist and have made huge inroads in their areas of focus – think of the Aids Law Project (now Section 27) as well as the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and the hard battle they fought and won against the lunacy of former president Thabo Mbeki and his health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang. But as momentous as many of these victories were, civil society seemed to fade into the background, labelled “counter-revolutionary” and “neo-liberal” as it so often came into conflict with a government meant to be progressive with rights, but that seems to be increasingly repressive, particularly in recent times.

Limited funding, working in siloes and being at direct odds as competitors, even rivals at times, has robbed civil society of its strong solidarity and unity it had in the past. But on Thursday, 23 April 2015, civil society regained its lost voice and let the nation hear it say #NoToXenophobia!

With an impressive showing of civil society from across the board including Section 27, Corruption Watch, the Right2Know Campaign, LeadSA and Sonke Gender Justice – to name but a few – civil society came out in their numbers. Throw in the Gauteng African National Congress (ANC) – Gauteng Premiere David Makura addressed the crowd and condemned xenophobia – as well the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and you have political parties with a significant presence in government also sitting around the proverbial table. Anglican Church Archbishop of Cape Town, Thabo Makgoba, flanked by other high ranking clerics such as the Chief Rabbi ensured religious communities were well represented.

The resounding cheers Zwelinzima Vavi received as he addressed the marchers made it clear his current exile from ‘formal structures’ has not left him less of a political heavyweight and his voice added legitimacy to the day. He called those in power to account. “We know who our enemies are!” He spoke of how ordinary, usually poor people, have become vicious competitors. “By getting rid of workers and replacing them with other workers, they turn the poor against the poor!” So in as much as we should condemn xenophobia, so too should we recognise there is a sincere need to deal with poverty and economic inequality.

Due to an unfortunate parking decision on my behalf, my march was a little longer than most, but the entire eight to 10 km hike was well worth it. I reached the tail-end of the march on Claim Street in Hillbrow, just as you pass an establishment of ‘ill-repute’ after the marchers had left their starting point at Pieter Roos Park on the edge of Parktown.

For once the high tide, taxi current that streams down Claim Street was stalled by thousands of men, women and children carrying banners and posters condemning xenophobia. The mood was festive, especially as we passed a group of West Africans playing their traditional percussion instruments and dancing jubilantly. As Claim Street descended downhill, the crowd’s bobbing heads seemed to stretch all the way to the Jo’burg CBD. ‘Miners Shot Down’ documentary director, Rehad Desai, led the Marikana Justice Campaign as they brought intersections to a standstill with their toyi-toying and dancing.

As we walked through Hillbrow, into the CBD, people were hanging from old buildings, through windows – some of which lacked panes and were covered with no more than cardboard – waving the marchers on and giving the marchers their support. One wonders where all the xenophobes are at times like these, especially when two Rastafarians almost got the message with their chants of, “No to xenophobia, and free dagga!”

It is amazing to see a peaceful, significant march for once. Whether it is a strike by trade unions, people protesting for better living conditions or against E-tolls for that matter, the underlying reason for most marches is usually informed by a good cause. Who can completely dismiss workers’ rights to better incomes or a community’s right flushing toilets in Limpopo or the Eastern Cape? But sentiments tend to turn against the protagonists of these causes when these marches are accompanied by incidence of looting, violence and general disorder.

But the People’s March Against Xenophobia was completely free of any such incidents. It was a peaceful march, with a simple positive message, “Stop hating, killing and looting from foreigners and co-exist as South Africa belongs to all who live in it!” Like Apartheid in the late ’70s and throughout the ’80s, civil society had found a common cause. Back then a repressive, racist and exploitative government was the common enemy. Today, whether your focus is on gender rights, the decriminalisation of sex work, the right to education, freedom of expression or quality healthcare, xenophobia touched all spheres of society and everyone within civil society, government, academia and faith based communities could rally around it.

Since Mark Heywood and Zackie Achmat’s loud showdowns with power, almost a decade ago, no issue has had such a resounding response from civil society. Many opportunities for civil society to rally together and let those in power know that they have to account to the people have slipped by. Whether it was the horrific rape, murder and mutilation of Anene Booysen more than two years ago or the Limpopo textbook scandal, power needed to act and those with voices needed to tell them to.

Now that civil society has sent a clear message that xenophobia is in fact not on, and society, government and everyone else listened, will we see the re-emergence of a robust civil society, one that is not just responsive, but one that might halt the runaway train before it ends in tragedy?

We can only but hope so. DM


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