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26 March 2017 20:45 (South Africa)
Opinionista Paddy O’Halloran

Grahamstown’s xenophobic crisis and the politics of ignoring

  • Paddy O’Halloran
    Paddy-o-halloran.jpg
    Paddy O’Halloran

    Paddy O'Halloran is currently a master’s student in Political and International Studies at Rhodes University.  His research interrogates race and space through the politics of social movements.

“People are not hungry because there is no food in the world. There is plenty of it; there is a surplus, in fact. But between those who want to eat and the bursting warehouses stands a tall obstacle indeed: politics.”

This week, social media has been submerged in sympathy for victims of terrorism in France, and in harangues on terrorism inspired by diverse political inclinations. Somewhat less visible are the many critiques of the global response to acts of violence, which privileges European and North American lives over the lives of the rest of the world’s people, who are also targets for violence, sometimes daily.

This is an important time to remember that it is a political decision, not an oversight, that certain people are ignored; that their troubles, suffering, or deaths meet with global disinterest while others are cause for global mourning. It is a political decision that is often rooted in racism, often motivated by imperialism, but whichever way it is taken, it intends and allows for the continuation of exclusionary or violent political acts. The global “war on terror” has been a pertinent example of this political decision during the past few days, but the decision and its consequences can also be local.

A month ago, xenophobic looting targeting mostly Muslim-owned in Grahamstown robbed five hundred people of their livelihoods and homes. Police had been warned weeks in advance that xenophobic violence was possible but had done nothing to prevent it. Although the looting was instigated by taxi drivers mobilising rumours, and a cynical protectionism, some local politicians openly voiced xenophobic sentiment during the first few days of the looting, and some police officers showed indifference to, or even facilitated the looting. The weeks after the looting showed a deepening crisis during which the local authorities made no serious efforts—hardly even a gesture—towards assisting the affected people.

During those weeks, while some three hundred of the affected men were displaced and hungry, living on sporadic donations from private sources, their temporary accommodation constantly tenuous, and receiving no assistance from Makana Municipality, the women who had remained in town were told by the Mayor that she had “forgotten” them. When the women sought to remind her of their existence through a protest at City Hall on 30 October, she did not deign to meet with them .

Some shop owners have opened their businesses again, mostly at shops located in or near Grahamstown’s central business district. Last week, in Extension 9, one shop was looted again, within two days of re-opening. Like the first time, everything, including five fridges, was taken. There have been further, specific threats that open shops will be looted again, on 23 November and 1 December. Once again, there is no response from the police regarding these threats, although they have been informed by the shop owners. As of Wednesday, 18 January, 156 men are still displaced, and they will be forced to find alternative accommodation after Friday. Many cannot afford to open their shops again, or, like one shop in Fitchat Street, have no electricity because the electrical boxes were stolen in the first round of looting. Last week, despite the gravity of the circumstances, despite the fact that community activists with no resources are working to come up with a reintegration plan and to source supplies, the Mayor told the women that she had only “a shoulder to cry on,” and nothing else, to offer them.

Wednesday night, the women and men—men who have returned to town because they have nowhere else to go—began an all-night vigil in front of Makana City Hall to draw attention to the fact that, so far, the municipality has done nothing to ameliorate the crisis, whether practically or politically. They were joined by a few student activists from Rhodes University and by members of the Unemployed People’s Movement. The protesters bore signs with a modest demand: “The Mayor of Makana Municipality must act now to provide decent and healthy food parcels” to those affected by the looting.

In a statement prior to the vigil, they said, “We demand that we must be recognised as human beings by the Municipality and the police.” The first response to the vigil was from the police, who threatened arrest. Later on, a taxi driver drove up close to, and cursed at some of the protesters, revving the vehicle’s engine threateningly, while police officers stood quietly a few meters away.

The events of the past month have revealed that this crisis is of little interest to Grahamstown’s authorities. Disillusioned with the municipality, the affected families have called upon the Premier of the Eastern Cape and (for a second time) upon President Jacob Zuma to, personally, come to Grahamstown, and address them. However, Makana Municipality cannot bear the blame for neglect on its own. Numerous aid programs and organisations have been contacted in regard to this crisis, have made promises, but have yet to provide anything, a month on. Others do not return calls. Others ensconce themselves in the “required paperwork” while people wait for food, and have to worry about their shelter, families, and livelihoods. Media attention, other than the statements made by the people themselves, has been minimal and often poor.

Once more, it is imperative to recall that this is a political decision. The Polish journalist and poet Ryszard Kapuściński writes: “People are not hungry because there is no food in the world. There is plenty of it; there is a surplus, in fact. But between those who want to eat and the bursting warehouses stands a tall obstacle indeed: politics.”

Politics is the only reason the displaced people in Grahamstown have, at times since the looting, gone with one meal a day, or with none. The political decision taken by the authorities, and by others with resources to offer, ignore the crisis that has left several hundred people in an impossible limbo. It seems, as the women stated on Wednesday, “like they are trying to force our husbands to leave this country. Those who have wives and children here cannot leave easily. Some cannot return to their countries of origin due to political pressure. Others do not have money to move to new countries.”

In Grahamstown, as community members and activists who are unemployed township residents, as first the wives of the displaced shop owners, and now the men with them, have demonstrated over the last month, resources are not necessary to working to provide assistance and support, to demanding that this problem should be solved. Only politics is necessary, and a political decision. But it requires a different political decision than has been taken by the municipality and the police: the decision to recognise the affected people as human beings. The unequal responses to this week’s bombings around the world—for France, horror and lamentation, for Kenya and Nigeria, a note—have shown, once again, the ugly politics of racism and imperialism that do not recognise humanity. However, we must identify such politics when they are at work not only globally, but in our local contexts, as well—times when violence and exclusion are authorised through the silence and inaction of those who control resources and political power. DM

  • Paddy O’Halloran
    Paddy-o-halloran.jpg
    Paddy O’Halloran

    Paddy O'Halloran is currently a master’s student in Political and International Studies at Rhodes University.  His research interrogates race and space through the politics of social movements.

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