Youths running
riot in South Africa’s townships with machetes and setting cars and buildings
and people on fire. Is this simply a re-run of Kenya’s ethnic violence five months
ago? Or have the words uttered by Desmond Tutu at the 2006 Steve Biko Memorial
lecture come true: “South Africa has lost its moral direction… resulting in the
rape of children, escalating violent crime, the breakdown of family structures…
rising ethnic and racial division, increased inequality and a declining sense
of social justice.”

It is both,
together with grinding poverty and inept, self-seeking politicians.

The Kenyan bloodshed
was due in large part to “land invasion”; the South African due to the huge
influx of poverty-stricken immigrants, mainly from Zimbabwe fleeing the hunger,
insecurity and unemployment, and from nearby Malawi and Mozambique, two of the
poorest countries in the world. The “foreigners” in both Kenya and South Africa
have taken up what the present occupants consider their space.

In Kenya
the “foreigners” were fellow-Kenyans, yet people from a different “national” or
ethnic group, with distinct customs, language, and shared but also differing
values. Since most national boundaries in Africa
were arbitrarily drawn, the people who happen to have been placed into the same
nations could well be considered “foreigners” to each other in much the same
way as Swedes and Italians are. People, especially outside the cities, identify
with their tribe, or “nation”, rather than with their nation as represented at
the United Nations in New York.
A Kikuyu will think of himself first as a Kikuyu, secondly as a Kenyan; and so
it is throughout Africa. So when a Kalenjin
sees his land “invaded” by a Kikuyu, or vice-versa — even with full government
authorization — he considers this an invasion which warrants retaliation, as a
Swede would if Italy had declared war and invaded.

South Africa is the
economic giant of east, central and southern Africa.
Whereas Kenyans and Ugandans migrate there mainly as professionals, teachers,
doctors, accountants and businessmen, less developed economies such as South
Africa’s neighbours go there in search of work, the same jobs the lowest level
South African blacks are looking for or, in some cases, don’t want to do, nor
want others to do.

Although South
Africa is a power-house, it is only so relative to the surrounding region. The
top fifth earn 62 percent of all the country’s income; the lowest fifth only 3.5
percent. More than 40 percent of the population still lives on or below the
international poverty line of US$1 a day, according to 2005 figures. The
Rainbow Dream has not yet materialized, despite many evident material

According to
journalist William Gumede, in his book Thabo
Mbeki and the battle for the soul of the ANC
, part of the disappointment of
South African blacks can be traced back to ANC’s land reform policies. These
were were based on the 1993 willing-buyer, willing seller principle, the
protection of private property and market-related compensation for
expropriations. The aim was to ensure stability in the rural areas, maintain
the existing white commercial farmers and extend black commercial farming.
Little attention was given to redistribution of land to subsistence farmers or
impoverished communities in the bleak rural areas so they could at least produce
their own food.

The ANC’s land
negotiators were mostly urban-based, and stability and market reassurances were
considered more urgent than restitution to black communities whose land had
been seized by the apartheid government. After more than ten years of democracy,
many of the victims remained in squalid informal settlements and slums, cut off
from the economic mainstream, with no property to put up as collateral for
loans they could use to start small businesses or educate their children.
Worse, almost 5 million black people are blacklisted for defaulting on credit
payments at some time or other, and are thus unable to obtain access to bank
financing. Consequently huge numbers of blacks are excluded from a modern
market economy. Although millions have been connected to water and electricity,
almost as many have been disconnected for non-payment.

Gumede argues
further that no one in government represents the poor and marginalized. Voters
feel they have little or no say in what their public representatives do. Most
MPs seem far removed from the day-to-day problems of their constituents who
have no recourse against individuals who fail to deliver. The same is true in
most of the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. The poor therefore have to organize
their own survival and daily existence as best they can. In South Africa MPs
are effectively appointed
, not elected, and their suitability assessed by the party bosses
not the people in whose interests they are supposed to act.

The poor have two
ways of responding, through peaceful civic movements which fail to capture the
attention of the government and violence, which is repressed violently. It is
only when a ruling party is in danger of being voted out that it becomes more
responsive to voters.

Thabo Mbeki, the
South African president, is a hands-on manager, a deals-maker, a diplomat, a
workaholic, and an intellectual who relates to the business community. He lacks
the populist, common touch of Jacob Zuma, the new ANC leader, who, despite or
perhaps because of his scandalous personal life, relates better to the common
man. He also lacks the charisma of Mandela.

Mbeki is an
adherent of the “Third Way” of running a country, as espoused by Tony Blair and
Germany’s Gerhard Schroeder, which advocates less government, market-related
delivery, a greater distance from the trade unions and close proximity to

Much has been
achieved through the “trickle-down effect”, but it hasn’t happened fast enough
for the people at the bottom of the pile. These are the ones living in the
crime-infested shanties, without water, electricity, health-care and education,
the wealthy suburbs within eyesight. The little they have they must share with
refugees from Zimbabwe,
with whose rogue leader, Robert Mugabe, their own president perhaps should have
been less diplomatic and more forceful. If he had been, there might not have
been Zimbabwean refugees at all.

As in Kenya and much of Africa, the roots of South Africa’s
problems are partially ethnic, but more emphatically economic – and Mbeki and
the ANC should not bear the rap for that. The World Bank structural programmes
in the late 80s and early 90s bankrupted many African countries, which are now
paying creditors millions of dollars each week to service debts run up as a
result of the Cold War, apartheid and failed projects.

The ethnic factor
only features when personal and family survival are at stake. Then unvoiced,
suppressed emotions surface and injustices are often settled in the crudest and
most direct manner available, as if to make a make a point, something that
horrifies outsiders and the average African alike.

Martyn Drakard writes from Kampala, in Uganda.

Martyn Drakard is a retired teacher of languages who lives in Kenya.