Last month, President Thabo Mbeki was forced to call in the military to help the police restore order in townships across South Africa. A wave of xenophobic violence left 50 dead. Though the mob mostly targeted illegal immigrants from other parts of Africa, it also went after some economically successful South African minorities. It would be a tragedy if the ethnic violence fueled by rising poverty and desperation destroyed South Africa in the same way it has destroyed so many other African countries.
Much of the global media attributed the South African clashes to the deplorable situation in Zimbabwe. The economic collapse of that country resulted in a flight of some 3 million of its most enterprising people to South Africa. Zimbabwe's implosion is in part a result of the massive failure of Mbeki's "quiet diplomacy." Mbeki claims there is "no crisis" in Zimbabwe, a statement for which he has been roundly criticized, and unfortunately, his notion of racial solidarity prevents him from speaking out against the rule of Robert Mugabe.
The situation in Zimbabwe is deteriorating even further thanks to its ZANU-PF government, which is brutalizing known supporters of the MDC opposition. Mugabe hopes that by intimidating the population, he may yet "win" the second round of the presidential election and cling to power.
Some instigators of violence against African immigrants claim that the latter steal jobs that should go to native South Africans. That is a debatable proposition. Over the last decade and half, the ANC government has focused primarily on the redistribution of the existing economic pie, rather than increasing it in size. As the country's population grew to some 50 million, the unemployment rate grew to maybe as much as 40 percent.
Absolute poverty rose as well. According to the South African Institute of Race Relations, "The number of people living on less than $1 per day (the measure of extreme poverty used by the World Bank) in South Africa, increased from 1.89 million in 1996 to 4.2 million in 2005. As a proportion of the population, this represents an increase from 4.5 percent to 8.8 percent of the population."
Lamentably, much of the labor force is unemployable due to deteriorating educational standards, an inappropriately strict labor code, and a misguidedly high minimum wage. The recent electricity shortages that cut the GDP growth rate to its lowest in six years have not helped. All in all, many foreigners have found employment because of their superior skills and readiness to work for lower wages, not because they "stole" jobs from qualified and willing locals.
South Africa's high unemployment rate and the concomitant desperation of millions of fellow citizens is a self-inflicted wound. Similarly, the tensions between native South Africans and illegal immigrants in the townships must be blamed partly on the failure of Mbeki's policy toward Zimbabwe.
But Mbeki's failures could yet result in consequences reaching far beyond the despicable attacks on South Africa's hapless immigrants. Newspaper reports suggest that some of the mob violence was directed against certain black South Africans, especially Shangaans and Venda. Both ethnic groups have traditionally been associated with higher levels of economic success than the rest of South Africa's black population.
History is full of examples of ethnic violence against economically successful groups. The Chinese in Malaysia and the Indians in East Africa are just two of many minorities that suffered repression or worse at the hands of their less wealthy but numerically superior neighbors.
It is, of course, naive to expect that unscrupulous businessmen in the townships will heed calls for decency and refrain from channeling the xenophobia of some of their countrymen into accomplishing their objective of driving out their economic competitors. The sad reality is that as long as South African economic growth remains relatively low, tensions in the country will persist and may even grow.
President Mbeki, who presided over South Africa's slide into a moral and economic morass, is a lame duck. He was replaced by Jacob Zuma as the ANC leader during the ANC's conference at Polokwane a few months ago. Having reduced South Africa's Parliament to a rubber stamp institution, Mbeki now has to watch as Zuma and his followers run the country from the ANC headquarters in the Lithuli House. Mbeki should heed the growing calls for his resignation and bow out. He has no future in politics.