At one end of our continent, hundreds of Africans are dying in a vain bid to reach Europe. At the other end, a number have been attacked and some killed in one of the regular outbreaks of xenophobia in our own country. Behind both tragic sets of circumstances is an incontrovertible fact: the migrants are fleeing their homes because those countries are hellholes. To someone escaping from the eastern D.R.C. or Somalia or Sudan, Europe must look like Nirvana, while even xenophobic South Africa is a far more attractive bet.
So I was intrigued, encouraged even, to see a headline in a well-known daily newspaper suggesting that “Jacob Zuma calls for region to take responsibility.” The article quotes the President as saying “We cannot shy away from discussing the reasons that forced migrants to flee to SA. All of us need to handle our citizens with care.”
Checking the text of Zuma’s speech on the Presidency’s website, I also find these words: “We have to address the underlying causes of the violence and tensions, which is the legacy of poverty, unemployment and inequality in our country and our continent and the competition for limited resources.”
Which is to say that if large parts of Africa were not so dire, the citizenry would stay put.
In this regard, the President is quite right. But taking responsibility is not something that’s done in isolation. It has to start at home. And it has to start at the top.
So I look forward to hearing that President Zuma has also accepted responsibility for a number of the problems which beset our society and which are problems of our own making.
Eskom is one such, replete with dodgy coal contracts for scaly chums from India, who also treat military airbases as their personal landing pads. Nkandla is another. Would not a President who takes responsibility admit that too much money had been spent on the project and offer to pay some back?
Education is a problem for South Africa far bigger than the President’s fire pool. But a responsible leader – one who has been in office for seven years already – would surely find it unacceptable that no more than 50% of the people who start out on the road to a Matric Certificate actually complete that journey. And what would a responsible leader have to say about the number of truly dreadful appointments at the top of various government departments and State-Owned Enterprises? To have so many who are either acting or suspended is surely the height of irresponsibility?
But let’s in fact look to our neighbours and consider the question of responsibility along with those “underlying causes of the violence and tensions”, as President Zuma put it.
Why, for example, are there more than three million Zimbabweans living and working in this country – and who knows how many of them are doing so legally? The answer is a simple one – they have fled the murderous regime of Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF henchmen, a regime which has destroyed Zimbabwe’s economy. Yet Mugabe has just been elected Chair of the African Union. That would seem to be encouraging him, patting him on the back, rather than addressing the “underlying causes”. How is support for this ageing despot in any way responsible?
But where I really part company with President Zuma is over his view that “the violence and tensions” are “the legacy of poverty, unemployment and inequality in our country and our continent”.
Sorry, Mr. President but poverty, unemployment and inequality do not exist in isolation. They are themselves only a product of poor – some would say say irresponsible – governance. Nor can you, truthfully, blame apartheid or colonialism entirely for the sorry mess in which tens of millions of Africans live. For example, it was members of your predecessor’s government that failed to heed warnings about Eskom and your own government that has allowed the trade unions to run riot at Medupi. It was Nigeria’s massively corrupt politicians and “Big Men” that siphoned off billions of dollars of oil money, leaving millions of compatriots scrabbling in the dirt – long, long after independence.
No, Mr. President. True responsibility means acknowledging the real causes of Africa’s problems, facing them squarely and then acting appropriately. And you can’t point at the neighbours without first looking at yourself.