The only time I have heard [Western Cape premier] Ebrahim Rasool speak was at the launch of a book of Sufi philosophy I had helped edit.The launch was in a museum in the Bo-Kaap. Rasool was on his home turf, comfortable amidst his community. He was confident, humane, urbane, knowledgeable and deeply impressive.
The now notorious refugee camp called Soetwater is a few kilometres from where I live. Three thousand people have been living there in bitter cold, increasingly wet tents for two weeks, tortured by uncertainty. They were wrenched from their homes and businesses by violence and terror. Overnight, the patient, painful work of years was plundered, burnt or crumbling behind them. The response of the authorities, and the UN, to their plight has been to insist that they must return to the communities that turned on them so suddenly and brutally. In other words, preserving the illusion of national harmony and tolerance is considered more important than the feelings of those who know more than anyone else that it is, at present, just an illusion.
Many of the refugees, many of them, have fled violence, unimaginable violence, elsewhere in Africa. Some have been running all their lives from killing, torture and rape. They ran to the rainbow nation, to the land where human rights are guaranteed by what those who framed it like to call the world’s most progressive constitution. Increasingly, though, it seems we should just call it a piece of paper.
Last Monday night, at 8 o’clock, buses arrived at Soetwater, at this encampment as dismal as the authorities that created it. In the dark, buses and armed men descended, and started urging people onto the buses. They gave no advance warning. They did not say where they were taking people. They did not force people onto the buses, but their very arrival and presence must have been extraordinarily intimidating. They were acting in the name of the province, and the premier, the man once known as Ebrahim Rasool.
Again, on the Tuesday evening, the same pattern. Large numbers of buses, armed men, destinations uncertain, despite official claims that explanatory pamphlets have been distributed. For people who have escaped state violence elsewhere on the continent, what could be more terrifying? Then the premier’s “social transformation consultant” consultant, one Zelda Holtzman, threatened the refugee leaders with the removal of tents, food and medicine unless they would meet with her individually, and not collectively as they preferred.
There is something about power that seems to corrupt inevitably, and the corruption of the soul is rather more scary than that of the hands that must wave away gifts. How does it happen?
You start out, perhaps, with the best of intentions. Perhaps. But then you must wrench yourself through one bitter compromise after another, make payment in word or in kind to the unscrupulous, ward off or absorb the insistent counsel of sycophants and fellow-travellers, till finally you stand in an office determined, you think, to do good. But you are now surrounded with the machine of bureaucracy. You are no longer a single human being of flesh and blood. The person who began the journey to power no longer exists. You have become a vast and sprawling creature made of officials and databases and the steel of public machinery; and the blood that runs through your veins is dark with the self-interested prejudices of those who elected you. As your time in office flows out, you wither into a creaking husk pulling levers to guide the mighty armoured machine that encases you.
For the middle classes of this city, aside from the many who have gone so very far out of their way to assist, it is quite easy to forget altogether that there is a refugee crisis. But the forces that created that crisis and the meanness of the response to it are the very same thing. They are connected by a fundamental disregard for the full humanity of others. Unchecked, this force can only spread in this nation. In Zimbabwe too, the early signs of tyranny began with the persecution of minorities, the slaughters in Matabeleland. But other Zimbabweans did not think it affected them. It is the old pattern.
In the developing world, it is rarely the case that a country becomes and simply remains a democracy. A more typical history is that after an early experiment with ballots and parties and candidate, people brutalised by the past regain the upper hand, and the tentative democracy is strangled, for years, before another painful resurgence of liberty. Sometimes these oscillations between liberty and tyranny repeat themselves several times. Is democracy eternal, as we like to imagine? We will only know when we can stand at the end of time and look back. In the meantime, the precautionary principle suggests we should assume it is eternal only as long as we are fighting for it on a daily basis.
The cycle of democratic advance and decline will not necessarily be restricted to the developing world. Close study of the laws and edicts deployed in the US and UK over the last several years show an unmistakable and relentless retreat from democratic values so painfully won. Since there are no obvious countervailing forces, there is little reason to doubt that in twenty years time the phrase ‘Western democracies’ will no longer cover those two noisy and belligerent states. Even if the person Barack Obama survives the election of his body, and the signs that he will are not good, he is but one man. What hope there is for his country lies not with him, but with the human wave that may carry him to office.
There is no reason why this pattern of democratic advance and retreat should not repeat itself in South Africa. Indeed, if our country’s people persist in their pursuit of material things while neglecting the warp and woof of society, and the endless but indispensable tedium of engaging with fellow citizens whom one does not much like and with whom finding common ground seems improbable, then democratic retreat is a certainty. Democracy withers behind a large screen tv, or the wheel of a large, locked and sealed vehicle, or long walls barbed with fear; and this country is full of them.
We like to think that our comfort, if we have it, is secured by noble values. But at present this is only true if we are prepared to list exploitation and inequality alongside freedom of speech, the right to vote and habeas corpus.
When refugees we’ve nearly forgotten are intimidated, treated with extraordinary disregard, and mustered at night for travel to unannounced destinations, we should know that there is a part of us that is also being pulled away into the darkness. Unless we respond with the same anguish and fury as those who are being treated as human cargo, we too will be lost.
Hope? That comes when when our voices are speaking louder and stronger, and our legs are moving, and our hands are writing, and our hearts alive and thinking, and we know, finally and certainly, that the madness of xenophobia, and the xenophobia of bureaucracy, affects us no less than than the refugees of all camps, and of Soetwater.