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The rainbow’s lost its hues

The South African Govt should realise that its policies have neither erased the vestiges of discrimination in the country, nor achieved its declared goal of social integration.

india Updated: May 21, 2008 22:22 IST

The outbreak of barbaric attacks and riots in South Africa has left scores of people dead and tens of thousands seeking refuge in shelters. From all accounts, the violence was sparked by xenophobia as local youths targeted foreign nationals in the township of Alexandra, accusing them of monopolising the job market. In the worst incidents, mobs waving machetes, guns and iron bars are reported to have burned some victims alive and looted foreign-owned business establishments. Such mindless violence could lead to a major humanitarian crisis and almost certainly plunge the country into a long and bitter debate about its causes.

Xenophobia, criminal hooliganism, ethnic hatred or tribalism — whatever observers choose to call it, the bloodshed is obviously symptomatic of the simmering ethnic and social tensions in a country that has yet to put its apartheid days firmly behind it. In fact, the graffiti was always on the wall since the end of apartheid in the early 1990s, when migrants from poorer neighbours began to pour into South Africa. The collapse of Zimbabwe forced millions of Zimbabweans to join those who made a beeline for jobs in South Africa’s mines and farms. The government of South African President Thabo Mbeki seems to have turned a Nelson’s Eye to this growing army of alien workers — many of them illegal. No doubt the country did initially benefit from a flow of highly-skilled foreign workers who were ready to take lower-skilled jobs and start entrepreneurial ventures. But this evidently had a hidden cost as the ongoing horrific anti-foreigner violence shows.

The South African government should realise that its policies have neither erased the vestiges of discrimination in the country, nor achieved its declared goal of social integration. Race relations appear to have improved only marginally, while inequality may have actually worsened despite the emergence of a new black middle class. Add to this flawed educational policies that cause skills shortage, and the problems of AIDS and crime, and you have a recipe for disaster. Much more clearly needs to done before South Africa boasts of an integrated society becoming of the tag of ‘Rainbow Nation’ — a metaphor that describes the country's emerging multicultural diversity after the dark days of apartheid.