Caught napping as the country burns

Edward Tsumele

Edward Tsumele

The xenophobic attacks have caught many people, including playwrights, writers, musicians, filmmakers and academics, by surprise.

Artists are regarded as the mirror of society and often the first to feel the heart beat of the nation and catch its mood.

So, have artists failed the nation in reading the mood of the country's poor, who, frustrated by the lack of service delivery, pounced on their neighbours, mainly immigrants.

Could they have played a more important role in preventing, or at least detecting the anger of people from economically depressed areas?

At a meeting last Wednesday, journalists, playwrights, writers, actors, filmmakers and musicians discussed the role of intellectuals in guiding and providing leadership.

First to attack the lack of leadership by intellectuals and artists was playwright Walter Chakela. He criticised writers for having been led into a false sense of comfort since 1994. He said they should never have disbanded their organisations.

Chakela said: "The work that we built before 1994 is going up in smoke. We should not have dismantled the structures that we built because they gave leadership to communities, especially the youth.

"Children born in the 1990s have no recollection of South Africa's relationship with the continent. That is why a large number of them are involved in the current spate of destruction of fellow Africans' lives and property."

He said it was ironic that exactly 50 years after Nigerian author Wole Soyinka wrote Things Fall Apart, 70 years after Sol Plaatje's Muhudi was published and about 30 years since Steve Biko preached the black consciousness philosophy, these terrible events took place.

"We need to understand what is happening. Unfortunately we were caught napping and we now need to catch up to see how we must intervene.

"Artists and intellectuals must think of programmes of intervention and not just condemn those involved in the attacks. We must find ways of getting into the minds of the frustrated communities through works of art and in that way we will be able to come up with a definition of who we are as South Africans in relation to the rest of the African continent."

Filmmaker Seipati Bulane Hopa said: "This current phenomenon is a manifestation of a bigger problem in our communities, which has just found a practical expression through the attacks.

"It is rooted in poor communities' frustration with their socio-economic conditions. The poor are taking their frustrations out on fellow Africans."

Poet and writer Maishe Maponya said: "For me this does not make sense because when South Africans wrote poetry 15 years ago, we were proud to be African. We wrote poetry such as Africa My beginning, Africa My End. This means that South Africans are proud to be African and as writers we need to look into the situation in a cultural way and find out why this is happening.

"We should be careful that whatever we come up with should not be a quick fix. I suggest that we ask the authorities to reconcile the education and communication systems to educate our people about the role of the continent in our liberation.

"The attacks in some cases have taken on a tribalistic course as some South African minorities such as Pedis and Shangaans are also targetted.

Chakela said: "Sadly, even adults are ignorant when it comes to understanding the continent and its people. Recently a well-spoken man who condemned the attacks kept drawing a confusing distinction between South Africa and the rest of the continent. He said South Africa was South Africa and the rest of the countries on the continent was Africa. It is sad that the perception of them and us is held even among the so-called enlightened.

"But the problem is bigger than hatred for foreigners. Any government official who sits on money and then returns it to the treasury is guilty of steadily plunging the country into anarchy. They need to use that money to address the socio-economic issues of the poor."

Chakela said families were also to blame for not educating their children. He painted a disturbing scene of a xenophobic incident in Kya Sands, northern Johannesburg, last Monday where TV images showed children scuttling away when a helicopter hovered above them. They were part of a crowd attacking foreigners.

Chakela asked: "Why were those kids not in school? The parents were not responsible in that case."

Hopa said some of the weaknesses were brought on by democracy.

"Certain issues that came with democracy have somehow displaced the stature of African traditional values and structures.

"For example, the council of elders helped us to function as a society. This, unfortunately, has led us into a certain kind of psychology which does not understand that with rights come responsibility," Hopa said.