where will they all go?

Redi Direko

Redi Direko

I have great admiration for those with a clear and unambiguous position on the treatment of foreign nationals.

There are some who call for their total displacement and for them to be returned home. As unpalatable as it may be for some of us, that I am afraid is a clear and bold position. Proponents of this stance make the valid argument that our government can hardly provide for poor South Africans. So how do you accommodate your guests when your own family is barely surviving?

And then you find bleeding hearts like me - liberals who believe in the universal right to safety and protection, but cannot always give practical answers as to how to make these rights a reality.

There is a serious disjuncture between my convictions and what is possible. If only the world's problems could be solved by a belief in human rights.

The forced removal of foreign nationals from the last remaining safety camp in Klerksoord, Akasia, this week is an example of a system that purports to care, but lacks the means to actuate that. The sight of men and women weeping and desperately trying to hold on to their meagre belongings is enough to maul your emotions. Our response to this kind of human suffering should transcend our political leanings and ideologies. We should be able to commiserate with fellow human beings in their hour of need, regardless of their nationality.

How do you say to a human being who is holding on to a life that has been nothing but an ocean of pain - get up and go, there is no place for you here. Even the most hardened among us would not wish that kind of pain on anyone.

Unlike those who unashamedly demand that foreign nationals go home, I have no feasible suggestions. As much as I shudder at the insistence that our government does not owe them anything, I must concede that forcing foreign nationals home is not a solution.

For all my proclamations on human rights, I do not have the foggiest notion of how to extricate these thousands of desperate families from the wreckages of hardship. The easiest thing would be to blame the government, lament its failure and happily return to our comfortable lives knowing that we aired our views and spoke out against injustice. Haa! Liberalism!

Our government is a signatory to the 1951 convention relating to the status of refugees, which sets out the rights of refugees and asylum seekers. This charming document sets out the standards for their treatment in the countries that receive them. But things always look better on paper.

There is no doubt that in many instances our country's response to displaced people has been abominable.

Conversely, the generosity of many South Africans at that time, cannot be understated. It provided temporary respite, but the problem has not gone away.

I am convinced that the ANC government is genuinely sincere and compassionate to the plight of displaced persons. Throughout this sorry saga, the government has tried to negotiate, cajole and bargain with them, but unfortunately without effective systems to process and accommodate displaced people, all of this sympathy comes to naught.

I suspect that the authorities have their hearts in the right place, but they want to wish this problem away instead of confronting it head-on. Unfortunately, problems do not solve themselves.

The violence with which foreign nationals were driven out of their communities will forever be an indictment on South Africa.

So what is the solution? I simply do not know. I can only repeat the words of a Mozambican man whom I met at a shelter. I asked him: "What are you going to do now?" He said: "I must have hope. Even at my own funeral, I must have hope."

lDireko is a Radio 702 talkshow host.