Lessons from a beleaguered continent

People cannot be left indefinitely to fester in unbearable living conditions, stripped of any hope

I used to live not far from one of Africa's nastiest slums, or "informal settlements", as we are told to call them. A guided tour of Kibera, conducted under the watchful eye of a well-muscled local football player, later became a trendy rite of passage for a certain type of well-meaning foreign visitor. But when I was based in Nairobi, no sane middle-class person - black or white - would dream of venturing there without good reason. No one enjoys seeing bare-bottomed toddlers dabbling in drain water. Walking past the corrugated-iron shacks, packed as tight as battery chickens, felt like a violation of privacy. The looks were not always friendly. And then there was the smell. A melange of human sewage, rotting vegetables, chicken droppings and charcoal smoke, it curled one's nostrils and clung to one's shoes for days.

It was so much easier to forget the place. And that was exactly what happened. Despite stretching across a wide valley in central Nairobi, the slum somehow became invisible, not just for me, but for the politicians who had it in their power to tackle living conditions there. So many people were genuinely astonished when Kibera, and Kenya's other slums, exploded following December's rigged elections, as residents looted, killed and raped neighbours from politically opposed ethnic groups. How could this be happening? Well, honestly, how could it not? Why, in fact, had it taken so long?

It seems the Kenyans weren't the only ones prone to this form of psychosomatic blindness. What is most astonishing about the recent xenophobic violence in South Africa, which has left scores dead, forced an army call-out and sent tens of thousands of terrified Zimbabweans, Mozambicans, Malawians and Somalis either fleeing the townships or heading for home, is the general astonishment it has caused.

Amid a wave of nationwide breast-beating, all sorts of explanations are being tried on for size. Attempting to revive an old, very dead bogeyman, the head of the National Intelligence Agency blamed a sinister "third hand": supporters of the former apartheid regime, supposedly bent on disrupting forthcoming elections. Others point the finger at the Inkatha Freedom Party, whose hostels were at the heart of the initial explosion in Alexandra. South Africa's Zulus, buoyed by the prospect of Jacob Zuma's election as president, are said to be flexing their muscles.

Intellectuals, for their part, have been coming up with painfully convoluted narratives, which conveniently lay responsibility at the feet of the country's original colonisers and former racist regime. According to this theory, explained Aubrey Matshiqi in his column for Business Day, xenophobia began only when the colonisers drew borders across a map. It is an outward expression of the self-contempt taught by the white man: "Blacks have internalised racist conceptions of blackness and the black foreigner is, therefore, the mirror image of the self they hate."

The verbal froth can't hide one simple truth: 14 years after apartheid's end, millions of South Africans have little to show for their liberation. Just as in Kenya, where a smug political and business elite - so often one and the same in Africa - patted itself on the back for 6 per cent growth even as the killing began, South Africa's record growth rates have changed nothing for a swath of the population. Unemployment rates in the townships stand at 40 per cent.

"There are young people out there who just have no hope," acknowledged the finance min ister, Trevor Manuel, on 23 May. "Mines are no longer employing you, farms are no longer employing you . . . You are there, there are many others like you, you know that you are much poorer and you try to link that fault to someone else."

Poverty rates of this severity are dangerous enough, but widespread public awareness of deprivation is what makes them combustible. In South Africa, just as in Kenya, the pill has not been sweetened for society's losers by the conspicuous spending of a brash black nouveau riche, whose shopping habits make your average Nigerian drug lord look restrained. Ten per cent of the population, a recent survey showed, earns more than 50 per cent of the national income.

The scapegoating of foreigners deemed to have stolen local jobs and jumped the queue for affordable housing should also come as no surprise. The attacks have been rising in frequency for years. In any put-upon community, whether prison camp or airport queue, it is always easier to blame the man next to you, that chap with the funny accent, than to take on a faceless bureaucracy. The results are so much more immediate.

African governments need to remember that while they may swiftly forget the promises they made on election day, their voters do not. People cannot be left indefinitely to fester in unbearable living conditions, stripped of any hope. Let the historians, sociologists and journalists speculate about the precise triggers for the inevitable uprising. The larger causes are no great mystery.

This article first appeared in the 02 June 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Bobby and Barack