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Recent allegations of xenophobic attacks on foreigners have the potential to undermine South Africa's constitutional democracy and the social legacy of the 2010 World Cup. If government does not act swiftly and decisively - after sound diagnostic analysis - this unique moment could potentially be lost, says Dr Udesh Pillay, who heads up the Democracy, Governance and Service Delivery research programme at the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), in the following statement:
The recent World Cup provided South Africa with a unique opportunity to deliver on its development mandate a united and more reconciled nation. The sense of pride and patriotism that the event engendered, and the opportunity that was seemingly maximised for nation-building, constituted a sound platform to address our development challenges in a spirit of goodwill and common intent. President Zuma has affirmed this on numerous occasions.
However, service delivery unrest a day after the event, followed by a wave of alleged xenophobic attacks, have somewhat undermined this impetus. If government does not act swiftly and decisively - after sound diagnostic analysis - this unique moment could potentially be lost.
Equally, challenges around job creation, poverty mitigation, crime and corruption - likely to again prominently feature on the national agenda now that the World Cup is over - will require government to act with resolve and determination. Bold and unambiguous leadership will be required.
While the reasons for the alleged xenophobic attacks are many and complex, they are in essence about a competition over scarce resources like basic services, jobs, livelihoods and houses. If in our townships and informal settlements impoverished and destitute local residents co-exist geographically with foreigners who have access to jobs, services and entrepreneurial opportunities, the potential for violent attacks on foreigners increases.
This is compounded by the fact that South Africans - because of our political history perhaps - often practice a form of exclusionary (rather than super-ordinate) African nationalism. It is often the case that South Africans feel superior to our African counterparts, engendering a process of psychological categorisation along the way.
Whether the alleged attacks are xenophobic in nature, or random criminal incidents, in order to protect our young constitutional democracy and sustain the World Cup momentum, the government needs to put in place immediate strategies for intervention and/or mitigation. At the same time the government should fast-tracks the roll-out of basic services, accelerate job creation, put more effective measures in place to mitigate poverty, upgrades informal settlements and creates livelihood opportunities.
Relative deprivation is at the root of the problem and 15 years later, we have yet to make sufficient inroads in addressing these challenges. For residents who continue at each election to give government a resounding mandate to deliver this must be very frustrating and a source of much anger. Foreigners then become a soft target.