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South Africa's black and white minstrels

Downtown Joburg, Flickr image by itdpIn South Africa we live near a busy intersection. During the week thousands of cars, trucks, taxis (mini buses) and people-laden bakkies (the local name for utes) scream through on their way to their work destinations. At weekends the ambiance changes completely as an army of vendors, street performers and beggars in wheelchairs descends on this small expanse of asphalt, turning it into a kind of fairground.

There is one group of performers that I have been particularly taken with. These young men dress in white face make-up and baggy trousers reminiscent of the African American Black and White Minstrel acts of mid last century. They have about 120 seconds to catch a driver's attention and elicit a few rands. Soft shoe shuffles or rap are the order of the day. The skill is as remarkable as the cultural and racial ironies of their performance.

This Saturday tableau forms for me a window into the complexity of the fascinating country that is South Africa.

The parallels between my own country and my present adopted one are likewise fascinating. Australia in recent months has continued its angst-ridden debate regarding the arrival of onshore asylum seekers. South Africa, which has around 700,000 registered asylum seekers on its soil, has seen a violent protest against 'foreigners' taking up seasonal work allegedly accepting less money than would normally be paid to nationals.

Australia lately has been arguing the toss for a bill of rights while South Africa, whose history has ensured that rights are never taken for granted, struggles with the difficulties of ensuring access to those rights and values enshrined in what is arguably the most advanced, rights-based national constitution anywhere.

South Africans are enormously and justly proud of their recent history, in overcoming apartheid and introducing a true democratic system of government. The more I see the more I realise the enormity of this achievement.

But the legacy of apartheid remains and manifests itself in huge geographically centred entrenched social disadvantage, the largest income differential anywhere, a 23 per cent official unemployment rate and a lack of basic services such as electricity and water in many isolated communities.

The legacy also manifests itself in the continual battles around corruption and a pervasive, endemic level of violence. High rates of violent crime couple with a mistrust of police and an ambivalent attitude to the rule of law in many sections of the community, born of decades of law enforcement synonymous with political oppression.

The asylum 'issue' lies at the intersection of all these currents. Unlike Australia, people at the borders are given reasonably unfettered access to exercise their legal right to claim asylum. There are no South African funded detention centres in other countries. Asylum seekers, once here, are entitled to freedom of movement, full work rights and access to a full range of government services.

The capacity of the system and the economic and social fabric is put to the test by these policies. Rights are not always realised. Asylum seekers can face exploitation in the work place. They often are denied access to primary health care, as medical personnel see foreigners as unfairly competing with nationals for limited resources.

Asylum seekers face huge hurdles in renewing documentation and can face a hostile police force whose members do not always understand the documentation presented to them. Their children are not always accepted into schools whose resource allocation is based on the population of nationals in the local area.

Moreover it is more likely to be the poor of South Africa, already living under the burdens of poor education, service delivery and chronic unemployment, who are left to host and integrate the new arrivals.

Ironically, asylum seekers in South Africa are more likely to be better educated, have better skills and work prospects and are more likely to end up employed and employers than nationals. This in itself is a huge issue as the direction of resources to such people quickly breeds resentment.

The treatment of asylum seekers thus cannot be divorced from the wider problems of South African society. Again this represents a departure from the Australian experience where the asylum issue tends to be treated alone as if it is a single problem that has nothing to do with the Australian community.

In South Africa groups like Jesuit Refugee Service, mandated to work with displaced people, must 'read' the local context of their projects and respond appropriately.

The xenophobic attacks of 2008 placed countless ex-refugees and asylum seekers firmly back into dependence on charitable and church institutions. It is clear we must learn that this was a failure of groups helping refugees and asylum seekers as well as that of state institutions.

I am told there is neither word nor concept for xenophobia in any South African language. There are many people in this country doing extraordinarily creative work to overcome its problems — it seems no coincidence that Soweto's Orlando West is the only neighbourhood on earth to host two Nobel Peace prize winners.

Australia can learn much from its trans-oceanic 'neighbour' with which it has so much in common. I just trust that it can have the humility to realise this.

David HoldcroftDavid Holdcroft SJ is Country Director of Jesuit Refugee Service South Africa.

Topic tags: David Holdcroft, South Africa, apartheid



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Existing comments

Thanks David. As more comfortable and kindly educated people share their time and resources with the people you write about, so too will the poor lose their chains. The Jesuits are so good at initiating and supporting this Gospel work.

Ray O'Donoghue | 10 December 2009  

Thank you for the article 'South Africa's black and white minstrels' - the clarity of the comparison in the two countries to Asylum Seekers is so informative and helpful. I have a basic sympathy with the Asylum Seekers anyhow, but it is so useful to have this type of analysis to bring to discussions.

Faye Lawrence | 10 December 2009  

Here we go again. Blame it all on apartheid. South Africa enjoys a living standard even for the poorest which is much better than any where else in sub Saharan Africa.Apartheid lasted from 1948 to 1989. The white man (and Indian) has been there since 1652 and 1880. Long before apartheid, South Africa was being civilized when until circa 1900 the rest of the area was still primitive. Blame poverty, limited facilities on population growth as a result of health improvement under the apartheid form of government. Another meddlesome Jesuit!

Bygone | 10 December 2009