Nelson Mandela Foundation

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The rise in xenophobic, nationalistic, Islamophobic and antisemitic politics has become a global concern. Some powerful nations with economic, political and cultural capital have become decidedly illiberal and have retarded gains made in realising the objectives of human rights and dignity for all.

The slow progress toward building an inclusive world order based on the acceptance of an underlying global humanity has shifted markedly and rapidly as a new wave of political leadership has gained traction.

The most vulnerable people, particularly those in Africa and the Middle East, are now at the mercy of ideologically blinded leaders. Furthermore, noticeably more militaristic imperialism across the globe and the rejection of the threat of global warming by some of the most powerful countries pose existential threats to humanity’s future.We have to ask ourselves why this kind of leadership has become so prevalent. Why have so many people turned to divisive actions and why do they bear resonance with so many?

The answers are sweeping and can’t easily be narrowed down to racial hostility, economic deprivation or even “fake news” or “alternative facts”. Instead, numerous issues underlie and foster these conditions.

This shift towards isolation should not be a surprise as we also witness it in South Africa. Historically, colonialism and apartheid were shaped on the perceived gevaar or danger posed by others.

This fear of the “other” has continually broken the pacts that form the basis of our post-apartheid democratic society. On a daily basis, we see a breakdown in relations between people and the deliberate exclusion of others based on factors such as race, income, nationality, gender and sexual orientation.

This exclusion is systemic, coming from both the state and from within communities themselves. So while we are dismayed at international events, we should look at conditions and actions in our own communities.

In Johannesburg, there are concerns over the way two successive political parties and administrations have acted against some of the most marginalised in our society.

In the name of progress, the previous administration dismantled the businesses of many foreigners as part of the aggressively and offensively named Operation Clean Sweep project, wreaking havoc on the lives of a large number of informal traders.

Similarly, Operation Fiela-Reclaim, initially instituted nationally to protect foreign nationals within our borders, quickly became one that targeted some of our most vulnerable, including those very foreign migrants. Months later, a new administration entered and quickly called for the removal of “illegal” immigrants.

We must take care that we do not create false enemies and legitimise underlying prejudices, reinforcing notions of “us” and “them”, even when this is unintentional. By using language such as cleaning”, “sweeping” and “reclaiming”, deliberate exclusion becomes the norm and reinforces colonial divisions.

In Cape Town, residents in Bromwell Street, Woodstock, took their fight against eviction to the courts. Again, those who have disparagingly referred to the residents have used language as a tool. Inequality in the system is used as a justification for relocation. There is no doubt that development and progress must take place; yet, developers and the authorities need to create an inclusive city that works for all, and space for those who are economically and socially vulnerable.

We see the exclusion of those who are “uneducated” on a daily basis. Leaders and the urban elite quickly dismiss the views of, and democratic action by, the poor as the actions of the “uneducated masses”. Language becomes patronising and those who vote in a particular manner, or who protest, are seen as people who “just don’t know better”.

Rather than engaging, we often seek to enforce our own notions and exclude people from the dialogue. We create barriers even within our own communities, for example by excluding and looking down at those without university degrees, regardless of the important and critical contributions they may offer. In transforming the system, we need to realise the contradictions in our actions and work consciously to dismantle them.

Real transformation will not come from self-righteous pontificating, but from both the state and society taking practical steps.

We need to create an opposing movement focusing on human rights, democracy and inclusivity to combat the negative, hostile actions of a growing breed of leader.

In building such a movement for progressive, achievable change, we need to forge real unity.

We must also bear in mind that it is not only “conservative” forces that threaten the undoing of our unity. In convening dialogues on a host of issues across the country, we have also seen the deliberate exclusion of those seen as different or ideologically different, even within seemingly progressive groupings.

Rather than talking to those who could be allies, we highlight differences and seek to exclude.

We should bear in mind Madiba’s words: “In human affairs, no single person, organisation or social formation ever has a final or an absolutely correct position. It is through conversation, debate and critical discussion that we approach positions that may provide workable solutions.”

We live in difficult times. As we build a new type of politics, we must seek to oppose without losing our way, grounding ourselves in the values of real inclusivity and critical discourse.