What have oil and xenophobia got to do with each other? What is the link between the finiteness of oil and South Africans driving Zimbabweans living in South Africa out of their homes? Much of what we are witnessing in real time on our television screens and in our newspapers seems unconnected and yet when we dig into it we find events taking place in one part of the world can lead to profound changes in other parts.
I am reminded of a film I once saw by the great Indian Director Satyajit Ray, called Distant Thunder. The film is set in the rural Indian province of Bengal during the Second World War, and examines the effect of war taking place in other parts of the world and contributing to the Great Famine of 1943 on the villages in that area that killed more than 3 million people. The film shows with masterful skill how traditional village norms break down under the pressure of hunger and starvation.
So how does this relate to current events in South Africa? Over the past 100 or more years we have built a thriving global economy capable of fantastic feats and yet one that is incredible vulnerable. It is vulnerable because of the high level of dependence we have on oil and other cheap sources of energy. Cheap abundant oil has enabled the incredible growth we have seen. And yet it is a finite resource which we are consuming 85 million barrels a day. The issue we are being confronted with at the moment is that oil depletion isn’t a straight line where we can use as much of it as we choose and then all of a sudden it is gone. Global oil production follows a roughly bell shaped curve. Production starts off small, increases until it reaches a maximum point and then begins to decline until reaches zero. This is an observable and empirically verifiable fact and is well documented. There are increasing signs that we may be close to the point of maximum global oil production. What is it that is so significant about this point of maximum production? From this point onward there will be less oil available year on year. In other words we will have to make do with less energy every year until we are able to replace it with alternative energy sources. The problem is that our global economy can’t function in the way in which it does currently with significantly less energy. In order to keep on growing it requires more and more energy. The phenomenal growth we are seeing in India and China is keeping demand high. Over the last three years production has flattened while demand has risen sharply. Prices have reached all time highs and we haven’t yet started the decline in production.
The effects of rapidly rising oil prices have been varied and widespread. Oil permeates almost every sector and every country. What defines our ability to carry on as before is our ability to pay the going price for the oil we are consuming. Oil is embedded in some way into just about everything we take for granted in an industrialised country. We see generalised increases in price as the price of oil rises. The rising price affects the poorest communities first, requiring behavioural change as it moves up the income ladder. People increasingly feel the pressure of higher transport costs as well as generally higher food prices. The question is what do they do under pressure? Around the world we are witnessing protests, riots and other expressions of mass discontent. This week we have seen protests and blockades in Spain, last week there were protests by fishermen in Brussels, and blockades by truck drivers in the UK. In Portugal, truck drivers go on strike; in Belgium, workers protest the rising cost of living; protests are occurring in a number of Indian cities around the high price of fuel as well as increasing transportation costs; and in Indonesia there are protests over the lowering of fuel subsidies. Before that we had food riots in Egypt, Haiti and in other countries, while there have been fuel riots in Nepal and other countries in recent years.
Clearly what we are seeing are people in vulnerable groups whose livelihoods are in some way affected by rising fuel and food costs and who are wanting their voices to be heard. Rising prices puts strains on the poorer groups in society. How they react to it depends on where the pressure is felt and on socio-cultural factors.
In South Africa, we have had constantly rising fuels costs in response to the oil price rises. This has affected transportation costs and put pressure on people’s mobility. Oil pushes up the prices of just about everything and has pushed food prices up too. Rising prices put strains on everyone and create the conditions for social tensions and instability. It seems that our dependence on oil has the ability to expose the cracks and fissures in our society as the price rises. In South Africa we have many fault lines, including the divide between rich and poor, between different races, between different cultural groups, between employed and unemployed and between South Africans and non-South Africans.
The issue of immigrants, refugees, economic migrants is complex. Some people have come here in search of a better life and better prospects for themselves and their children. Some have come from Europe and some from other parts of the world. Many have come here from other countries in Africa including neighbouring countries. There are estimated to be some 3.5 million Zimbabweans who have left their country in search of sanctuary and a better life here. Some have fled political persecution; some have seen their economic prospects disintegrate as the economy has collapsed. There could be up to 5 million or more foreigners from Africa in South Africa.
How are people who have fled to South Africa surviving? Some have found jobs, some have created jobs, some have borrowed, some have begged and some have turned to crime. In a context where poor communities are having their livelihoods squeezed, it is possible that South Africans might believe they are threatened, are being displaced, are losing jobs to others and therefore become resentful. Resentment offers illusionary sweet rewards, as it is then easy to regard others as less worthy than oneself and then to be able to justify doing anything to them, and feel self-righteous about it. It of course carries no reward, only huge cost. It is a quick way of losing our humanity by behaving in appalling ways towards other members of the human race.
Going forward, as we get closer to the peak in global oil production, we are likely to see greater pressures particularly on poorer communities but constantly moving up the income scale. The intensifying pressures are likely to open new fault lines in our society. We will be faced with choices which we will be called out by circumstances to make. While we have little if any control over the price of oil, the thunder in the distance, we do have control over our responses to what it presents us with. The choices will be to come closer together or to be torn further apart, to collaborate or to exacerbate divisions between us, to have compassion or to succumb to separation. Which will it be?