The relative value of tourists

Friday, 1 October 1999

When beggars die, no comets are seen. The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.
— Anonymous Rwandan poet

THERE'S nothing like a disaster to make people pull together and show compassion. Let's take this week's bus crash in Mpumalanga. There has been a spontaneous outpouring of goodwill from my fellow South Africans over the tragedy. Here's a typical example from a caller on the Cape Times teleletters hotline:

"A commission of inquiry; a statement by the South African President; a visit by the transport minister; endless debates, now, on bus safety would the same vigour, coverage and sympathy have been shown had these been nationals from, say, Mozambique or Rwanda?"

Probably not.

Every hour, some 400 children die of starvation in the Sudan which is the equivalent of a 747 crashing every hour. Why do we show mild concern about the children, but go into hysterics over any plane crash?

I'm going to answer by saying something very unpleasant which will upset lots of people:

The life of an English tourist is worth more to us than the life of a Rwandan tourist.

Read that again slowly. The operative words here are "to us". My reasoning is very simple. If a child is killed, it's a tragedy. If a sole breadwinner is killed, it's a disaster.

Every morning, 747s from Europe discharge passengers at Johannesburg and Cape Town airports. By my reckoning, with at least one South African, one British Airways, and one Virgin Atlantic flight every day, about 1 000 Britons will have entered this country by the time you read this, this morning. Assuming each of these Britons spends £10 per day, that's at least R3 million per month.

Then consider that £10 would barely cover the cost of one meal for one family at a fast food place, and adjust the figures accordingly.

How many Mozambicans or Rwandans generate that type of money in this country? Let's count those flights. Wait a second. There are no daily flights from Kigali, are there? Come to think of it, are there any flights from Kigali to Johannesburg?

We're a strange bunch, we South Africans. We're hugely xenophobic. We know jack about our neighbours. But we still have the temerity to feign a sense of brotherhood.

Don't believe me? Watch what happens to amakwerekwere when they get onto a train from Johannesburg to Soweto. Look at the treatment meted out to Tich Mataz a hugely popular deejay gets thrown out of the country because he's a Zimbabwean. How many of SABC's staffers hold British passports? Why do we not complain?

Here, take a straw poll among your friends. What's the national currency of Swaziland? And what is the exchange rate with the rand? (The answer is the Emalangeni abbreviated E, and it is pegged to the rand.) Now ask the same questions about the United Kingdom. (You will find the answers on Page 1 of this newspaper every day.)

If 23 Africans on a holiday of a lifetime were wiped out in a luxury bus crash in rural England, it would be headline news in the UK because those sorts of crashes simply do not occur there as often as they do in the Third World.

The front page lead headline in TheTimes of London reporting the incident said "African bus crash kills 23 Britons". If the number of Britons visiting this country drops by one-third as a result of possible fears of safety in public transport, that's R1 million less per month in my rather primitive example discussed earlier. That money would buy 666 jobs at R1500 per month.

The fact that government has acted as swiftly doesn't mean we love Britons more than we love Rwandans or Mozambicans it does mean that government is aware of the importance of such action in allaying fears among would-be tourists.

The death of a Rwandan or Mozambican is no less a tragedy than the death of a Briton. But compassion is an expensive commodity, and only those of us who are fed can afford that particular luxury.

Tourists put food on this nation's tables. When we have enough of them flooding our beaches and national parks and mountains and vineyards, we will have enough jobs to feed our own. Maybe then, we can care about bus crashes because we want to, not because we have to.