|an anti-xenophobia rally in Durban, South Africa|
The attacks on migrants from sister African countries in South Africa in March and April, which claimed not less than 7 lives with over a thousand rendered homeless, reflect the deepening crisis of capitalism and how this takes various shapes, including mobilisation along identity lines to divide the ranks of working people of all lands. The fact that such outbursts of xenophobia, has become recurrent with 67 persons killed in similar attacks 7 years ago, makes it even more worrisome and calls for deep reflections on what is to be done by working class activists. Several groups and governments have condemned this misguided rage of the dispossessed on the streets of the KwaZulu Natal and Gauteng, Johannesburg provinces. In several Nigerian cities, protesters have marched to the South African High Commission and multinational corporations such as DSTV, MTN and Shoprite demanding an end to the rampage and prosecution of its perpetrators, failing which South African multinationals will be picketed.
Condemning the attacks, the Nigeria Labour Congress pointed out that: “the Government of South Africa should be held responsible for the ongoing xenophobic attacks.” The United Front which encompasses revolutionary and radical working class forces in South Africa reiterated this position when it stated that: “substantial responsibility for this dangerous trend must be laid at the door of the ANC, and its compulsive habit of blaming its failures on unnamed ‘foreign elements’”.
It is important for us to understand the roots of xenophobic tendencies in the country; the social forces behind it; the position of the South African working class, and; what is to be done to defeat xenophobia.
The attacks are borne out of frustration by millions of poor South Africans who live in penury on one hand and lethal identity politics by sections of the country’s ruling class who attempt to divert anger against the local bosses that benefit from the exploitative system of capitalism. South Africa has the 8th highest unemployment rate globally, despite being one of the 20 largest economies in the world. A quarter of those actively seeking jobs are unemployed. Many more have actually given up all hope of getting jobs. Thus, almost half of the country’s workforce is unemployed. With the defeat of apartheid in 1994, there were high hopes that the lot of the poor would become better. The contrary was the case and the situation has worsened with the worldwide economic crisis of capitalism.
With increasing job losses in the formal sector, millions of unemployed try to eke a living in the informal economy, where immigrants are predominantly employed as artisans, small shopkeepers and vendors. With one of the highest levels of inequality in the world, a few rich including both black (many with ties to the ANC) and white bosses have become richer while the pauperisation of the poor worsens. But, these rich and powerful people in government, as kings and business men/women point at the “foreigners” whom the poor see every day in their communities as the culprits, who have stolen their jobs and businesses.
The South African government has issued lacklustre statements condemning the attacks. The police have subsequently arrested 307 persons on charges related to xenophobia, including the destruction and looting of “foreigners’” shops, while President Jacob Zuma set up a Ministerial Task Team to “help stabilise the situation” and spread an anti-xenophobic message. But the main resistance against xenophobia has been the mobilisation from below by working class and radical civil society activists in Peoples Marches Against Xenophobia.
The South African working class has a rich heritage of struggle forged in the crucible of resistance against apartheid. In this period, a “tripartite alliance” was established between COSATU, ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP), constituting the driving force of the liberation movement. But the transition from apartheid went along with a transition to neoliberal ideology by the ANC. The SACP and COSATU have essentially kept justifying ANC’s anti-poor policies and programmes, despite a few spineless criticisms. But, the post-apartheid polarisation of wealth and poverty has continuously driven the working masses to the barricades time and again, making South Africa the “global capital” of protests. From 2008, it has witnessed more strikes and demonstrations than any other country. In this context, it was a matter of time before trade unions and socialist activists that genuinely stand for the self-emancipation of the working class broke away from the alliance. This was eventually spearheaded by the largest union in the country, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), in 2013.
The United Front initiated by NUMSA has been the consistent voice against the recent xenophobic rage. While Sdumo Dlamini, the COSATU President denied that what happened was xenophobia because it targeted only “African foreign nationals”, the United Front boldly spoke out as way back as January when the first signs of this tragedy reared its head, saying “The United Front is outraged by the recent outbreak of violence in Soweto and elsewhere, especially against other Africans. We must act now before it spreads further. These explosions of xenophobia are not new and will overwhelm us if we do not act decisively.” Activists of the United Front have also been at the fore of the organizing counter-demonstrations in April.
Independent anti-xenophobic action from below has included South Africans organising to defend immigrants in townships and communities such as; Katlehong, Makause and Thembelihle. But in some neighbourhoods, particularly in Durban, immigrants are equally organising their own self-defence. There is dire need for joint self-defence committees of both locals and immigrants to fight xenophobia and attacks by lumpen elements high on its intoxication. Beyond fighting the current wave of xenophobia, such unity of working people from all lands is central to the strategy of defeating degenerate capitalism, which is the soil for the growth of xenophobia, racism, “tribalism”, and all forms of identity politics that aim at dividing the ranks of the working class.
Capitalism is inherently crisis-ridden. Its logic of development makes a few rich richer and the 99% poorer. It is also irrational, driven by production for profit and not primarily the fulfilment of human needs. Overthrowing this inhumane system and establishing socialism; rooted in solidarity and cooperation is a necessity which only the working class united in struggle can win. But the bosses will not give up without a fight. Socialist activists in the unions, civil society movement and communities must wage ceaseless ideological and political struggle against them and win over broader circles of the poor masses to the working class worldview for socialism.
This requires organisation and campaigns within different countries and internationally. Never before has the need for building an alternative to the tripartite alliance in South Africa been so urgent. And in our different countries, we should have no illusion that ANC, COSATU, SACP or the directors of Shoprite, MTN and co will end xenophobia. The arduous task falls on the shoulders of the fighting working class, as the period of intensified struggle which started with the Marikana massacre deepens in South Africa. Amandla! Ngawethu!