Anti-immigrant attacks – a warning to working class
Xenophobic pogroms reveals capitalism’s barbaric underbelly
The wave of xenophobic pogroms that have swept through the squatter camps adjoining black working townships across Gauteng, South Africa, over the past ten days, has, so far claimed, more than 30 lives and has left over 10,000 people homeless, cowering for shelter in inhumane conditions in police stations, churches and the homes of sympathetic people in the suburbs. Zimbabweans have organized busses to return them to from this hell to the one they fled from: a disaster zone in the throes of economic meltdown and the violence of a Mugabe regime determined to stay in power. Special train services have also been laid on to return the immigrants to Zimbabwe and Mozambique.
The perpetrators have targeted black African immigrants, Zimbabweans, Mozambicans, Somalis, Malawians, Zambians and Nigerians, attacking their victims with pangas (machetes), knives, hammers and firearms in a barbaric outpouring of rage and hatred. In the most horrifying incident of all, a Malawian became the victim of the dreaded necklace method — burning people alive — reminiscent of the excesses of the anti-apartheid struggle used against suspected collaborators with the white minority regime. In over a dozen townships and squatter camps houses, “spaza” shops (survivalist businesses operating from flimsily constructed shelters) have been destroyed. As poor Africans turn upon poor Africans, immigrants have lost all their homes, personal belongings and the little savings they had been able to put away.
The black working class majority does not share the xenophobic sentiments that have fuelled this wave of reaction. Even the minority who resent the presence particularly of their more educated competitors in the lower end of the jobs market would not act upon that resentment. In fact, there is an overwhelming sense of horror and revulsion amongst the working and middle class at these horrific developments. But the reality is that there has been, so far at least, no organized resistance, no counter-demonstrations and no organized defence of the immigrants.
Speed of violence
This is in part due to the shock induced by the suddenness with which the violence has exploded, the speed with which the attacks have spread and the growing evidence of a certain level of organization behind this reaction. But it must be acknowledged that there is present amongst the most downtrodden, desperate and alienated sections of the working class a seething discontent that has found expression in xenophobia. That sentiment, born in conditions of poverty, squalor and degradation, has formed the explosive ingredient that has set the townships ablaze with xenophobic hatred. This is detonated by conscious political opportunists, determined to ruthlessly exploit the possibilities of establishing themselves as warlords, and even from political parties to access the benefits of office, combined with a criminal element out to loot, rob rape and steal.
But the context has been provided by the near complete demobilization of the working class outside of the workplace, especially in the townships, the lowering of consciousness, the sharp ideological turn to the right by the ANC and the moral and political degeneration of the political and economic elite. The organs of struggle, known as ‘locals’, which included township civics, and youth organizations created by Cosatu (Congress of South African Trade Unions) in the struggle against the apartheid regime and the bosses in the 1980s, have long atrophied, with many activists sucked into positions in government, parastatals (i.e. company or agency owned or controlled wholly or partly by the government) and the corporate world. Within ANC branches, genuine working class activists have been elbowed out by careerists, opportunities and place-seekers. Conflicts in ANC structures, in branches, provinces and in the youth league are, these days, settled by disruptive invasions of meetings by factions. At last month’s North West provincial congress of the ANC Youth league conference, urine-filled bottles were hurled and bottoms bared at leaders on the podium at the, and fist fights broke out at the funeral of a corrupt ANC leader in Limpopo. There was even a killing over competition for government tenders in one township.
The government’s reaction has been a masterpiece of ineptitude, confusion and incomprehension about what lies at the root of these events. The Minister of Justice, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqacula, (wife of former SA Communist Party chairperson and current Minister of Safety and Security, Charles Nqacula) reacted first by offering to help all immigrants return to their countries, then within days, promising all immigrants resident in Alexandra that they would be back in their homes before the end of the week, pledging to provide them all, legal or illegal humanitarian assistance.
The Department of Home Affairs, widely regarded as the most incompetent government department, has played an important role, alongside the police, in creating the atmosphere of animosity towards immigrants. A government that has set itself the task to lead the continent towards a so-caleld ‘renaissance’ and an ‘African century’, under the leadership of the philosopher-president Mbeki, has retained on the statute books the 1991 Aliens Control Act. The Post of Zambia (21/05/08) called this “an archaic piece of apartheid legislation, at odds with international human rights norms and the new SA constitution”.
Official indifference and denials
The message communicated to immigrants that they are not welcome has become entrenched, expressing itself in official indifference and denials over systematic attacks against immigrants in the Western Cape last year, and in Pretoria townships, earlier this year. It reveals itself in hostility towards political asylum applications, especially from Zimbabwe, the artificial distinction between political refugees and so-called economic migrants, the lengthy delays in asylum applications and the enactment of legislation empowering police to stop and search any person to establish if they are documented immigrants.
The latter piece of legislation, later repealed, gave rise to the outrageous practice of the police of a black majority government arresting people at random simply because they are dark-skinned and therefore illegal immigrants. Not to be outdone, Afrikaner farmers farming near the Zimbabwean border recently reacted to the increased of Zimbabwean immigration by engaging in the macabre sport of hunting, like wild animals, immigrants evading border controls and jumping the border fence.
While the callous indifference towards the plight of the Zimbabwean masses reflected in Mbeki’s foreign policy has rightly earned him widespread ridicule, it would have reinforced the prejudices and the brutality of the leaders of this xenophobic reaction.
The political mission of the ANC elite – and this applies to both the Mbeki and Zuma factions — has reduced itself to a despicable, obsessive pre-occupation with self-enrichment. The determination, at all costs, to fulfill their ambition of self-enrichment, through so-called black economic empowerment deal-making with big business, penetrated nearly the entire spectrum of service-delivery and every aspect of political and economic life. This has drained away the last remnants of the ANC leadership’s political and moral authority.
Nothing is sacred anymore: from the mushrooming of the funeral undertaking business, as the government’s genocidal Aids policy claims the lives of 1,000 victims a day, to the privately-run Lindelani detention centre for illegal immigrants, from which tens of thousands are deported annually after spending time in a facility notorious for inhumane conditions and police brutality. Lindelani provides a tidy profit for the black economic empowerment firm involved in running it. These include individuals from leading “struggle” families who spent years as honoured guests in the countries dubbed the ‘front-line states’ during the anti-apartheid struggle. These black empowerment beneficiaries now profit from the poor citizens of these neighbouring countries and now the immigrants are ill-treated and deported. The ANC leadership has dishonoured the memory of the tens of thousands who struggled, sacrificed and died for the defeat of apartheid both in South Africa and in the front-line states (many of which were victims of the apartheid regime’s cross border attacks).
While the ANC leadership condemned the recent outburst of xenophobia and issued panic-stricken calls for dissatisfaction with service-delivery to be directed against the government and not fellow Africans, they have also denied that these violent attacks have anything to do with poverty and unemployment. They insist this is an issue of pure criminality or the machinations of “right wing populists” and have even dusted off the old urban legend of a “third force” behind the violent attacks. Like inhabitants of a different universe, ANC structures have been issuing pamphlets outlining the government’s achievements in building houses, and the provision of electricity, water and sanitation to people living in squalor!
Consequences of ANC’s neo-liberal policies
The ANC’s neo-liberal capitalist economic polices have led to 40% unemployment, an enormous gulf between rich and poor, growing indebtedness amongst the working class and, above all, a resentment that while the majority languishes in poverty, a tiny black elite – the so-called ‘black diamonds’ — are revelling in their freedom and becoming rich beyond their widest dreams. They flaunt their wealth and display arrogant aloofness towards the masses, who the new rich believe fail to understand that the tide on which the yachts of the elite has risen will lift the boats of all. The poor masses must just be patient!
It might have been expected that the ANC government would react to the spate of attacks on railway stations by working class commuters frustrated by frequent breakdowns, delays and power outages, by providing a decent public transport system for the townships (where black people were dumped by the apartheid regime) to the industrial centres and cities. Instead, the government is building special train services for the elite; “business express” carriages from Soweto to Johannesburg and Pretoria. Unaffordable to the working class commuters, the elite trains come complete with free copies of business newspapers. The prestigious and phenomenally expensive underground Gautrain links not the townships to the cities, but the suburbs to the airport!
The government has reacted to recent electricity black-outs and the escalating food prices with Marie- Antoinette-like callousness. The Minerals and Energy Minister advised people to go to bed earlier, as this would make them cleverer! The Minister of Finance suggested people could soften the impact of rising food prices by growing vegetables in back gardens! From the deep swamp of mass discontent due to government policies, the reactionary elements leading the xenophobic attacks fished.
But while leadership in this crisis could never have been expected from the ANC leadership, a striking feature of the situation is the apparent incapacity to fill the leadership gap by the organized working class, in particular, Cosatu. The union federation called a demonstration against the anti-immigrant attacks in Johannesburg, but made little attempt to mobilize for the event, and it attracted no more than 300 people! Cosatu issued predictable denunciations of xenophobia and called for “African unity”. As a workers’ organization Cosatu have also fired the obligatory verbal salvoes against the bosses, calling for the poor to direct their anger against the capitalists. There is only muted criticism of the government, whose role and responsibility for this crisis is absolutely pivotal. Cosatu leaders did not mobilize on the basis of concretely exposing the direct and obvious link between the policies of the government and the actions of the big bosses. The South African capitalists have naturally not allowed the opportunity to pass to exploit much cheaper, and, in many cases, more skilled immigrant labour, undermining hard won gains of the working class. In this context, Cosatu’s calls are seen as abstract and meaningless.
Cosatu reluctant to criticize ANC
This contradiction is, of course, rooted in the Cosatu leadership’s determination to remain in the Tripartite Alliance with the SA Communist Party and the ANC. Basking in the glory of the leading role they played in defeating Mbeki in the battle for the ANC presidency at the ANC’s conference in Limpopo, and with their man, Zuma, in the saddle, Cosatu leaders are even more reluctant to whip the hide of the ANC. The effect of this policy is that under its current leadership, Cosatu surrendered its class independence. The union leaders are actively colluding in sowing illusions in some of the ANC proposals to solve this crisis, such as cooperating with Community Policing Forums and the police to identify the ringleaders, so that they can be prosecuted.
It would obviously be absurd to oppose the arrest, prosecution and imprisonment of all persons guilty of robbery, assault, rape and murder. But we should not confuse the roots with the branches. This is a political and socio-economic problem, which criminals have exploited regardless of the degree of organization any investigation may be reveal. It is an opportunity to revitalize the old traditions of struggle solidarity and socialism. Despite the ideological collapse the Cosatu leadership appears to be suffering, the working class remains potentially the most powerful force in society. A militant workers’ movement leadership should be organizing decisive resistance to the ANC governments’ policies and against the anti-immigrant attacks, including counter-demonstrations, organized defence of the immigrants and strike action.
The movement must build on the magnificent demonstration of international working class solidarity demonstrated by the Transport and General Workers Union in refusing to unload the shipload of arms destined for Zimbabwe from China. The union was acting in defiance of the ANC government, which had already issued a permit for the arms to be transported across SA under the pretext of “international obligations.” Maliwian is the spokesperson of the Khutsong community which, for more than two years, maintained the township as a no-go area for the ANC, even under Zuma’s leadership. Apart from the political support South Africans enjoyed in the struggle against apartheid, the mining industry (the bedrock of the economy) was built by the sweat and blood of the workers from all over southern Africa who fought together against exploitation and oppression. In the necessary mass political education campaigns that must be undertaken to revive the traditions of struggle, these historical class issues must be to the fore and linked to today’s struggles. The public sector strike last year was the biggest and longest in SA history. This year was greeted by the first ever national strike by the National Union of Mineworkers on the question of safety.
Xenophobic violence a warning to working class
The last week of reactionary xenophobic violence is a warning that unless the vacuum on the left is filled by a mass workers’ party, with a socialist programme, there will be future attempts to exploit the discontent, particularly of the poorest of the poor, by other forces. With worsening world economic crisis, the objective conditions will provide opportunities for right wing populists, demagogues and criminals to build a social bass, as the Anti-Immigration Party attempted in the last elections.
The xenophobic attacks that claimed the lives of Southern Africans heard shouts of “Return to Limpopo” against SiPedi-speaking South Africans, and shouts of “Kill the Shangaan” – an ethnic affiliation shared between South Africans and Mozambicans. Thus future outbreaks of reaction could take a different form. The tribalist “Xhosa nostra “ and Zulu chauvinist undertones of sections of Mbeki and Zuma’s support bases could take on organizational flesh as the split in the ANC deepens. The attackers are reported to have sung Zuma’s signature anti-apartheid struggle song used during his campaign for the ANC presidency “Awuleth’ mshiniwam” (‘Bring me my machine gun’).
Next Saturday, another demonstration has been called by the Social Movements Indaba, a petty-bourgeois-led ad hoc amalgam of different single-issue organizations and civic-type formations, like the Anti-Privatisation Forum and the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee. As yet, Cosatu has not come on board, although efforts are being to bring them along.
This wave of reaction will pass, for now. But future outbreaks of anti-immigrant and xenophobic attacks are inevitable on the basis of general want and scarcity, as are tribal tensions and conflict. The best way to prepare for the future would be to use the co-operation for the struggle against xenophobia as a platform for the building of a mass workers’ party on a socialist programme.