South Africa: Only workers’ unity can overcome xenophobia

UNHCR tents at a refugee camp following episodes of xenophobic violence during 2008, Johannesburg (Wikimedia Commons)

Over the past month, capitalism has once again bared its barbaric underbelly in South Africa in a wave of xenophobic violence. Thirteen have died, so far. Struggling small businesses, foreign national and South African alike, have been destroyed. Many have been displaced.

Full responsibility for this must be laid at the door of the Ramaphosa ANC government that the capitalists bought for R1 billion through campaign donations in the ANC’s internal leadership race. The wave of xenophobia followed a police ‘crack-down’ on ‘crime’ in the Johannesburg inner city, with ANC ministers and national and local ANC leaders jostling for position to appear tough on ‘law and order’.

But the targets of the crack-down were overwhelmingly foreign traders and small business owners from other African countries, Bangladesh and Pakistan, desperately trying to scratch a living. Days before, the police had been extorting these same people for protection money! This provoked a furious response from traders, including throwing stones at police, creating the pretext for further police action. More than 600 were rounded-up in raids for ‘document checks’ whilst traders’ goods were confiscated as punishment.

Having set the scene, by linking criminality to foreign residents and exaggerating the idea that “our” police were under attack by out-of-control “foreign criminals”, xenophobic mobs engaged in waves of looting and violence targeting foreign residents, but especially foreign-owned businesses.

Whilst joining the chorus of condemnation, ANC politicians reinforce the false narrative that foreign nationals steal jobs, are responsible for crime, drugs, strain social services and are illegal. They have followed the lead of the Democratic Alliance’s City of Joburg Mayor, Herman Mashaba, who claimed foreign national make up 80% of the city’s population. The real figure is 26.6%. Whilst serving as Health Minister, Home Affairs’ Aaron Motsoaledi claimed foreign nationals compromise infection control in public hospitals, leading to an illegal instruction that foreign nationals pay or be denied treatment. In a fit of xenophobic hysteria, Deputy Police Minister Bongani Mkongi claimed that “the whole of South Africa could be 80% dominated by foreign nationals and the future president of South Africa could be a foreign national”.

Anti-foreigner legislation

Fulfilling President Ramaphosa’s election promise to end “illegal” trading in townships, Gauteng Premier David Makhura has introduced legislation to ban foreigners from trading in certain sectors. Foreign nationals defending themselves against the violence of corrupt police was used to manufacture outrage across the media with absurd claims that SA’s sovereignty was threatened.

Police raids in the Joburg CBD to confiscate “counterfeit goods” and on businesses employing foreign nationals in Cape Town were deliberately used to stoke xenophobic sentiments. The violent evictions of foreign residents by organised gangs in Alexandra, as well as the looting and burning of their shops has been fueled by the semi-official sanctioning of such acts.

For the ruling political and economic elite, xenophobia serves the useful purpose of divide-and-rule by pitting the poor against the poor. Its purpose is to throw dust into the eyes of the working class, distracting attention from the disaster their capitalist policies have created.

The latest wave of xenophobia, simmering since the first major outbreak in 2008, has bubbled to the surface sporadically in 2010, 2012, 2015 and 2017. The 2008 economic crisis, the worst globally since the 1930s, cost a million jobs. As in most countries worldwide, the SA economy has not recovered. At an anaemic growth rate of below 3% for most of the decade globally, SA’s economy is floundering at below 2%. Two of the three rating agencies have SA on junk.

It is not foreign nationals, who make up only 5% of SA’s population that are taking away jobs or taking the country’s wealth – it is the capitalist class and their political management – the ANC government. Foreign nationals are fleeing from civil war and economic devastation caused by the plundering elites in their countries acting in collusion with SA corporate elites facilitated by the ANC government.

Since 1994, the ANC government has invited foreign multinationals to loot the country. Although only about 2,000 of the 1.2-million businesses in SA are foreign-owned, the top 10% account for 98% of the total annual estimated tax loss of R7.8bn. Through profit shifting they avoid tax by understating their true profits by as much as 80%. According to a 2014 Global Financial Integrity (GFI) report, SA is in twelfth place out of 151 countries plundered by big business through illicit capital flows, losing R147bn a year.

The Finance Ministry’s economic policy proposals will only worsen the disaster – calling for privatisation of State Owned Enterprise’s, mass public sector retrenchments, full-blown austerity with spending cuts of 5%, 6% and 7% from 2020 to 2022. The government plans to create a mere one million jobs over ten years. Even if it succeeds, with 400,000 joining the jobs market annually, this will actually increase unemployment from 10m+ today, to 13.2m. Yet it demands Eskom and the public sector shed 30,000 jobs each and cut wages by 10%. With unemployment already at record levels, the Mineral Council threatens to add to the bloodbath with over 100,000 mining industry job cuts alone when the carbon tax takes effect next year.

Rising food and energy prices, collapsing infrastructure, non-existent service delivery, rampant crime, corruption and violence – these are the flammable ingredients into which the lighted match of the ANC and DA’s semi-official xenophobic utterances was thrown. Xenophobic politicians have provided a cover for formations with different agendas: gangs out to loot; anti-Ramaphosa forces in the ANC’s ongoing factional civil war, as well as outfits using “radical economic transformation” as a pretext for burning trucks, attacking foreign national bus drivers, and taking over construction works at gunpoint.

If these events have proven anything, it is that the ANC government and opposition parties cannot point a way out of the economic impasse facing society. In the 2019 election campaign, fearing the loss of their majority, the ANC joined the DA in the sewer of xenophobia. Driven by the opportunities for self-enrichment through corruption, it is in the interests of the EFF champions of Pan Africanism and open borders to leave Mashaba and the DA in office.

Despite saturation media coverage, the majority of working people oppose xenophobia. It is a minority sentiment on which even smaller numbers are prepared to act. It dominates in a vacuum created by the silence and lack of organised working class action.

The Working Class Summit, Saftu convened in July 2018 can provide a class alternative – the coordination of all sections of the working class of all races and nationalities in a united struggle against their common enemy – the bosses and the capitalist government in SA and the continent.

Implementation of the WCS resolution to launch a mass workers party on a socialist programme is urgent.

Saftu must address the crisis by placing working class unity and socialism centre stage in WCS to:
• Unite foreign nationals and working class communities in townships and inner cities
• Encourage small businesses, South African and foreign owned- to present a united front against bug business and the banks
• Organise the unorganised to stop the exploitation of foreign nationals as cheap labour
• Establish direct links with trade unions across the continent – for socialist internationalism
• Ensure trade union supervision of border control to fight corruption and human rights violations
• Implement the resolution to create a mass workers party on a socialist programme

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