The recurrence of the barbaric violence against mainly African immigrants in some parts of South Africa over the past week has once again shone the spotlight on the worsening situation which is developing in the country. These reactionary attacks go against the whole grain of the history of the South African workers’ movement which was mainly born out of the need to combat this kind of racist and xenophobic violence and discrimination and to unite all oppressed layers of society under the umbrella of working class solidarity.
These events are in essence a reaction against the whole tradition of the South African labour movement and must be unequivocally condemned by the entire workers’ movement. It is an indicator of the extent of the rot which has set in in society over the last period as a result of the organic crisis of capitalism. At the same time it highlights the crisis within the ANC and the former liberation movement.
The worst affected areas have been around Isipingo, uMlazi and KwaMashu. More than a thousand people were forced to flee their homes during the attacks and many foreign-run small businesses have been looted and at least five people have been killed in Durban. Overall, seven people have been killed. Similar scenes of xenophobia played themselves out in January this year when hundreds of people were forced to flee their businesses and homes in some parts of Soweto. In 2008, horrific scenes played themselves out in eight of South Africa’s nine provinces when many foreigners were also attacked. On that occasion thousands of people were displaced and 60 people were killed. [See 2008 article, South African “xenophobia”: barbarism or socialism!]
The vast majority of working people have reacted with shock and revulsion at the violent scenes playing themselves out in the poor areas of Durban. In the best tradition of the working class, people have spoken out against this barbarism and have taken it upon themselves to provide shelter and refuge to many victims. On Thursday, 16 April thousands took to the streets to march against these attacks and condemn the wanton violence on defenceless immigrants. Similar initiative are planned in Johannesburg.
The most immediate cause of these attacks can be attributed to comments made by the Zulu king, Goodwill Zwelithini three weeks ago when he said ; ‘’We are requesting those who come from outside to please go back to their countries.’’ These words were echoed by President Zuma’s eldest son Edward that ‘’foreigners need to leave the country.’’ Far from being apologetic about his reactionary, backward and racist views, Edward Zuma, the son of the sitting president, has actually defended them:
“These are my personal views and I am sticking to what I said and I will die with it. I am not going to stop telling the truth. The government must stop running away from addressing this issue because these people are expected to go back into their communities and we would have wasted taxpayer’s monies accommodating them at camps.” (City Press, 14/04/2015).
Soon after, foreign small shopkeepers were attacked by reactionary gangs in the southern parts of Durban. Marauding stick wielding mobs then started targeting some African migrants. People were beaten up and their shops looted. On 7 April the city centre of Durban resembled a battlefield as these mobs started burning tyres and clashed with police. Shops belonging to Somalis and Ethiopians were looted in Durban’s West Street.
Scandalously, government and other political leaders have been walking on eggshells around the unelected reactionary feudal monarch, desperately trying not to criticize the king directly for fear of upsetting “cultural sensitivities.” In fact, the national minister of home affairs was in hot water for vaguely referring to the king’s remarks. In an anecdotal way this shows how a nominally “elected” government is beholden to all kinds of private and undemocratic elements in capitalist society.
The African National Congress called the attacks ‘’unpardonable’’ and ‘’barbaric’’ and a ‘’shameful assault on Africa’s humanity’’. An ANC spokesperson pointed out that many South Africans received help from other African countries during the struggle against Apartheid. “You know when we were faced with the situation of fighting apartheid, we received refuge in countries all over Africa and this is not how we advocate for change this early in our liberation.”
The ANC spokesperson is clearly correct to say that many African countries gave refuge to anti-apartheid activists. But we have to ask: what policies have the ANC government pursued ever since the formal fall of Apartheid? For the last two decades the ruling party have completely abandoned all talk of nationalisation and have swept the issue of socialism completely off the table. The government is pursuing openly capitalist policies which have largely contributed to the worsening economic and social conditions.
This position was made very clearly by NUMSA president, Andrew Chirwa, to the NUMSA Conference for Socialism on 16 April. “Comrades, we are here where we are today, our people are frustrated today because of the policy choices of the ANC-led alliance. The ANC-led alliance has failed our people and it must take full responsibility for what is happening in the country today,” he said. He also said that in the last analysis this is a problem created by capitalism and warned that it is not a police problem, but a political problem. Subsequently NUMSA and expelled COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi have called on all trade unions, including COSATU unions, to participate in a march against xenophobia on 22 April.
The NUMSA-initiated United Front correctly blamed the leadership of the ruling party for flirting with these reactionary and backward ideas over the last period:
“The fact that shops of foreign nationals in particular are targeted speaks to the entrenchment of chauvinistic, tribal and xenophobic attitudes under the country’s leadership in recent years. 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’. If the ANC is concerned about the damage being done to South Africa by foreign elements, it need look no further than the owners of the multi-national corporations its policies they serve, and the wholesale profiteering and looting in which they are engaged.’”
In fact, the more the leaders of the ruling party degenerated politically over the last period and the more their authority diminished in the eyes of the masses, the more some have started to fan the flames of xenophobia, racism and leaned on the most backward layers of society.
The secretary-general of the ANC, Gwede Mantashe, has been involved in stirring the pot of xenophobia extensively over the last period. For instance, during the 5-month long platinum wage strike in 2014, Mantashe infamously and bizarrely blamed the strike as being controlled by “white foreigners” who would want to “destabilize” the country.
In January this year, a government commission led by small business development minister, Lindiwe Zulu, actually came out with the idiotic and xenophobic recommendation of asking foreign shop-owners to “share their trade secrets” with local small business owners. She added that “foreigners need to understand that they are here as a courtesy of and our priority is to the people of this country first and foremost.”
This is part of a creeping tendency in sections of the ANC leadership of turning political differences into “ethnic” differences. This is a problem which some inside the ANC have recognized. For example, in 2012, the leadership of the Mopani region in Limpopo drafted a document called “Tribalism” which urged the leadership to “win the war against tribalism” in the ANC. The document says that tribalism is mostly practised during the deployment of cadres in government and political discussion forums.
The right-wing COSATU president, Sdumo Dlamini said he would not call the attacks xenophobia. “If we say xenophobia, then it should be every foreigner, whether from Europe or Africa, should be a victim,” he said. ‘’This is targeting of Africans, this is targeting the shops of these African foreign nationals.”
For a president of a trade union federation like COSATU, he clearly shows an extremely low understanding of politics. Instead of discussing the real issues behind these events Mr Dlamini discusses semantics. The majority of African who have migrated to South Africa are political and economic refugees who are fleeing from extreme living conditions of poverty and/or oppression. For the majority of the backward elements which are participating in these attacks, other Africans are seen as direct competition for scarce jobs. In other words, this is not a nationalist question but a class question.
These xenophobic attacks are the direct product of the criminal capitalist policies imposed on society by the government and the capitalists. In a country with immense wealth, many people live in appalling conditions. Unemployment, poverty, homelessness and racism forms a crushing weight on the shoulders of most working people. The gap between rich and poor is higher than it was in the dark days of Apartheid - and it is widening by the day. For the majority of people, life has been reduced to a daily battle for survival.
Large sections of the population live under desperate circumstances which are worsening by the day. On the other hand a tiny minority, which owns and controls the immense wealth of the country are driving down the living standards even further because of the crisis of capitalism. Capitalists like the Oppenheimers and the Ruperts own more wealth than half of the population put together. More than 12 million people go to bed hungry every night according to figures from the University of Cape Town’s Food Security Unit Network . This figure corresponds with figures from the Department of Agriculture, Forestries and Fisheries which says that 12 million people are “food insecure”. This is happening in a country with some of the most modern agricultural techniques which produces enormous quantities of surplus food annually.
In the past, people had hoped that the end of Apartheid would bring deep and meaningful change to their lives. However, all of those dreams have been crushed by the exploitative system of capitalism which is no longer capable of giving even the most basic concessions to the people. In fact, many of the gains which were won through sacrifices are being taken away on a daily basis.
Under these conditions of attacks on living standards, enormous anger and frustration has been generated within the working class and poor communities which has expressed itself in very militant strikes and protests.
But while this has been happening, it is clear that some sections of society have not found an outlet for their anger and frustration. These are mainly small shopkeepers, some lumpen elements and dispossessed and disgruntled youth who have lost all hope in the future. After decades of deepening poverty, unemployment and worsening conditions, driven by desperation and anger, and with no prospect of any improvements, these layers can fall under the influence of reactionaries. The comments made by the Zulu king (who normally would not have much influence) can find an echo because he provides a cheap “solution” to these layers in the form driving away these African migrants.
South Africa has an immigrant population of about 5 million people. Almost all of the people who have fallen victim to these barbaric attacks are African migrants mainly from Somalia, Ethiopia Malawi and Zimbabwe. These are people who have fled to South Africa because of the appalling economic and political conditions in their own countries afflicted by wars and poverty and who wanted to escape to a relatively more developed country. The conditions to which these people are subjected to are caused by the worsening crisis of capitalism. A Mozambican worker summed up the situation well:
“I chose South Africa because the living conditions are better than any other country. I believed in the rainbow nation and the peace created since the apartheid system failed. It’s a shock for me that it’s not the democratic country that I thought. I’m disappointed that an African brother could do this. It’s a lack of love in their hearts.”
Another migrant told The Guardian of the horror which he faced:
“A group of people shouted at me: ‘There’s one of them. Catch him and torture him.’ Some of them were people I’ve known many years. But I believe the Lord looked after me: I ran to the mall and phoned the police. Later the attackers went from home to home and there was great destruction. I couldn’t sleep. At 1am I heard neighbours being tortured, screaming and running for their lives.”
The poorest layers of South African society attacks people who are equally poor while the rich and powerful who are responsible for the mess are hardly affected by all of this.
Fragmentation of the Liberation Movement
The root causes of this barbaric violence lies in the deep crisis of capitalism. A certain layer of the leadership of the ANC live lives which are completely different and disconnected to the majority of the people. These are the likes of Ramaphosa and Sexwhale who have been completely co-opted by the capitalists and have become bourgeois themselves. Under them there is a whole layer of party officials and bureaucrats who see political office as a means of personal enrichment through tender rigging and corruption. These people have nothing in common with the ranks who generally regard them with contempt.
On the other hand, over the last two decades since the formal overthrow of Apartheid, there has been a sharp radicalisation within South African society which has mainly manifested itself in a sharp shift to the left. The number of strikes by workers and protests by communities has skyrocketed to unheard-of levels. This has had a huge effect on the ruling ANC-led alliance and in fact on the entire landscape of South African society.
A radical mood developed in the youth wing of the ANC with the important call for “economic freedom in our lifetime” and the call for nationalisation. This process eventually led to the founding of the Economic Freedom Fighters. Similar processes played themselves out to the left of the ANC with the metalworkers’ union NUMSA breaking political ties with the ANC and setting up the United Front and a Movement for Socialism.
As the crisis of the ANC and the Tripartite Alliance is getting deeper, the ruling elite is increasingly resting on racism, nationalism and tribalism to defend its position.
For working class unity!
The events of the past few weeks must be a warning to the whole workers’ movement. The barbarism which was seen in Durban has nothing in common with the revolutionary traditions of the South African working class. In fact, it goes against everything that the workers have fought for over many decades. This violence risks damaging the unity of the working class.
For now these attacks have mainly focused on “easy” targets such as poor Somalis, Zimbabweans and Malawians. However, as the crisis of the system intensifies, the same elements could be used against the core of the working class. On Thursday one of these reactionary mobs actually threatened to attack the mass demonstration against xenophobia in Durban. But the march was much bigger than the reactionaries and would have crushed them if the police hadn’t chased them away.
This graphically confirms that the balance of forces is heavily in favour of the working class. The state and the bosses know this and will be very careful to prevent a direct clash with the workers. But precisely because the balance of forces is so much in favour of the working class and the bosses can see the difficulties they face in future battles with the workers, that they might want to co-opt some of these elements in order to use them in attacks in the future.
It is therefore necessary for every worker and all trade unionists to take a clear stand against this and condemn these barbaric attacks. In 2008 it was trade union and working class activists which put an end to the violence. This time it must be the same. However, it is not enough to merely march against these reactionary developments. The unions need to raise the demand of organising community defence committees of workers and youth of all nationalities and coordinating them with the aim of crushing this reactionary development completely so that it never returns.
As we can see, capitalism is staggering from one crisis to another with appalling human cost to the majority of people. The system is in an impasse which manifests itself various ways. But it is also necessary to keep a sense of proportion. The general trend in South African politics is to the left, not the right. What we are seeing are reactionary outbursts of disgruntled and dissatisfied elements in society who have been discarded and who have temporarily found a way of expressing their rage.
But they will not remain on the scene. Eventually, the state machinery will clear them from the streets, being very careful, however, not to crush them completely. The only way to defeat these elements is to take mass initiatives to clamp down on this reactionary development and make sure it never raises its ugly head again. In the end it is only the fight for the overthrow of this monstrous capitalist system which can solve the questions of poverty and misery and the reactionary tendencies they spawn. As has been pointed out sharply by these events, the choice facing the South African masses is a choice between socialism and barbarism.