According to the CIA Factbook,
"South Africa is a middle-income, emerging market with an abundant supply of natural resources; well-developed financial, legal, communications, energy, and transport sectors; a stock exchange that is 17th largest in the world; and modern infrastructure supporting an efficient distribution of goods to major urban centers throughout the region. Growth has been robust since 2004, as South Africa has reaped the benefits of macroeconomic stability and a global commodities boom."
So how does one explain the fact that South Africa has witnessed some barbaric scenes over the past few days with the brutal killing of immigrants, at least 22 according to media reports? Some have been hacked to death, some burned alive. As a result some 6,000 people have fled their ramshackle homes.
The most recent attacks on immigrants began just over a week ago in the township of Alexandra, to the north of Johannesburg, and then spread to the city centre and across the rest of the Gauteng region. Central Johannesburg looked more like a battlefield, as the police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the angry crowds.
The CIA's glowing words are only the initial introduction to the situation in South Africa. The reality is that there is a huge polarisation in the country with immense wealth concentrated in the hands of the few and a large section of the population living in poverty. The latest figures for unemployment show that it stands at around 30%! The population living below the poverty line is 50%. The poorest 10% of the population makes do with only 1.4% of national income, while the top 10% consumes 44.7%, and the Gini index, which measures income disparity stands at 65. Anything over 40 is considered destabilising.
Well, the recent events in South Africa confirm this conclusion. The immense pressure under which a large section of the population has been placed has produced the recent barbarism. The tragedy is that many of those who have fallen victim to this violence are from Zimbabwe. In fact around three million Zimbabweans are believed to be living in South Africa and the influx continues with around 3,000 Zimbabweans crossing into South Africa every day looking for work. These are poor people who have left their country, escaping the terrible poverty that is the result of the Mugabe regime's economic policies.
These people fled to South Africa as it is relatively more developed than Zimbabwe. South Africa's "boom" has attracted immigrants from many parts of Black Africa. The South African government has put military personnel on the border with Zimbabwe in an attempt to stop this sea of impoverished humanity, the thousands of Zimbabweans crossing into the country, but it is an impossible task, such is the desperation of these poor people. On top of the huge number of Zimbabweans there are also 33,000 refugees and asylum seekers from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 20,000 from Somalia, 6,500 from Burundi, and 26,000 from other African countries.
Although South Africa is indeed far more developed than the rest of Black Africa, it has huge social problems of its own. The population of South Africa stands at 49 million, but there is an immigrant population of anything between 3 and 5 million, mostly from Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Nigeria and this piles on the pressure in a country where unemployment is already staggeringly high. It has been calculated that around 7.5 million South Africans have no access to adequate housing. In Johannesburg, a modern city, there are 200,000 shacks where the poorest blacks are forced to live. Many earn as little as $35 a month. On top of this is the scourge of HIV which has seriously affected a huge section of the population, mainly the poorest layers. And crime has become widespread.
In this context the immigrants have become a scapegoat for all the social ills that afflict the country. And as usual, it is the poorest layers that feel most threatened. They cannot see who is to blame for the situation that has emerged since the fall of the apartheid regime. The masses struggled to put an end to apartheid, hoping this would bring real improvements to their living conditions. Instead what they have seen is a small minority layer of the black population climbing up the social ladder, being absorbed into capitalist society, while the overwhelming majority are left at the bottom, struggling to survive in terrible conditions.
In the past they had hope that the end of apartheid would bring real change. Those hopes have been dashed by the leadership of the ANC that has adopted the outlook of the capitalist class. Their economic policies are shaped by the needs of capitalism, not the needs of the masses. The South African government's economic policy is in line with the policies pursued by all capitalist countries, with privatisations, cuts in public spending and so on.
In the midst of all this we see the beginnings of a breakdown in the infrastructure due to lack of investment. Last year South Africa began to experience something that most of Black Africa has lived with for years, a shortage of electricity. The state owned power supplier Eskom has old plants that cannot meet demand, and thus it is forced to apply "load-shedding", i.e. periodic power cuts. Adequate public transport is another problem that remains unsolved.
Thabo Mbeki is a particularly rotten example of the new kind of leader that has emerged. He has gone so far as to back Mugabe openly, ignoring the real drama unfolding in Zimbabwe. However, the ANC leadership and the South African trade unions have been calling on Mbeki to take a stronger line towards Mugabe. What such a line would involve is not clear.
The problem in Zimbabwe is that Mugabe for years applied similar policies to those adopted in South Africa, completely in line with the dictates of imperialism [See Which way out of the Zimbabwean nightmare?]. And the programme of the MDC is also one that is dictated by the needs of capitalism! The leaders of the ANC and the unions are concerned that the crisis in Zimbabwe could spill over into South Africa, and it is already beginning to do so.
South Africa's economy is now coming under strain as the world economy slows down. If the present social conflicts have erupted when the economy has been in a "boom" we can imagine what the scenario will be when South Africa feels the full impact of the world crisis of capitalism. It will be an unimaginable nightmare.
According to some reports the recent attacks were not only directed at immigrants, but some of South Africa's ethnic groups were also starting to feel the pressure. This is an ominous warning to the South African labour movement. So long as poverty and unemployment stalk the land it is only a matter of time before we see more such racist and ethnic attacks.
On May Day the ANC leaders called on people to work together to combat "xenophobia". But this xenophobia is not some inexplicable phenomenon that has erupted from nowhere. The solutions to the problems of the South African poor cannot be found under capitalism. Capitalist economic policies will create even greater levels of poverty than we see today. In some of the poorer areas of the country people are feeling hunger, they have no future and they are desperate.
Either the labour movement shows a way out of the crisis or the poor will look for what seems an easy solution, attacking the "foreigners who take our jobs". South Africa has the potential to feed and clothe all its peoples, to guarantee decent housing and jobs for all. But for that to happen, the resources of the country must be taken out of the hands of a small minority of capitalists, more or less that same clique that in the past imposed the hated apartheid regime on the people.
The South African labour movement has a glorious tradition of class struggle, solidarity and internationalism. Only recently we saw the dockers refuse to unload a Chinese ship laden with arms destined for Zimbabwe. That was the real face of the South African workers, the face of workers who defend their worker brothers and sisters in Zimbabwe.
That little example shows that the South African working class is the only class that can lead the masses in the right direction, towards unity of all the poor, of all the workers across national borders, and against the capitalist class that is the source of these problems.
Last year we saw a wave of strikes in South Africa against the ANC government. Thousands of public sector workers were involved. One of the contentious issues was the sacking of 600 health workers. Workers were demanding a 12% increase in wages but the government was only offering 7.25%. There were big rallies across the country, and even taxi, bus and train drivers supported the strike. President Thabo Mbeki came out against the strikers and the government declared that it was ready to use troops to protect scabs.
That strike showed the strength of the South African labour movement. If the leaders of the South African labour movement wanted to they could mobilise the forces of this movement in the struggle to transform society. If they do not, then the recent barbaric events will be repeated again. Many workers must be asking themselves what can be done.
The present situation is the direct result of the policies adopted by the ANC leadership since the fall of the apartheid regime. The end of apartheid was not enough. What was needed was the bringing to an end of the economic and social system that spawned apartheid, the capitalist system. The masses did not struggle and make big sacrifices to simply allow a minority of blacks to become bourgeois. They struggled for social justice, but the ANC leaders have not delivered.
The task is to build a Marxist tendency embedded within the South African labour movement that can patiently explain all this to the workers and youth. The task is to win back the mass organisations of the South African workers to the cause of the emancipation of the working class. The choice is a stark one. Recent events confirm what we have said many times: the alternative today is literally between Barbarism and Socialism.