State of xenophobia and the xenophobic state

by Jun 11, 2015All Articles, Xenophobia

A woman washes clothes behind a barbed wire fence at a temporary refugee centre set up in Primrose, Germiston.

Over the last few months, we have witnessed a wave of new programmes directed against people of foreign origin, especially township-based shop owners, in a new wave of xenophobic violence. What we have seen is not dissimilar to the actions of European skinheads and neo-Nazis who rain terror on Africans and other black people living in Europe.  And as with their European counterparts, despite all the protestations of government and business that they condemn xenophobia, in reality both government and business give it support.

Actions of the State support xenophobia 

Since the 1990s, Government departments, parliamentarians, the police, the Lindela detention centre and the very law itself have all been reinforcing a one-way message:  we are being invaded by illegal immigrants who are a threat to national stability, the RDP, development, our social services and the very fabric of our society.

The conception of citizenship and the nation have been reconstructed on a narrow, exclusive and nationalistic basis. A toxic atmosphere has been created, particularly through immigration policies and the enforcement of Fortress South Africa, creating the conditions for xenophobia to take root. State institutions have been centrally involved in the abuse of foreign migrants, from illegal arrests, renditions, torture, racial profiling, destruction of immigration documents and general abuse.

In keeping with this trend, the government today is using the need for action to stop xenophobia to launch a major campaign against what it calls “illegals” – undocumented foreign migrants. It does this whilst at the same time endlessly repeating its opposition to xenophobia.

So it was that at the recent Freedom Day rally President Zuma was condemned xenophobia and in the same breath promised a crackdown on illegals. He committed his government to ensuring that “no persons live in the country illegally or run businesses illegally”. Operation Fiela started the next day.

THE REAL THRUST OF OPERATION FIELA was well captured by Pikkie Greeff in a Daily Maverick article: “If the military deployment was not about targeting foreigners, why deny the detainees the rights afforded to them under the Immigration Act, or their right to access a lawyer while detained? Why does one need to be forced by an angry judge to respect the rights of these detainees if it was never, one’s intention to victimise them? Welcome to the land where moral cowardice defends a leader’s hate speech as ‘misquoted’ only to then turn around and execute, with State machinery, the very mentality that he was spewing – under a false cover of benevolence towards those being targeted. Welcome to the State of Xenophobia, where government support is guaranteed.”

Words of the State support xenophobia

FURTHERMORE STATE OFFICIALS and ministers legitimate xenophobia through their deeply xenophobic statements. Listen to Nomvula Mokonyane, the Minister of Water and Sanitation: “every second outlet (spaza) or even former general dealer shop [is] run by people of Somali or Pakistan origin (sic)…I am not xenophobic, fellow comrades and friends, but this is a recipe for disaster”. Or Small Business Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu: “[f]oreigners need to understand that they are here as a courtesy and our priority is to the people of this country first and foremost…They cannot barricade themselves in and not share their practices with local business owners”. And then, of course, the president when talking about e-tolls: “We can’t think like Africans in Africa. It’s not some national road in Malawi.”

In this they follow the tone set by Sa’s first post-apartheid Minister of Home Affairs Mangosutho Buthelezi, who stated in 1998 that “if we as South Africans are going to compete for scarce resources with millions of aliens who are pouring into South Africa, then we can bid goodbye to our Reconstruction and Development Programme”. Ironically, of course, it was the government itself that abandoned the rdP for Gear and a neoliberal economic development path that has been responsible for mass unemployment and low wages.

In this way state institutions have consistently provided legitimacy for the kind of behaviour we have been seeing. On the one hand they regularly condemn violence against migrants. On the other, they continually appear to legitimise it.

Others follow their example

The killing of Emmanual Josias in Alexandra, Johannesburg shown here in graphic detail sparked outrage. The men responsible have been caught. The trial continues. Credit: James Oatway/Sunday Times

IT IS NOT SURPRISING THEN THAT OTHER nationalists and chauvinists follow suit, as King Zwelithini has done. Speaking in In the presence of both Police Minister Nathi Nhleko and provincial MEC Willies Mchunu, he is quoted as saying: “when foreigners look at them (our lazy people) they will say ‘let us exploit the nation of idiots’. As I speak you will find their unsightly goods hanging all over our shops, they dirty our streets. We cannot even recognise which shop is which, there are foreigners everywhere… I ask our government to fix our own problems, help us find our own solutions. We ask foreign nationals to pack their belongings and go back to their own countries.”

Actions of Business promote xenophobia

BUSINESS PROMOTES AND FUELS xenophobia with employment practices that systematically favour migrants, even undocumented migrants, in efforts to reproduce the cheap labour system that apartheid helped to guarantee. International migrants (especially undocumented migrants) are more vulnerable and less likely to join a union. As is the case internationally, they are more likely to take on precarious work that local people are not willing to do. Several studies report that these workers are forced to “hide” their position and benefits from their fellow South African workers for fear that these may lead to resentment and reprisals.

Research by the Forced Migration Studies Programme highlighted the role of labour brokers in mobilising xenophobia violence in the attack on Zimbabwean farmworkers in De Doorns in November 2009: “the violence was a culmination of long-standing tensions between Zimbabwean and South African labour brokers.” Their study showed that dissatisfied local labour brokers “pressured local leaders and incited local residents to attack and chase Zimbabweans away. Such mobilisation was facilitated by the fact that some contractors are also ward committee members.”

Such studies draw attention to the role played by township based small business groups, connected to the local ward councillors and the police, in driving out their competitors through their mobilisation of disgruntled and alienated communities. The attacks on foreign owned shops are not just the result of spontaneous resentment to “foreigners” but often orchestrated by those who stand to gain materially. In this they are aided and abetted by the state at national, provincial and local level.

Xenophobia is alive amongst the people

A SURVEY CONDUCTED BY the South African Migration Programme (SAMP) after the 2008 outbreak of xenophobic violence found that 25% of South Africans were likely to prevent a migrant from operating a business in their area and 10% of the adult population – equivalent to 3.8 million South Africans – would be prepared to use violent means to rid their neighbourhoods of foreign migrants. SAMP also found that levels of xenophobia were highest amongst self-employed South Africans in the informal economy. Levels are lower amongst both the unemployed and employees in the informal economy. Alarmingly, the SamP survey found that “South Africa exhibits levels of intolerance and hostility to outsiders unlike virtually anything seen in other parts of the world”.

In another study, A Labour perspective on xenophobia in South Africa: A case study of the Metals and Engineering industry in Ekurhuleni, researcher Miriam Di Paola found extensive levels of xenophobic sentiments amongst organised workers.  For example, she recounts a case in 2009, in which “hundreds of employees of Union Carriage and Wagon (UCW) marched
to the company asking for management to retrench foreign workers.” The intervention of the Numsa general secretary was required to stop it.

Yet we have an internationalist past

IT IS DIFFICULT TO UNDERSTAND THE level of hatred for foreigners of African descent, especially when we take into account the situation under apartheid. The bantustan strategy was intended to make all black South Africans “foreigners” in their own country. At the same time the migrant labour system encouraged the migration of workers from Malawi, Mozambique, Lesotho, Botswana and Swaziland. These workers, who worked mainly on the mines, were treated by the apartheid government in the same way as black South African workers. The migrant workers from Southern Africa often joined trade unions, especially the National Union of Mineworkers, and participated in the struggle to overthrow apartheid. This situation explains the role of num and the ANC in ensuring that migrants, particularly from Lesotho, were able to vote in the 1994 elections. In addition num secured permanent residence rights for migrants who had worked in South Africa for at least ten years.

So how do we explain xenophobia?

THE FACT THAT THE END OF APARTHEID is associated with rising unemployment, poverty and inequality is often used to explain the rise of xenophobia. Indeed the statistics are dramatic and well known. But, while there is a correlation between violence and the prevalence of socio-economic deprivation, it is not sufficient to explain the levels of xenophobia in Sa. As the academic Michael Neocosmos, writing on xenophobia, has explained, unemployment, poverty and inequality “can be and ha[ve] historically been the foundation for the whole range of political ideologies from communism to fascism and anything in between.”

And what do we do about it?

WE MUST CONTINUE TO WORK ON developing a better understanding of the roots of xenophobia, but we must be clear in our demand that government and business stop providing a fertile environment for xenophobia to grow amongst the working class and the poor. And we must continue in our work to build a united front that will channel the energy of the dispossessed against our real enemies.

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