The attacks on migrants from sister African countries in South Africa in March and April, which claimed not less than seven lives, and over a thousand people rendered homeless, reflect the deepening crisis of capitalism and how this takes various shapes, including mobilisation along identity lines to divide the ranks of working people of all lands. The fact that such outbursts of xenophobia have become recurrent – with 67 persons killed in similar attacks seven years ago – makes this development even more worrisome and calls for deep reflection on what is to be done by working-class activists.
Several groups and governments have condemned this misguided rage of the dispossessed on the streets of Durban (KwaZulu-Natal) and Johannesburg (Gauteng). In several Nigerian cities, protesters have marched to the South African High Commission and multinational corporations such as DSTV, MTN and Shoprite, demanding an end to the rampage and prosecution of its perpetrators, failing which South African multinationals will be picketed.
Condemning the attacks, the Nigeria Labour Congress pointed out that: “the government of South Africa should be held responsible for the ongoing xenophobic attacks.” The United Front which encompasses revolutionary and radical working-class forces in South Africa reiterated this position when it stated that: “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’.”
It is important that we understand the roots of the xenophobic tendencies that have manifested in the country, the social forces behind them, the position of the South African working class and what is to be done to defeat xenophobia.
The attacks are borne out of the frustration experienced by millions of poor South Africans who live in penury, as well as the lethal identity politics stirred up by sections of the country’s ruling class, who attempt to divert anger away from the local bosses who benefit from the exploitative system of capitalism. South Africa has the eighth highest unemployment rate globally, despite being one of the 20 largest economies in the world. A quarter of those actively seeking jobs are unemployed. Many more have given up all hope of getting jobs. An estimated half of the country’s workforce is unemployed.
With the defeat of apartheid in 1994, there were high hopes that the lot of the South African poor would improve. On the contrary, the situation has worsened with the worldwide economic crisis of capitalism.
With increasing job losses in the formal sector, millions of unemployed eke out a living in the informal economy, where immigrants are predominantly employed as artisans, small shopkeepers and vendors. With one of the highest levels of inequality in the world, a few bosses, white and black (many with ties to the ANC) have become richer while the pauperisation of the poor worsens. Yet these rich and powerful people in government, business and traditional hierarchies blame the ‘foreigners’, who the poor see every day in their communities, as culprits thieves who have stolen their jobs and businesses.
The South African government has issued lacklustre statements condemning the attacks. The police have subsequently arrested 307 persons on charges related to xenophobia, including the destruction and looting of shops owned by “foreigners”, while President Jacob Zuma set up a Ministerial Task Team to “help stabilise the situation” and spread an anti-xenophobic message. But the main resistance against xenophobia has been the mobilisation from below by working-class and radical civil society activists in peoples’ marches against xenophobia.
The South African working class has a rich heritage of struggle forged in the crucible of resistance against apartheid. In that period, a ‘tripartite alliance’ was established between COSATU, the ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP), constituting the driving force of the liberation movement. But the transition from apartheid went along with the ANC’s transition to a neoliberal ideology. The SACP and COSATU have essentially justified the ANC’s anti-poor policies and programmes, despite a few spineless criticisms.
Nevertheless, the post-apartheid polarisation of wealth and poverty has continued to drive the working masses to the barricades. South Africa is the ‘global capital’ of protests. Since 2008 it has witnessed more strikes and demonstrations than any other country. In this context, it was a matter of time before trade unions and socialist activists that genuinely stand for the self-emancipation of the working class broke away from the alliance. This was eventually spearheaded by the largest union in the country, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), in 2013.
The United Front initiated by NUMSA has been the consistent voice against the recent xenophobic rage. Sdumo Dlamini, the COSATU President denied that what happened was xenophobia because it targeted only ‘African foreign nationals’, but the United Front boldly spoke out, as far back as January, when the first signs of this tragedy reared its head, saying: “The United Front is outraged by the recent outbreak of violence in Soweto and elsewhere, especially against other Africans. We must act now before it spreads further. These explosions of xenophobia are not new and will overwhelm us if we do not act decisively.” Activists of the United Front have also been at the fore of organizing counter-demonstrations in April.
Independent anti-xenophobic action from below has included South Africans organizing to defend immigrants in townships and communities such as Katlehong, Makause and Thembelihle But in some neighbourhoods, particularly in Durban, immigrants are equally organizing their own self-defence. There is dire need for joint self-defence committees of both locals and immigrants to fight xenophobia and attacks by lumpen elements high on its intoxication. Beyond fighting the current wave of xenophobia, such unity of working people from all lands is central to the strategy of defeating degenerate capitalism, which is the soil for the growth of xenophobia, racism, ‘tribalism’, and all forms of identity politics that aim at dividing the ranks of the working class.
Capitalism is inherently crisis-ridden. Its logic of development makes a few rich richer and the 99% poorer. It is also irrational, driven by production for profit and not primarily the fulfilment of human needs. Overthrowing this inhumane system and establishing socialism, rooted in solidarity and cooperation, is a necessity that only the working class united in struggle can win. But the bosses will not give up without a fight. Socialist activists in the unions, civil society movement and communities must wage ceaseless ideological and political struggle against them and win over broader circles of the poor masses to the working class worldview for socialism.
This requires organisation and campaigns both nationally and internationally. Never before has the need for building an alternative to the tripartite alliance in South Africa been so urgent. The Conference for Socialism held by NUMSA in mid-April was an important step in building a united campaign of active protest against the ANC government and its economic policies that led to the recent killings.
We should have no illusion that the ANC, COSATU and the SACP, or for that matter the directors of Shoprite, MTN and company, will end xenophobia. The arduous task falls on the shoulders of the fighting working class as the period of intensified struggle that started with the Marikana massacre deepens in South Africa.
Baba Aye is a Nigerian trade union and socialist activist and poet, and National Convener of United Action for Democracy (UAD).
Sola Olorunfemi is a Nigerian journalist and informal economy workers organiser, and currently Chairperson of the Socialist Workers League, Abuja branch.