Scapegoating foreigners

Cosatu calls for tighter immigration controls in response to township violence. Peter Manson reports

Out for Nigerian blood

Fortunately, it seems nobody has yet been killed in the latest bout of xenophobic attacks to hit South Africa. Foreign-owned shops and the homes of other African nationals have been targeted by mobs looking for scapegoats for mass unemployment, homelessness and poverty.

Despite the (official) 27% unemployment rate, tens of thousands of migrants from other African countries have continued to pour southwards, many of them illegally. Official jobs are, of course, extremely hard to come by, but the size and relative prosperity of cities like Johannesburg and Pretoria act like a magnet for desperate people, who are prepared, for example, to sell goods to passing motorists at traffic lights.

Back in 2008, 62 foreigners were killed in a previous wave of xenophobia, and migrants are highly susceptible to violent attacks, particularly in the townships - the most horrific of which have seen victims clubbed and stabbed repeatedly or even burnt alive. The latest series of incidents were, at least in part, provoked by the comments of the mayor of Johannesburg, Herman Mashaba, in a speech celebrating his first 100 days in the post following his election for the opposition Democratic Alliance in August 2016. He placed the blame for crime firmly on illegal migrants and said they should all get out of “my city”.

On February 24 there was an anti-foreigner march in Pretoria. Makgoka Lekganyane‚ one of the organisers‚ said the marchers were not xenophobic - their main concern was high unemployment. But the problem was, he added, that the government was letting “too many foreigners” into the country. President Jacob Zuma seemed to concur, when he said there would be a crackdown on employers who hired illegal immigrants, because “that pits locals against non-nationals”. There was a massive police presence during the march - stun guns and rubber bullets were fired, and over 100 protestors were arrested.

It goes without saying that every major political organisation has condemned the attacks on foreigners. That includes the rightwing Democratic Alliance itself, which made large gains across South Africa in the 2016 municipal elections that saw Mashaba elected in Johannesburg. But the ruling African National Congress was quick to point the finger at the Johannesburg mayor: “His pompous call in December 2016 for foreigners to leave ‘his city’ - declaring that all foreigners in the province were illegal - in fact preceded this spate of attacks on foreigners.”1

For its part, the South African Communist Party issued a statement on February 26 following the meeting of its central committee last weekend. It was at pains to point out that

The CC condemns attacks against foreign nationals. However, moral condemnation of criminal, xenophobic behaviour by opportunistic elements will not gain traction until we recognise the abject failure of the police in many poor communities to deal effectively with crime, including drug-dealing, whether perpetrated by South Africans or foreign nationals.2

National sectionalism

So for the SACP it was mainly a policing problem. But for the SACP-led Congress of South African Trade Unions, there was a different emphasis. True, its statement began by demanding a clampdown on criminal activity, but, like the mayor of Johannesburg, it was not shy when it came to identifying the criminals:

While we agree that government needs to deal with the underlying issues - in this case it is claimed that non-nationals, in particular Nigerians, deal in drugs and prostitution - these should not be used to justify violence .... Those who deal in drugs and bring prostitution to the communities should be arrested, like those who attack foreigners.3

This singling out of Nigerians in particular - there are several hundred thousand of them living in South Africa - has led to an angry response from Lagos, which has urged the African Union to “intervene urgently”. The president’s office claimed that in the last two years “about 116” Nigerians had been killed in South Africa, while some Nigerian organisations have called for a boycott of South African businesses.

But Cosatu believes the South African government must itself act:

Unfortunately, until recently the South African immigration controls were weak. This and the subsequent economic activities of non-nationals has led to misconceptions and confrontation .... Cosatu applauds the department of home affairs in its endeavours to strengthen its immigration policy and in working to build its capacity to help deal with immigration controls.

And what was Cosatu’s attitude to the xenophobic march in Pretoria?

Citizens must play their role in cleaning up their neighbourhoods in a peaceful and dignified manner. We note the march planned for today, February 24, against employment of non-nationals ahead of natives, the hijacking of buildings, prostitution rings and drug dealing. We call for a calm and peaceful march.4

That came about as near as it was possible to get to expressing open support for the march without actually doing so. But this seems to have escaped the notice of the Morning Star’s James Tweedie, whose report was headlined: “Violence erupts, as xenophobes march in Pretoria.”5 Comrade Tweedie seems to have forgotten that the role of the Star is to give uncritical support to the likes of the SACP and the unions they lead. His dad, Dominic, who runs several pro-SACP email lists, ought to have a word with him.

In contrast to Cosatu’s national sectionalism, the statement from the left-populist Economic Freedom Fighters seemed almost principled:

The EFF notes and vehemently condemns the erupting xenophobic attacks in Attridgeville, Mamelodi and other surrounding areas in Pretoria. The current debacle pertaining to unemployment and inequality is wrongfully placed and blamed on African brothers and sisters, and black people from the developing world. Furthermore, the march against foreign nationals is disingenuous and is a platform for black-on-black violence.6

The statement continues:

The ANC has failed to transform the lives of South Africans. In the midst of attempting to confront economic strongholds against black people, white monopoly capital has been left untouched.

In other words, while the EFF correctly locates the blame for the latest outbursts of xenophobia on mass poverty and the dismal failure of the ANC to “transform the lives” of the majority, it claims that the main problem is “white monopoly capital”, while the solution is black nationalism and African solidarity.

SACP break

In fact, this overlaps considerably with the official ANC policy for a “radical transformation” of South Africa through “black economic empowerment” (BEE). And in this respect the SACP post-central committee statement was accurate and pertinent:

 

Unfortunately, “radical” in these quarters is largely rhetorical and is almost entirely focused on advancing narrow black elite accumulation. This very narrow version of BEE evokes ‘blacks in general, and Africans in particular’, but in effect, it’s about ‘me and mine specifically’ ....

We are told that companies directly controlled by blacks only own 10% of the [Johannesburg Stock Exchange], but what is left unexplained is: if individual blacks owned 80% of the JSE, how would that impact on the triple (and racialised) crises of unemployment, poverty and inequality? The same applies to the constant references to “white monopoly capital” - if it became black monopoly capital, would that change the lives of the majority of South Africans? ....

All of this is designed to position private accumulation by a narrow black elite as “radical transformation” for the benefit of the majority in general.

You may think that, for the SACP, this is overly critical of official policy - after all, the party has played a key role within the ANC-led triple alliance, and its leaders still head major governmental departments. But it now looks certain that the SACP will decide at its July 2017 congress to ditch the alliance - at least in its current form. Instead of continuing to stand under the ANC banner, the SACP will probably decide to contest the 2019 general election under its own name.

That is why the post-CC statement once more highlights “the continued worrying turbulence and factionalism within our ANC-headed movement, which is also clearly impacting upon the performance of government itself”. The SACP claims that over recent months “the general features of this situation have persisted and in some respects intensified”:

In particular, we are seeing growing recklessness and a disdain for collective decision-making and for formal, democratically elected structures. Policy shifts with a radical-sounding air are being announced randomly. Existing and even deeper looming crises in the water sector, or in revenue collection, or in the payment of social grants are left unattended for apparently factional reasons, while ministers performing patriotic service in extremely difficult circumstances become the targets for sustained and factionally-orchestrated undermining.

In this instance the statement is not referring to SACP ministers, such as general secretary Blade Nzimande or his number two, Jeremy Cronin, but to the SACP-backed finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, who for a few days in October 2016 faced fraud charges before they were dropped - part of this “factionally-orchestrated undermining”, according to (not just) the SACP.

You get the idea. The party is now emphasising more and more those features of the ANC administration which in reality have always pertained to a greater or lesser extent. But it is doing so for a reason. It is now looking to “deepen and consolidate the national democratic revolution”7 in ways other than in close alliance with the ANC.

Notes

1. ANC statement, February 24.

2. SACP statement, February 26.

3. Cosatu statement, February 24,

4. Ibid.

5. Morning Star February 25-26.

6. EFF statement, February 24.

7. www.sacp.org.za/main.php?ID=1850.