Durban: anti-migrant violence

Contradictions laid bare

There are two sides to South Africa’s ‘vibrant emerging market economy’. Peter Manson points to the underlying causes of the xenophobia

As readers will know, a wave of xenophobia has been sweeping South Africa for the last two or three weeks and, as I write, seven people have been killed - three South Africans and four foreign nationals. Thousands of migrants have been displaced, fearing for their lives, in a series of attacks that followed the remarks made by the “king of the Zulu nation”, Goodwill Zwelithini, in March.

His majesty started by railing against those “lazy” South Africans who “do not want to work” - in fact some people “do not want to plough the fields”, would you believe. No wonder foreigners think, “Let us exploit the nation of idiots”. And, of course, those foreigners, who “dirty our streets”, are “everywhere”. According to Zwelithini, they should “pack their belongings and go back to their countries”.

Within a few days the xenophobic attacks had begun in and around Durban in Kwazulu-Natal (previously known as Zululand) and later spread to other urban centres, not least Johannesburg. But, of course, the king’s words had been “misinterpreted” - this great leader, who yearns for “peace” above all else, was apparently referring only to illegal immigrants.1

And there are certainly hundreds of thousands of those among the estimated five million migrants out of a total population of around 50 million. Mass immigration, particularly over the two decades since the ending of apartheid, has been one of the results of an economy that is not only larger, but expanding more rapidly, than those of other countries on the continent. These migrants come mainly from elsewhere in Africa, of course - not only neighbouring countries, such as Zimbabwe and Botswana, but also from as far as Somalia and Ethiopia. In addition there are those from the Indian subcontinent and China.

Many of them end up in the various poverty-stricken townships scattered all across South Africa, where shacks sometimes stretch for as far as the eye can see alongside the box-like houses of the ‘formal settlements’. Three years ago the number of shacks in the country was estimated to be 1.1 million (over 9% of households, probably some five million people), according to research published by the Housing Development Agency. It is generally agreed that the number of shacks has only marginally decreased since the end of apartheid.2

Meanwhile, the Gini coefficient, which measures social inequality, has risen from 6.4% to 6.9% over the last 10 years, making South Africa officially the most unequal country in the world. And the (considerably understated) unemployment figures stand at over 25% - and double that for youth.

In other words, there are two sides to the story of South Africa’s “vibrant emerging market economy”.3 It continues to attract investment, but it goes without saying that this is not directed towards production to satisfy the needs of the masses; rather it thrives on an enormous supply of cheap labour, disciplined by an equally enormous reserve army of unemployed. Nevertheless, the thousands of migrants who continue to pour in are willing to take their chance - anything to escape the hopelessness of life in their country of origin.


Every South African organisation, from the presidency to the trade unions, has expressed dismay at the wave of xenophobia. Jacob Zuma was so alarmed, he cancelled his state visit to Indonesia, so as to focus on the urgent problem in the shape of failing social control. For a start, he “called upon all churches to lead the nation in praying for peace and friendship”,4 before announcing that dedicated courts were to be set up to hold snap trials of those accused of xenophobic violence. Later he decided to call in the army to patrol hot spots in Durban and Johannesburg. Of course, we all know how South African state forces excel in ‘peace-keeping’ - everyone remembers the restraint shown by the police in Marikana, in August 2012, for example.5

For Zuma, “The attacks violate all the values that South Africa embodies.” He added: “No amount of frustration or anger can ever justify the attacks on foreign nationals and the looting of their shops.” After all, many migrants were legal and were helping to “boost the economy” through their hard work and skills. While “South Africa remains a country that welcomes foreign nationals who contribute to the economic growth of the country and the continent”,6 it was true that “lax border controls” were a problem, said Zuma, and he is determined to promote “orderly migration”. But he did at least remind citizens that the struggle against apartheid was facilitated by the help of other countries, who took in and provided facilities for liberation fighters: “We went to those countries without valid papers.”

As well as issuing its own statement, the ruling African National Congress was the first organisation named in the joint declaration put out by what used to be called the tripartite alliance, which consisted of the ANC itself, the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions. But now there is a fourth organisation: the much less weighty South African National Civic Organisation.

Anyway, the four organisations drafted a statement that bore all the hallmarks of the SACP. This too referred to the solidarity of other Africans during the apartheid era: “We will never, for a single moment, forget this support. It is a living evidence of what a united African people can achieve to defeat their common enemy.” Turning to the underlying causes of the xenophobia, the declaration reminded South Africans of the ANC’s pledges: “The alliance and the ANC-led government has made a commitment to eradicate poverty and unemployment, and reduce inequality through radical economic transformation and other programmes.” That “radical economic transformation” will be driven by another platitudinous aim: “Business interests should be subordinated to those of the people, especially the working class and the poor.” Interestingly, however, the statement continued: “In this regard, the free movement of people is very critical to the integration of the region.”7

But in its own reaction, in the form of an article by second deputy general secretary Solly Mapaila, the SACP itself seemed to view this question as something to be implemented in the distant future: “The complete decolonisation of Africa actually requires that one day we must transcend the borders set by the colonial partitioning of our continent …” In the meantime, “it is important to ensure that all immigrants are documented”.

The rest of the article was a combination of militant-sounding phrases and abject reformism. For instance,

Fundamentally, the causes are international. Multilateral institutions must therefore also discuss the social problems created by the dominant world system they are presiding on - that is, capitalism ... Those institutions must themselves become transformed, as is the system they are presiding on - which must ultimately be replaced in a world revolution.8

However, for the time being, what is needed is firm state intervention:

The massive amounts of capital acquired from our economy and which are not being reinvested back, especially in productive activity to create employment, must be unlocked … The government has an important role to play in this … including prescribed asset requirements to ensure and direct investment in productive economic activity.

What about the Economic Freedom Fighters of Julius Malema, which has been aptly described as “black nationalist” by this paper? The important word in that phrase is the first one: black nationalist. In other words, for Malema and the EFF, what matters is black or African unity. So at EFF events, the chant has been, “Down with xenophobia, down!” “Forward, United States of Africa, forward!” At a rally in Alexandra township, Johannesburg, Malema yelled: “These borders are not our borders. These borders are imposed on us by the colonisers.”

But, despite his left-sounding militancy, Malema’s cross-class politics was revealed in the way he attempted to exonerate Goodwill Zwelithini: “I have come here to plead with you. There is no Zulu king telling you to kill people. The king has never said that. He is just speaking against criminals.”


Throughout the South African media, the term overwhelmingly used to describe the current anti-migrant violence is, as readers will no doubt have observed, ‘xenophobia’ - although I have come across the totally inaccurate ‘Afrophobia’ too. It is worth making that point, because, if such incidents were to occur in Britain, I am certain that large sections of the left would come up with a different, and even more inaccurate, label: ie, ‘racism’.

The Socialist Workers Party is the prime culprit here, with its continual levelling of the term against Nigel Farage and the UK Independence Party in particular. In reality Ukip is merely more consistent and more extreme in its nationalistic (or indeed xenophobic) opposition to immigration than the mainstream parties. However, in its tangential comment on the violence, Socialist Worker fell into line, when it quoted one of its own South African comrades: “There is a solution to the problem of xenophobia, poverty, unemployment and extreme inequalities - it is socialism … Workers own no country, workers of the world unite!”9

I say ‘tangential’, because the article in question is a report of the April 16-17 Conference for Socialism hosted by the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), which has been expelled from Cosatu for turning against the ANC and SACP, and calling for the establishment of a new workers’ party. The aim of the conference was: “Begin to contribute to laying a foundation for exploring the possibility of securing the greatest unity of socialist forces in South Africa, for the struggle for a socialist South Africa.”10

It is clear from the phrasing that Numsa is in no rush, but that did not stop the SWP’s co-thinker in South Africa from describing the event as a “historic conference” - even though there were only “around 150 delegates” present. “But there were weaknesses,” the comrade continues. “The most important was the absence of two major players who have been central to the new radicalism in South Africa - Julius Malema’s new Economic Freedom Fighters party and the platinum miners.”

What? The EFF’s absence is a “weakness”? I don’t think so.



1. The relevant extract from his speech can be heard on the website of The Times ofJohannesburg: www.timeslive.co.za/local/2015/04/16/listen-to-exactly-what-king-goodwill-zwelithini-said-about-foreigners. There are English subtitles for those whose Zulu is not so good.

2. www.thehda.co.za/uploads/images/HDA_Infor­mal_settlements_status_South_Africa.pdf.

3. www.southafrica-newyork.net/consulate/why%20invest%20in%20south%20africa.html.

4. Media statement from the presidency, April 18 2015.

5. The official Marikana commission investigating the events leading to the shooting dead of 34 striking miners by Zuma’s police finally handed its report to the president on March 31. He is still sitting on it.

6. Government media statement, April 19 2015.

7. www.cosatu.org.za/show.php?ID=10308.

8. www.politicsweb.co.za/news-and-analysis/xenopobia-govt-must-lay-down-the-law-to-the-exploi.

9. My emphasis, Socialist Worker April 25 2015.

10. www.numsa.org.za/article/reminder-media-invitation-numsa-to-host-conference-for-socialism-from-16-17-april-2015-birchwood-hotel-and-or-tambo-conference-centre.