South Africa: Joint struggle needed to undermine xenophobia

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As the World Cup comes to an end the ruling ANC elite are crowing about one of the most successful World Cups. Attendance figures are the third highest after the World Cups held in the US in 1994 and Germany in 2006.

The transport system worked well and, in the words of FIFA official Valcke, there were no threats to the event, not even the weather, which, with one or two exceptions, held well for a winter competition. Government leaders and political commentators are beside themselves with euphoria especially about the inter-racial patriotism that developed behind the South African team Bafana Bafana.

Yet just how superficial and ephemeral the inter-racial and pan-African unity of the World Cup is, is shown by the increasing fears of another deadly xenophobic outbreak here as happened in 2008 when 62 people were killed.

Despite all the hype about the lasting developmental and inter-racial and pan-Africanist legacy the World Cup would leave, it is clear that the World Cup has failed to resolve any of the deep social problems of capitalist South Africa, the most unequal society on earth.

While most South Africans identified especially with Ghana and wept collectively at the injustice of the exit of the heroic Ghana team at the hand of Uruguyan striker Suarez, the dire poverty that plagues the poorest of the poor places them into competition and collision with the destitute from the war-ravaged and economically devastated African continent. These conditions mean that the seeds are being sown for a new xenophobic conflict.

While most black South Africans live in poverty, the standard of living is even worse for workers and poor farmers from the rest of Africa. Many people have entered South Africa as economic refugees from the likes of Zimbabwe. The World Cup had put a lid of sorts on tensions between locals and the migrant workers but there is a question as to how long this will last.

African immigrant workers are reporting that they have been told that after the World Cup final, they will be turned on. Some Somalian small traders have already had their shops robbed and suffered threats of violence. There have also been isolated attacks on workers.

The attack on 26-year old Zimbabwean, Reason Wandi, has been widely reported. He was thrown off a moving train in Cape Town by a group of about ten people who called him a ‘makwerekwere ‘ (derogatory term for foreigners) and told to go home and stop stealing jobs. The railway authorities claimed he fell off a train and the police have done little to help him.

Tygerberg Hospital reported that six people were admitted last week who they believed were victims of xenophobic attacks. While on the N1 highway just outside Cape Town, dozens of Zimbabweans are to be found with all their belongings trying to hitch a ride to Johannesburg and then onto Zimbabwe and safety.

Forty-five well-meaning Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) have met with the Western Cape Provincial Government seeking action to stop a repeat of the 2008 xenophobic attacks in the weeks after the World Cup. Some of these NGOs have correctly pointed that many neighbouring black African countries were safe havens for South African political activists during the apartheid era.

They plead for the spontaneous pan-African consciousness that developed here behind the Ghana team and argue that this attitude should be expanded to include other African workers now living here.

However these arguments don’t have much impact in the teeming shanty towns around the big cities of South Africa. Here, 17 years after the fall of apartheid, locals deal with horrific poverty, mass unemployment, and a dearth of basic services. They see migrant workers arriving from elsewhere in Africa as threats to the little they do have.

The migrants are mainly young, fit, aspirational, and very keen to find any work they can. They are not organised into local trade unions, community organisations or political parties.

White employers often prefer to employ them on lower than average wages and on a casual and non-unionised basis. This, in turn, has driven down wages in some sectors and created the conditions for a rise in xenophobia.

Calling for unity in the abstract is not enough. In this sense the situation has shades of the refugee debate in Australia, where the Socialist Party believes the slogan “Refugees are Welcome, Racists are Not” is all well and good but not enough to win over many workers.

What the Socialist Party’s sister party here, the Democratic Socialist Movement, says is that the trade unions and community organisations need to launch joint campaigns for jobs, better services and for the unionisation of migrant workers. Democratically-organised resident bodies also need to be established to defend all people from violence either from xenophobia, criminal elements, or police harassment.

Only through joint struggle for better conditions for all can xenophobic ideas be undermined – well meaning slogans and appeals are not enough.

At a rally I attended in Rustenburg last week, a Mozambicsan worker addressed fellow workers highlighting the need for international solidarity between workers. When the Rustenburg miners first went on strike, the local community rallied behind foreign nationals providing them with shelter after they were dismissed. The joint struggle of the Rustenburg miners completely cut across the tensions between workers of different nationalities. This shows the way forward for the South African working class.

By Stephen Jolly