After the xenophobic violence South Africa will never be the same again

This is an abridged version of an article by one of our South African comrades, Khwezi Kadalie


The 11th of March 2008 will go down in the history of our country as the day of national shame. It is the day a pogrom against foreign workers started in Alexandra and then spread from township to township, squatter camp to squatter camp, and from one town to the next. It seems that the pogrom was ignited over unsolved rape cases – a common source of anger against the inefficiency of the police. As we stand, more than 56 people have been beaten, hacked and burned to death. Over 650 people are seriously injured, and close to 80,000 have fled their homes, shacks and flats. Additionally, 30,000 have literally jumped on trains and buses, and have fled the country. This number is to increase considerably in the coming weeks. Rape, killings, and sheer barbaric violence have been the order of the day. Most foreigners who were targeted were from Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Somalia, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The violence which started initially in Attridgeville, but then exploded in Alexandra, spread into Diepsloot, Thokoza, Actionville, Mayibuye, Tembisa, Kanana, Kopanong, Klipfontein View, Vusimusi, Mashimong on the East Rand, Cleveland, Primrose, Ivory Park, Jeppe, Hillbrow, Berea, Yeoville in Central Johannesburg, and the Zandspruit squatter camp on the West Rand. Thereafter, xenophobic violence and attacks spread to the North-West and Mpumalanga provinces, in particular the Leslie and Embalenble townships near Secunda. After a week of looting, burning and killings the attacks spread to Cape Town, Durban, Port-Elizabeth and Pretoria though not with the same intensity as in Johannesburg.

In Hillbrow and Yeoville, Nigerians were dragged out of buses and beaten to death while security guards watched over. In downtown Johannesburg people were thrown out of windows. In areas like Cleveland, organised gangs combed the area street by street looking for foreigners.

Amid all this turmoil, the South African Police somehow managed to arrest 30 Ugandans for being illegally in the country. It does not help that the South African High Commissioner to Uganda, Henry Chiliza assures the Ugandans that “they are not being targeted”. One wonders how many other foreign nationals are being arrested and sent to the Lindela Detention Centre; even though official Home Affairs statements say that arrests of ‘illegals’ have been stopped for the time being.

We could go on and on quoting witnesses and ordinary South Africans who went out of their way to help and support the thousands of victims of the xenophobic violence. Strikingly there is a complete absence of any meaningful police statements to the media and the public. Nor are there are statements and eyewitness reports from hospitals and doctors who must have been treating thousands of injured patients beaten with stones and iron rods. No reports and no statistics from the emergency services and hospitals! (at the time of writing this article, two weeks after the killings started).

All over the country stores and businesses owned by foreigners were attacked, looted and destroyed. The absence of emotional reaction and concrete action from the white business community, which controls commerce and trade in South Africa, shows that in this country property rights are defined first and foremost as rights for whites! The police – who normally are the first to warn and threaten organised workers that any damage to property will result in the ‘full enforcement of the law’ – neither protected the property of African foreigners, nor effectively prevented the mob from looting and destruction. This shows that the actions of the police (or rather non-action), especially at the onset of the violence, and their attitudes towards foreigners are a reflection of the interests of white business, the owners and controllers of the South African economy.

Social and economic conditions of the working class – a catalyst of xenophobic violence

Since the outbreak of this senseless violence and killings, there have been a lot of discussions, analyses and accusations put forward. Some people say that poverty is to blame; others point to the xenophobic attitudes of South Africans, yet others blame the State. There seems to be confusion among certain quarters around cause and effect, perpetrators and victims, and a total blindness towards identifying the ‘powers behind the scene’.

Political analytical writings have identified social conditions such as extreme poverty, poor service delivery, and in some cases non-delivery, as underlying causes to recent events. In addition, problems with delivery and allocation of low-cost housing and accommodation, high levels of corruption amongst civil servants, unemployment levels of 50- to 70-percent in the effected areas, high crime levels and insecurity have created conditions in which frustration, hate and violence breeds.

These conditions have characterised our townships and squatter camps for decades. The past 14 years since our first democratic elections have seen conditions worsening. After 14 years people are still on the waiting list for their Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) houses, the bucket system is still in existence, people are still waiting for electricity and water connection, others in their hundreds of thousands have been cut off from their electricity supply by their local municipality. And the most important issue of all, unemployment is skyrocketing and job opportunities are getting scarcer. In the meantime, the cost of basic foods such as mealie meal, cooking oil, tomatoes, milk, bread, meat, as well as transport costs are rising – and it is getting worse by the day. When the World Bank announced that the recent food price increases will drive over 100 million people worldwide into hunger – why would anyone believe it does not affects us? In other words, there is growing frustration and anger brewing – all over our country. Our people are not blind. They can see the growing poverty around them and at the same time they can see that there is another part of our society that is getting richer, that seems to be swimming in money, and that seems to be flourishing as the cost of living goes up for the rest of us. Clearly observations of such growing inequity are behind the frustrations of the poor and the poorest of the poor.

But these have been the frustrations of the working people and the poorest in our country for a very long time. If the social conditions alone would be responsible for the outbreak of xenophobic violence, then we would have seen a mass outbreak of violence with genocidal results against foreigners – which is not the case.

So what turned these general social and political frustrations and anger into violence directed specifically at foreigners. It is xenophobia.

Xenophobia and the ruling capitalist class

The interesting part of the definition of xenophobia, which requires closer examination, is the explanation of ‘a population group present within a society that is not considered part of that society’. The question arises who in society defines who is part of society and who will be excluded. We need to remember that we live in a capitalist society – a class society – in which the ruling value system is that of the ruling class.

It therefore becomes clear, that xenophobia – spread through television, radio and newsprint on a daily basis and through legislation and its subtle or ruthless application – is a conscious creation of the ruling class. It is the ruling class, which is the only class in our society that has a direct interest in the split of the working class. We have all lived through Apartheid, which institutionalised racism and through which the ruling capitalist class ruled this country. At times the ruling capitalist class rules through fascism – the total absence of democratic rights. Presently in South Africa, the capitalist class rules through a bourgeois democracy. In order to uphold its rule and control over the working class, the ruling class uses all kinds of methods to divide it. There are around 5 million foreign workers in South Africa. It is their obvious aim to divide the South African workers from workers from other African countries, who fundamentally have the same interests. It has been demonstrated that there is no xenophobic environment created against the approximate three million whites in South Africa who hold foreign passports or who hold dual citizenship. This is in part because the majority of them are middle class and therefore ideologically they form a strong backbone of the capitalist system.

We have endured years of negative reporting by the bourgeois press who have painted alarmist scenarios of immigrants from neighbouring countries flooding our country. The press has blamed African foreigners for the increased levels of unemployment, crime, rape, overcrowding and other social problems. Most of the mainstream press call African workers from neighbouring countries ‘aliens’. Nothing shows their attitude and intention clearer! We should never forget that the wealth of this country was not created by the Oppenheimer family, Anglo-American or the four main banks which are milking us like cows, but by the blood, sweat and tears of the working class – both South African and the millions of African workers from Lesotho, Swaziland, Mozambique, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi over the past 100 years. What a disgrace to Africa, our country and our history that the press in South Africa is allowed to insult millions of African workers as ‘aliens’!

The Department of Home Affairs has also played its role in fuelling xenophobia by the manner in which it processes applications. Whether it be asylum seekers, the general processing of permanent residency documents or citizen applications, Home Affairs has piled up a backlog dating back to 1994.

The xenophobic attitude of Home Affairs officials has long been exposed and is well documented. It was more than embarrassing for the government when the exposé of a private security company whipping asylum seekers with sjamboks on government premises came to light. The security officers felt that they had to bring order into the waiting room at Home Affairs.

The treatment of foreign workers at the Lindela Detention Centre has been a disgrace to this nation and has been well exposed over the years.

Arbitrary police raids in the form of police vans and trucks driving through townships and cities collecting ‘natives’ who didn’t have their dompass (identity document) with or who were caught with an invalid dompass, was to become the symbol of Apartheid during National Party rule. Fourteen years into the new democracy and human rights culture, police vans and trucks drive around, just like in the olden days, rounding up foreign workers, supposedly ‘illegals’, but who often are people with valid permits. They are then taken to a police station to be given a chance to bribe their way back to freedom or end up at the Lindela Detention Centre to be deported.

The midnight raids and brutal harassment at the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg, where thousands of foreign workers were finding shelter over the past year, have been widely documented and the Church has taken the matter successfully to court.

Government policies and treatment of foreign workers have legitimised clear messages of xenophobic attitudes to the rest of the population. The fact that within days of the outbreak of violence 30,000 foreign workers (as of 26 May 2008) and their families fled our country is a clear statement that they do not trust the South African government or the police forces to enforce safety for them and their families!

Why would the ruling capitalist class create a xenophobic atmosphere in our country and what purpose does it serve?

The class interest of the South African and foreign workers are fundamentally the same. In order for them and their families to survive they have to sell their labour power. They are exploited by the same capitalist system and they have nothing to loose but their chains – the chains of wage slavery. There is nothing the ruling capitalist class fears more than the unity of the working class.

The ruling class in South Africa has a long history of dividing the South African working class. We have been divided into Black and White, Coloureds and Indians, migrant workers from the homelands and residents in the cities. We have been divided ethnically and tribally. Even today we are still struggling to overcome the legacy of divided residential locations. This policy of divide and rule has been a cornerstone of the rule of the capitalist class since the beginning of the industrialisation of this country. The inhuman conditions of housing workers, particularly mine workers, into hostels became the ‘ugly face’ of Apartheid, a symbol of the brutal and ruthless exploitation of mine workers by the mining companies. To the disgrace of the South African government, many of these hostels are still in existence today. Some have deteriorated to such an extent that they are unfit to house human beings. So why are we astonished to see that some of the perpetrators of this xenophobic violence emerge from these very hostels the government has failed to close down! Government ministers and local government members of the Executive Council need to answer the question: Why was legislation not put in place to force the mining companies to erect decent housing for their workforce? Why doesn’t capital in South Africa have social obligations like in other countries?

For this reason the revolutionary working-class movement and organized labour have a special duty and obligation to fight a relentless struggle for the unity of the South African working class including workers in employment and workers who have been made unemployed by the system. The unity of the South African working class cannot be complete without forging working-class unity between the South African workers and foreign workers. In fact, foreign workers in South Africa are part and parcel of the South African working class. The nature of the working-class struggle is internationalist and is opposed to anything xenophobic. The class enemy of the working class and its agents are the ones – no matter how much they deny it in the face of evidence – that have an interest in spreading xenophobic ideas and dividing the working class.

Why did the xenophobic violence break out now and spread systematically around the country

The question arises: why did the xenophobic violence break out now on such a scale and spread systematically around the country to such an extend that the State security forces are talking about ‘organised and planned’ violence against foreigners. Clearly the people who committed these barbaric acts of looting, beating and killing and who have been arrested (at this stage around 400) will have to be brought to justice. At this stage of investigation it is too early to point fingers at individuals who have been pulling the strings behind the scene. Having said that, we need to ask ourselves questions about the timing of the outbreak of this xenophobic violence. Who has an interest in creating this violence and for what purpose?

The political situation in South Africa since the ANC conference in Polokwane has changed drastically. So-called neo-liberalism (i.e., social cut-down policy), introduced in 1996, has entrenched itself since then. With the removal of the ANC leadership around Mbeki at Polokwane this austerity policy in South Africa is in question. The ruling class has been the main beneficiary of the liberalisation of policies by the National Treasury, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of Public Works. They have embarked on an investment spree during the past 10 years throughout Southern Africa and partly into West Africa. They have been buying up state assets such as mining companies and establishing retail distribution channels which will enable them to control the markets and dictate prices. Furthermore, they have taken over strategic IT infrastructure, cellphone companies and the banking sector. Presently they are targeting harbour infrastructure and management, as well as the rail networks in a number of countries. In other words, South African capital has become an exporter of finance capital over the past decade.

It would be naïve to believe that after Polokwane big business in South Africa, which is closely aligned to US, British and German capital, would stand idle, watching the pendulum of power move towards transformation, addressing the inequalities of the past, workers interest, transparency and grass-roots democracy. They have not given up the possibility of ‘buying over’ the new leadership, but to do that they need to demonstrate that the devastating unemployment – the biggest and most obvious indicator and source of discontent amongst the wider population, and the direct result and consequence of their policies and business practises – is indeed coming down. They need to demonstrate that there is real hope and that “neo-liberal” policies should stay – even under the new political leadership of the ANC.

The capitalist class in South Africa was the real architect of Apartheid, which was condemned by the international community as a crime against humanity. During that period there was no crime imaginable which this class of exploiters was not prepared to commit in order to further their existence and their fortunes. With the end of the Apartheid system the nature of the beast has not changed.

South African capital together with US- and British Imperialism cannot wait for the day of regime change in Zimbabwe. A mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of Zimbabwean workers into Zimbabwe, right in the middle of highly contested Presidential Elections would set a perfect scenario for chaos and possible regime change. How else should we understand Morgan Tsvangirai’s speech a few days ago when he addressed Zimbabwean victims of xenophobic violence in South Africa and told them “that they should return home to finish off Mugabe, that he would be sending buses to take them home” (Sunday Times, 25 May 2008), that “officials in his Movement for Democratic Change would help arrange transportation for refugees who wanted to go home to Zimbabwe” (Reuter, 23 May 2008).

After almost two months in ‘self imposed’ exile, travelling between Johannesburg and all the major European countries, Morgan Tsvangirai does not seem short of cash. Upon arrival in Zimbabwe he announces: “The time for peace and prosperity is beginning. The MDC President’s Fund for Victims of Political Violence will begin by providing an initial Z$150 trillion dollars (US$ 300,000) to begin the process of supporting victims of political violence to rebuild their lives” (SW Radio Africa, London, 27 May 2008).

One wonders what Mr. Tsvangirai has promised his financial backers upon his victory. Within hours of announcing the President’s Fund, the MDC gave the public a hint of things to come: “MDC spokesman Nelson Chamisa has said if party leader Morgan Tsvangirai wins the June 27 presidential run-off, Mengistu will be extradited to face justice (execution) in Ethiopia” (SW Radio Africa, London, 27 May 2008).

The stakes are high in Southern Africa, for both capital and the working class, for national independence and colonial conquest. As for imperialist interference and dominance it is unfortunately – at least for the time being – an ever present feature. Pogroms and ethnic cleansing don’t happen in isolation of economic interests – at least not in the real world.