The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

South Africa:
Xenophobic attacks fueled by demagogy, poverty and despair

Jun 9, 2008

The following article is largely excerpted from the July/August issue of Class Struggle, the organization of Workers’ Fight, a group active in Britain.

The wave of xenophobic attacks that took place in the poor ghettoes of South Africa’s urban areas in May came as a shock, due to the horrific pictures of the events shown by the media, particularly pictures of people who were burned alive. There was also some disbelief that the so-called “Rainbow Nation” founded by Nelson Mandela, born out of decades of struggle against the racial segregation of the apartheid system, should be shaken by xenophobia on such a scale.

What these attacks actually showed, however, is that not only are some of the wounds left by the apartheid days still open, but also that the post-apartheid regime’s policies have done little to heal them. This wave of xenophobia is the by-product of the regime’s ongoing anti-immigrant demagogy combined with its anti-worker policy that has become increasingly intolerable for the vast majority of the population over the years.

Alexandra Reaches Boiling Point

The attacks began in Alexandra, a mainly black township located within the municipal boundaries of Johannesburg (the economic capital, and center of gold mining). Alexandra is just two miles away from the wealthy town of Sandton, the glossy financial center of Gauteng province.

On May 11 – a Sunday night – what was described by the media as an “enraged mob” went on a rampage in the poorest streets, picking out mainly Zimbabwean immigrant residents and venting their fury on them. Apparently they accused them of stealing their jobs and houses and causing crime.

Over the next three nights door-to-door checks for “foreigners” took place. South Africans had to show their ID cards to be passed over. Immigrant families were told to just get out and leave their belongings, which were then looted. Dozens of immigrants were severely beaten, whipped and stoned. By the end of these first days, three men had been killed. Two of these men were not actually immigrants, but native South Africans, and it seems one of them was shot because he had refused to take part in the violence.

One Malawian, who had lived in Alexandra for 23 years, described how a gang of 10 men broke into his house, ransacked his possessions and beat him up. A Zimbabwean woman told how she was set upon and beaten until she fled, bleeding badly from the head, with her own neighbors shouting “Good riddance. Go away Makwerekwere” (dirty foreigner).

Hundreds had no option but to seek refuge in the local police station, even though the police have a terrible reputation among immigrants, because they regularly extort, beat up and arrest migrant workers, regardless of whether they have the correct papers or not. (Immigrant workers are obliged to have with them at all times papers certifying that they are allowed to work, have paid for their visa, etc.)

Five hundred extra police were deployed in an attempt to calm down the situation, resulting in running battles between the population and the police, many arrests and with rubber bullets injuring quite a few more people.

Xenophobic Attacks Spread

By May 15, the xenophobic attacks had begun to spread. In Tembisa, a township north- east of Alexandra, two more people were killed and more than a dozen shacks were torched. One of those killed was Walter Ntombela, who had been a Metal Workers’ Union shop steward for 10 years and was long-settled there, but happened to come from Mozambique originally.

The violence also spread to Diepsloot, north of Johannesburg, where mainly Somalis were targeted. In Kya Sands, also in the north, a mob set afire a barricade of wood, furniture and gas bottles to prevent police from getting through, while they went on a rampage, looting, burning and beating up anyone identified as “foreign,” whether they were indeed “foreign” or not.

Some of the worst attacks took place in townships and settlements in the urban sprawl which follows the gold reef, along which are the gold mines reaching to the southeast of Johannesburg. In Reiger Park’s so-called “Ramaphosa Informal Settlement,” further gruesome burnings, toy-toying (jump-dancing which symbolized the victory of the poor against apartheid) and attacks against Mozambicans and other migrant workers occurred. This was where burning blankets were thrown upon a man who had been beaten almost senseless, thus causing him to burn to death. It was this picture of a human fireball which was to symbolize the spate of horrific xenophobic violence.

In Thokoza, many shacks were burned. In Actonville, the black owner of a small business was killed when his house was burned with him inside it, after he was accused of hiring foreign workers. The men who killed him were said to have come from the local mine hostel and adjacent settlements. One immigrant was killed and two critically injured in the “Joe Slovo Settlement” in Boksburg.

Shopping streets in the center of Johannesburg were looted. By the end of the first week one of the main streets was crisscrossed with makeshift barricades of barbed wire, concrete and tires. Just south of the center, in Jeppestown, shops had their shutters ripped off and were stripped. Many of these were owned or rented by Nigerians or other immigrant traders. Gangs wielding machetes and clubs went door to door, slashing and beating up foreign nationals who had lived in the area for years.

One eyewitness reported what happened: “The pavements ... are thronged with knots of men, many of whom are drunk and carry sticks which they drop hurriedly when they see the cops approaching. The officers stand guard, rifles at the ready, as the family pack up their stock and household goods. The landlady is disgusted: ‘If they are forced to move out, no one else must try to come in here. I refuse to rent it to anyone else. Let it stand empty.’ Sylvia Khumalo (63) sits on a bench on the other side of the road, watching in disbelief. ‘This is terrible, we don’t understand what is going on.’ And the other old women murmur their agreement.... Not everyone shares their compassion. A group of young women passes by and they laugh scornfully; ‘Let them go. We will live in their rooms for free.’” Reports say that up to 12 people were killed in these particular attacks. As many as 2,000 Zimbabweans, Mozambicans and Angolans took refuge in Johannesburg’s Jeppestown police station.

The violence also hit the harbor city of Durban in the KwaZulu-Natal province. A report from its Cato Manor slum township described how Mozambicans were beaten. It mentions a “test” that was used to identify foreigners: they were asked by gestures to pronounce the word meaning “elbow” in the local Zulu language; if they gave the wrong answer, they were beaten and told to go home.

In Cape Town, the main targets of the attacks were Somalis and Zimbabweans, although in certain places, no migrant worker was really safe. Just as in Johannesburg, homes and shops were looted.

However, in fact, it was not just foreigners who were targeted. The rioters’ xenophobia also included anyone from elsewhere, that is, anyone considered an “outsider.” In Gauteng, South African nationals who came from the far north of the country, or the east, or even from the Eastern Cape province, were targeted because they spoke the Pedi, Shangaan or Venda languages used in the areas they came from. For instance, a man living in a shack in Johannesburg’s Jules Street was beaten for being an ethnic Pedi originating from Pretoria. He was robbed of all his money and had to leave behind his wife to an unknown fate.

By the time the wave of xenophobic riots ended (although possibly only temporarily), the official national death toll had reached 62. Over 740 people had been badly injured. It is thought that as many as 80,000 people may have been rendered homeless and displaced. Others (Zimbabweans and Malawians) fled to the borders in order to return home. Some even asked to be taken to deportation centers like the Lindela barracks, which is notorious for its ill-treatment of immigrants.

A “Third Force”?

The government’s first response to these events was typical of its disregard for the poor. Beyond moralistic remonstrations aimed at the rioters, it had nothing to offer to those who were at the receiving end of these attacks – except a blunt denial that its own policies could have played any role in bringing about this situation.

President Mbeki was at a meeting in Mozambique when he issued a statement condemning the “xenophobia” and urging the police to act “strongly” against the perpetrators. Then, he went on to Japan. On May 18, he announced that a “panel” was to be set up to investigate the attacks – as if such a “panel” could protect potential victims and bring them the aid they needed!

Ten days after the attacks began, following a request from the police who were not able to cope, Mbeki called in the army to intervene in Gauteng province. However, at the same time, rumors about a so-called “Third Force” being involved in the attacks in and around Johannesburg started to spread. This was clearly the point of view of National Intelligence Agency Director General, Manala Manzini, when he stated that the violence was being deliberately unleashed ahead of next year’s general election.

Intelligence Minister Ronnie Kasrils was only slightly more nuanced when he declared that while there were “pure criminal elements at work,” his agency was looking carefully at “other sources motivating this with their own political agendas.... I’m not pointing at any political party as such, I don’t believe that,” he said, “but at community level, at levels of organization, residents’ organizations, we have come across some elements there who have been talking in a very anarchistic way.

Undoubtedly, some ministers were pointing a finger at the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, and its potential ally, the Inkatha Freedom Party, which champions a “Zulu identity” under Chief Buthelezi. At the same time, the government sought to pre-empt criticisms on its left. A cabinet statement was issued, saying that the attacks appeared to be instigated by elements bent on taking advantage of community concerns. It went on to stress that “ amount of economic hardship and discontent can ever justify the criminal activity and bigotry that these attacks represent and any suggestion that poor service delivery and the rising cost of living are to blame for these attacks must be rejected with the contempt it deserves.”

On the other hand, some circles of the ruling ANC (African National Congress) issued statements which contradicted the official line. For instance ANC deputy president Mothlane pointed out that “it only takes one incident” to spark violence when people are living in squalid conditions. At the same time, a former cabinet minister, Asmal Kader, urged the government to grant a general amnesty for those migrants without legal documents (the vast majority) and said that “South Africans had remained collectively silent at the abuse of police power, the arrogance and cruelty of officials, the occasional heartlessness of our medical services and previous violence against migrants.”

It would have been necessary to provide immediate help to the migrant workers and their families who had been terrorized and rendered homeless by the attacks. Instead, the authorities tried to take what amounted to scandalous measures in some cases. For instance, in Johannesburg, a court order had to be taken out in order to stop officials from moving refugees who were sheltering in the police stations to a temporary shelter right next to a hostel from which gunshots had been fired during the violence and where it was suspected some of the perpetrators had emanated.

The Bloody Legacy of Apartheid

It is impossible not to draw a link between these recent events and the legacy of the apartheid days, which still weighs heavily on the fabric of South Africa’s society.

The apartheid system of institutional racial segregation was designed to divide the population into race and language groups, with white Afrikaners at the top and black foreign migrant workers at the very bottom. These multiple divisions were exploited in every possible way, not least because the regime strove to weaken the resistance of the black working class.

In 1986-89, when the mobilization of the black working class in the mines, factories and townships was at its highest, most of apartheid’s restrictions were finally removed. Up until that point, not only were blacks and whites segregated completely, but each section of black people was allocated to its own “homeland” or “bantustan” according to language/tribal group. It was illegal for them to move where they liked. They had to stay in their allocated “homeland” and could only live in an urban area if they had a special permit. Movement to cities for work was strictly monitored through the “passbook” system.

The mine companies recruited mainly among the Zulus for their core workforce and team leaders (they called them “bossboys”) and housed them in their own compounds, separate from the other workers. As a result Zulu workers were seen as having a status somewhat above the others, if only because jobs were reserved for them and because even living in the hostel compounds was a little less sordid than the haphazard slum housing conditions for the rest of the black working class.

It was this wedge driven deliberately between sections of black workers that was exploited by the apartheid regime when the white bourgeoisie realized it was going to have to agree to power sharing with representatives of the black majority. In the second half of the 1980s, the white nationalists helped to fund and organize the Inkatha Zulu militias. These militias were used as a kind of “third force,” in order to divide and weaken the black working class as well as the anti-apartheid organizations – the ANC and SACP (South African Communist Party). This led to a near civil war in the Johannesburg and Natal townships, in which Inkatha used its armed militias to try to lead the Zulu workers into a fratricidal war against the majority of the black population, which in general supported the ANC or SACP. These violent attacks led to retaliation, causing thousands of victims and resulting in a bloody split between the two sides.

It should be added that such “black on black” violence was also given a certain legitimacy by the ANC-SACP alliance itself. In its efforts to gain total control over the townships in the run-up to the first post-apartheid election in 1994, the alliance resorted to using gangs of thugs who terrorized the population by killing opponents (including members of other political tendencies accused of being “workerists” or “Trotskyists”), on the grounds that they were collaborators, or spies for the regime. These gangs made the so-called “necklace” famous – a tire filled with gas, which was placed around the neck of the victim and then set alight.

In several respects, today’s attacks are a gruesome reminder of those days. Indeed there were a number of cases reported of “necklacing” of “foreigners,” even before this latest xenophobic wave. Likewise the role played by Zulu gangs in some of the May anti-immigrant attacks may well have something to do with the fact that a large part of the Zulu miners of the apartheid days have now been replaced with immigrant workers from Mozambique and Lesotho, who make up to 60% of the workforce in some cases – to the point that some mines had to close down temporarily because their workers were displaced or had fled.

The Poor’s Bitterness Against Social Apartheid

The smooth transition from apartheid led jointly by Nelson Mandela’s ANC and De Klerk’s National Party – the very same party which had introduced apartheid in the late 1940's – was designed to protect the interests of imperialist and South African capital against the aspirations of the black poor. Naturally, the poor expected that the end of apartheid would mean the end of poverty. But the advent of the post-apartheid regime in 1994 only heralded another form of apartheid, this time purely class-based.

The ANC had promised that everyone would be housed within a few years, that malnutrition and poverty would be tackled and that clean water and electricity would soon be available for all. But this could only have been achieved by expropriating domestic and foreign capital – in particular, companies like the mining houses of De Beers and Anglo American, and the big banks, like Sanlam and Standard Chartered. In reality, the only promise that the ANC intended to keep was the one it had made to its imperialist partners in London and Washington – that these giants of capital, which had made their billions on the backs of the black working class, would be left untouched.

Instead of measures aimed at alleviating the dire poverty of the majority of the population, steps were taken to develop a black capitalist class. Under the guise of “black empowerment,” a policy of positive discrimination was implemented to counteract the exclusion of black people from office in the state apparatus and in the business world during the decades of apartheid. As a result, a small but very rich black bourgeoisie began to emerge, with billionaires being created almost overnight. Among the most notorious are the former mineworkers’ union leader, Cyril Ramaphosa, and Tokyo Sexwale, a former member of the ANC’s armed wing who served 13 years in the Robben Island detention center with Mandela.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of the population has remained in abject poverty. Initially there was a pretense at addressing the problems of the poor resulting from the legacy of apartheid. But, in practice, little was done. And in the last decade, there has been a drastic social deterioration, thanks to the slavish adherence of the government to the diktats of the capitalist market. This has resulted in the slashing of public sector jobs and the opening up of what had been a very large state sector to private capital, with the privatization of utilities and yet more job losses.

Despite the lack of jobs, poverty has generated a constant flood of workers into urban areas and cities from the rural areas, both from South Africa itself and from outside its borders. Appallingly overcrowded shanty towns now exist all over the urban areas.

Hotly Contested Slum Dwellings

This general degradation of social conditions and growing inequalities has engendered a profound bitterness in the ranks of the black proletariat, which is expressed by, among other things, the decreasing turnout in elections since 1994. But this degradation in living conditions is unquestionably one of the factors behind the recent wave of xenophobia. Otherwise it would be hard to understand why this wave started in Alexandra which, in many respects, was the least likely place for it to happen, due to its particular traditions.

Indeed, the township had always been a hotbed of resistance against apartheid. Even in the dark days of the 1940's and 1950's, it fought against the implementation of apartheid, during the strikes and the famous bus boycott against segregated transport. Repeated attempts by the apartheid regime to remove its residents outside of Johannesburg failed, thanks to their steadfast resistance. In 1976, its youth played as important a part in the uprising as those in Soweto, and 19 were killed as a result. In the 1980s, Alexandra was at the forefront of the townships’ mobilization, with one of the most important “civic” committees in the country – and one of the very few which preserved its autonomy and its character as an organ of direct democracy, despite the attempt of the ANC-SACP alliance to control it.

A survey conducted in 2004 showed that Alexandra retained this political tradition. It was one of the most politicized places in the country, with over 70% of the population belonging to some political party and/or to a union or an organization – most of which are, even if only symbolically, opposed to xenophobia.

But Alexandra has always been very crowded, neglected and poorly supplied with services. The fact that, since 1994, it has been a natural destination for workers looking for jobs, due to its proximity to Sandton and the adjacent industrial zones, has only made matters worse, resulting in intolerable overcrowding. Today shanty shacks are everywhere. The roads are mostly unpaved gullies. 35% of houses have no access to piped water. 80% have no toilet. 35% have no refuse collection. Cholera was recently found in the local river which bisects the township.

In an area originally meant to house maybe 30,000, it was estimated in 2004 that there were around 700,000 people living there. In 2004, the average population density was already twice that of Paris, which is the most densely populated city in western Europe. Bearing in mind that there are only three “high rise” buildings in the township – the single workers’ hostels – and that all the rest are single story shacks and houses, this should give some idea of how bad it is. Especially by now, since the population may have reached one million.

Similar conditions, or worse, prevail across all the black working class areas in South Africa. “Informal settlements” outnumber the formal ones. These informal settlements are shanty towns built on government-allocated land, sometimes, but not always, with a tap for water, but nothing else. Homeless families are told they can set up their own shacks there at their own expense. This is the supposedly temporary measure to make up for the fact that the three million homes promised in 1994 have not materialized! There is a cynical irony in the fact that these slums are named after people like Joe Slovo, the SACP leader who promised the three million homes in the first place, or Cyril Ramaphosa, the black billionaire!

As for the workers’ hostels, like those where the violence this May is said to have started, these are remnants of the past. They date back to the height of apartheid, in the 1960s, when huge blocks of dormitories or single rooms were built to house workers for the mines. It was expected that the hostels – which are a potent reminder of apartheid oppression and exploitation – would have been pulled down by now, or at the very least converted into decent housing. But instead, they remain, just as crowded as before, but more dilapidated.

They are still organized with an “induna” – or chief – in charge, to whom the mainly Zulu migrant workers (who are still the main residents of these hostels) are meant to defer. At the Jeppe Hostel, many rooms are shared by two or more men, with curtains marking each man’s space. There are leaking pipes on every floor of the building and every room has broken windows. Yet each man pays $5 per month for his shared space. As one resident was quoted saying, “Not even a pig would live here. There was a time a few years ago, when we were taken to Zuurbekom and told we were going to move into RDP [the Reconstruction and Development Program] houses there, but that never happened.”

In Alexandra’s hostels, the pipes are broken and in one of the male hostels, raw sewage seeps out. The township authorities claim that the local “indunas” oppose the relocation of hostel dwellers and that residents have resisted the renovation of the buildings and their conversion into family units. But the truth is that the authorities were not offering decent alternative housing, before trying to evict the hostel tenants. What is more, some of the houses built under the Alexandra Renewal Project were rented or sold to the highest bidders with no respect for the waiting list, with a lot of bribery and corruption involved. This has undoubtedly added fuel to the fire of resentment among the population of the township.

Xenophobic Demagogy of the Politicians

It was against this backdrop of persistent, if not increasing social inequality and worsening conditions, that anti-immigrant violence became a recurrent feature of society – long before these latest attacks. From this point of view, the regime and its pro-business policies bear a heavy responsibility in this violence. But it also bears responsibility for another reason – because, right from the beginning, it has whipped up xenophobic prejudices, by resorting to an anti-immigrant demagogy aimed at diverting attention from its anti-worker policies.

The very first Home Minister was none other than the Inkatha Freedom Party’s leader, Buthelezi – the instigator of the violence by Zulus against the Shangaans, Vendas, Pedis and others in the 1980s. And in the very same year he took office, in 1994, the IFP was already marching against the admission of immigrants into the country, under the banner of “Buyelekhaya” (go back home). But it was not just Buthelezi who played the anti-immigrant card. That same year, SACP minister Ronnie Kasrils announced that a fence was to be erected on the border with Botswana to keep immigrants out.

Over the period from 1996 to 1998, 142,644 prisoners were held in the privately-run Lindela Repatriation Center prior to deportation. Many were held much longer than the legal limit of a 30-day detention. Twenty percent of those interviewed reported physical assault and violence from both the police and the security guards as well as extensive corruption among both. Deaths as a result of beatings have been documented by refugee groups. Indeed, the main perpetrators of physical violence and intimidation against migrant workers have been officials, the police and the prison officers at deportation centers like Lindela, under instruction from the ANC-led government.

In 1997, Defense Minister Joe Modise explicitly linked the issue of increased migration to increased crime in a newspaper interview. At the same time Home Affairs Minister Buthelezi was claiming that “illegal aliens” were costing South African taxpayers billions of rands every year – which was a way of blaming immigrants for the regime’s failure to improve the material conditions of the population.

In 2000, a ban was placed on asylum seekers working or studying in South Africa. Two years later this ban was declared unconstitutional. Nevertheless, a finger had been pointed at asylum seekers as “taking South Africans’ jobs,” and regardless of the court’s decision, this was bound to leave traces.

By 2001, an official “Proudly South African” campaign was launched. By then quite a few people were asking if South Africa was not, on the contrary, “proudly xenophobic.” It soon became a nationalistic “buy South African goods” campaign.

Ever since the Immigration Bill, originally drafted by Buthelezi’s department in 2002, there has been a tightening of anti-immigrant legislation with, among other things, the introduction of skills-based quotas determined by the government – which, once again, pointed at immigrants as taking local jobs.

South Africa has nevertheless continued to be a magnet for immigrant workers, since it has the biggest economy in Africa and far more to offer than all the impoverished sub-Saharan countries. So that, by 2001, an unofficial figure given for undocumented immigrants was already seven million, although five million is the usual number quoted these days.

A total of 678,697 “illegal” immigrants were officially deported from South Africa between 2002 and 2005. Since the “International Organization of Migration” opened its offices, in 2006, on the gateway between Zimbabwe and South Africa, 177,514 deported Zimbabweans passed through its reception center alone. In April this year, discussions took place within the government on reviewing the policy of deporting migrant workers, not on the basis of human rights, but because of the escalating cost involved in their deportation! This was after 4,000 Mozambicans living illegally in South Africa were repatriated in the single month of March 2008.

However, the ANC-SACP coalition in power isn’t the only one to play with anti-immigrant demagogy. The opposition parties – the Democratic Alliance and Inkatha Freedom Party – have long been trying to outbid the ANC-SACP alliance on the issue of immigration by demanding even more drastic measures against immigrants. The Democratic Alliance in particular chose to make immigration one of the axes of its campaign for the 2009 elections. So on April 29 this year, the Democratic Alliance presented a document titled “Sealing Our Borders” and demanded in parliament that something be done to stop the 28,000 Zimbabweans, Nigerians, Kenyans and Congolese flooding into the country weekly through borders which were “as porous as a sieve.” They wanted the army to be sent in and a specialized paramilitary unit to be created to patrol the borders. Each week, they claimed, gun smugglers, drug traffickers, stock and car thieves were streaming into the country. With such demagogy across the political spectrum widely spread by the media, it’s not astonishing that a xenophobic atmosphere weighs on the country. Its echo could be heard during the burning and killing in the townships when some of those interviewed said “they are criminals, they sell drugs, we can kill them....”

A History of Xenophobic Violence

The recent wave of xenophobia has not exactly been a storm breaking out in a bright blue sky. Undoubtedly, this is the most important wave of this type since 1994, but this follows a long series of gruesome attacks against immigrants, with only a small number of them being publicized by the media.

In 1998 a Senegalese mysteriously “slipped out of a balcony window” to his death in the presence of police officers. The same year, two Senegalese workers and a Mozambican were killed by being thrown from a train. These latter murders were apparently perpetrated by members of the Unemployed Movement, UMSA. UMSA did not condone this act at the time, although its policy of blaming foreigners for being responsible for job losses and poverty was indirectly responsible for the acts of its members. “They will work for wages that are lower than we can live on because we pay for services,” is what Godfrey Dibela, its president, claimed in June 2000.

Also in 1998, street vendors in downtown Johannesburg launched physical attacks on their immigrant counterparts, with the chair of the Inner Johannesburg vendors committee quoted as saying: “We are prepared to push them out of the city, come what may. My group is not prepared to let our government inherit a garbage city because of these leeches.”

In 2000, a Sudanese refugee was thrown from a train and a Kenyan shot in his home – both attacks being put down to xenophobia. But, at the same time, the state ordered a so-called “Operation Crackdown” in which the police and the army arrested 7,000 people on the grounds of being illegal – precisely the kind of operation which was most likely to encourage xenophobia!

In 2006, Cape Town’s Somali organizations reported that 40 Somali traders had been killed in targeted attacks between August and September. During that year, in Diepsloot, north of Johannesburg, a Somalian settlement was regularly torched.

In 2007, the UNHCR (U.N. High Commission on Refugees) stated its concern over the increase in the number of xenophobic attacks on Somalis. As many as 400 had been killed in South Africa since 1997. In May 2007, shops belonging to Somalis and other foreign nationals were torched during an anti-government demonstration in Khutsong, a small mining town 30 miles southwest of Johannesburg.

In January 2008, two Zimbabweans were killed in the “Shoba informal settlement” and many injured. This was after a rumor had begun to circulate that a man had been killed by a foreigner. In Johannesburg, during the same month, the police were called to help 1,500 Zimbabweans who had taken refuge in the Central Methodist Church. Instead of helping the refugees, the police beat up the pastor and arrested all the Zimbabweans.

In March 2008, another two immigrants were killed in Atteridgeville, near Pretoria, and a thousand were left homeless after they and their shacks were burned down. In April, shacks belonging to Zimbabweans were again set on fire in the same area.

So while this May’s xenophobic wave may have been the largest to date, no-one in South Africa could really claim to be surprised when it broke out.

The Price Hikes Fuel the Blind Attacks

Chris Rock, a comedian about to tour across South Africa, made a rather apt point by saying that the xenophobic attacks were not “black on black” violence, but “broke on broke.” This was formulated in another way by the audience at a public meeting held by Jacob Zuma, the new ANC president. When he moralized, “We cannot allow South Africa to be famous for xenophobia,” someone asked, “Tell us how we are to eat?”

In recent months, despite the wealth of the country’s mines and industries, South Africa’s population has been severely hit by the increase of food prices. It may not be as dramatic as in the poorest African countries, where people already were barely surviving long before these price increases began, but it is enough to push millions of South Africans to the brink of a social catastrophe.

According to official statistics, food prices have increased by 16% over the past year, while the poorest are said to spend half their incomes on food. But of course it is much more likely that those who are really poor spend every cent they have on food. Anyway, the price rise for basics is far more than the official 16% figure. Among products the poor consume the most, white bread has gone up by almost 20%, flour by 26%, spaghetti by 29%, and the staple, maize meal, from 22% to 28% and cooking oil by 66%! Meanwhile, gasoline has gone up by 66% just in the last two months.

And this is taking place in a context where unemployment is officially 39%, but really as high as 60% or more. Nearly 60% of the black population is living in “relative poverty” according to official figures.

The endemic poverty is aggravated a thousand-fold by the HIV crisis. As many as 1 in 20 of the population is infected, but the government only began last year to supply anti-retroviral drugs to those who most need them. Bearing in mind that Zimbabwe has the highest HIV infection rate in Africa at present (a life expectancy of 35 years), this means that many immigrants are also infected. But they are denied their anti-retroviral drugs, whenever they are detained by the police. And if they present themselves to a public hospital in need of treatment, they are told they do not qualify, since they are not South African citizens (even if this goes contrary to the country’s own constitution). Obviously this can only make a bad situation, with respect to the spread of HIV, worse.

This situation, especially the recent worsening of conditions resulting from the price hikes, has certainly played a role, if not in sparking the xenophobic wave, at least in giving some justification to the murderous logic of these xenophobic attacks in the eyes of those who took part in them. It is no coincidence that many of the attackers targeted food traders, whose stock vanished with the rioters.

A By-Product of the Nationalist Dead-End

For those who see South Africa’s black working class as an example of militancy and consciousness, it may be hard to understand what has been happening over the past months, due to its past success in overthrowing the apartheid regime.

But a lot of water has passed under the bridge since the struggles of the township committees and workers’ organizations brought down the apartheid regime. The widespread feeling among yesterday’s fighters that they have been deprived of their victory by the very people who had led them in the struggle against apartheid has resulted in a certain level of demoralization and wiped out some of the social consciousness which had been steeled by the fight against apartheid during the previous decades.

What the South African proletariat is paying for today, in many different ways, is the cost of the nationalist program of its ANC-SACP leadership. Beyond the radical rhetoric that some of the alliance leaders used in the apartheid days, including the references to communism and to the Russian Revolution made by the SACP, the only aim of the alliance was to come to political power in a South Africa which would be fully integrated into the world capitalist market and, therefore, gain the backing of the imperialist powers.

The alliance’s program involved total respect for the interests of domestic and imperialist capital. This meant that the exploitation of the black working class had to carry on generating the same profits as before, under the cover of the post-apartheid regime. It also meant that the resources of the new state would have to be devoted to lining pockets of the same old capitalists, plus those of a new emergent black bourgeoisie, instead of being used to meet the needs of the poor. Hence the on-going degradation of the proletariat’s material conditions due to this double burden.

Even in the years of the struggle against apartheid, the nationalism of the ANC-SACP alliance led it to display great respect for the existing regimes in the neighboring countries, even the worst dictatorships. There was never any question of the alliance seeking to unite the working classes and poor of the various countries surrounding South Africa behind the banner of their class interests, against the regional expansionism of the apartheid regime, as well as against the local capitalists and their imperialist masters. Just as there was never any question of the alliance by-passing the authority of the traditional African chiefs to address itself to their populations, and not just in the South African protectorates of Swaziland and Lesotho, but even in some of the “bantustans” of South Africa itself (like Transkei).

Quite the contrary, in fact, since the alliance sought the favors of these dictators and traditional chiefs. It sought their backing to achieve international respectability. And in the case of the neighboring dictatorships, it sought their support to secure political asylum for its members, a safe haven for its guerilla camps, or to receive supplies, funds, etc.... There was, therefore, no question of risking the wrath of these chiefs and dictators for the sake of giving a regional and social dimension to the struggle of the South African proletariat.

Had it been otherwise, strong links could have been built between the populations of the region and a common identity could have developed on the basis of these links, which would have made the artificial borders drawn by the European colonial powers largely irrelevant, just as much as the notion of a “black foreigner” in South Africa. But then, in that case, the ANC-SACP alliance would not have won the recognition it was hoping for from the imperialist powers. Overthrowing apartheid would have required the seizure of power by the black working class itself, instead of the alliance using the working class as foot soldiers in its march to power.

For the proletariat, such a nationalist program only leads straight into a dead-end. In South Africa, this dead end was reflected by the fact that the overthrow of racial apartheid did nothing to reduce a social apartheid, which may well generate just as much frustration and despair among the black proletariat as did racial apartheid. By the same token, the nationalist program made some of the working class lose all sense of its social interests. The recurrent waves of xenophobia are as much a product of the past narrow nationalism of the ANC-SACP alliance, as of the poverty, social dereliction and xenophobic atmosphere nurtured by the post-apartheid regime since 1994.

Fortunately there is some hope in the fact that not everyone accepts this situation.

In the townships and informal settlements, the resistance of the residents hasn’t weakened. Protests against the lack of housing, water, fuel, and against increased prices continue to grow. A variety of local organizations support themselves on the mobilizations of residents while assuring continuity. And many of them mobilized to demonstrate against xenophobia these past few weeks and to help those made homeless by the attacks.

Likewise, activists of the Communist Party’s youth (YCL) in parts of Gauteng took immediate local initiatives to organize solidarity action with those immigrants who fled the attacks. The weekend after the peak of the attacks, on May 24th, several unions, and local anti-government campaigns (like the Anti-Privatization Forum, which has ongoing housing campaigns based in Alexandra,) organized a solidarity demonstration in the center of Johannesburg, and between 3-5,000 people attended. Placards ranged from “Mbeki, their blood is on your hands” to “we are all Zimbabweans.”

As to the working class, it may be disoriented by the policies of the ruling alliance, and especially by the support that the COSATU trade-union federation has given to these policies over the past 14 years, but its dynamism is still there. Last year the biggest strike wave ever seen in the public sector took place – for a decent wage increase and for jobs. Scarcely a week goes by without a section of workers out on strike. In fact, at the time of writing, firefighters are on strike against the long shifts they have to work without any overtime pay.

For political activists, among the young generation as well as among the generation which fought the apartheid regime, who do not accept the society which the ANC-SACP alliance has to offer, there is only one possible choice: Just as was already the case in the days of the struggle against apartheid, their only choice is to build a proletarian party which sets itself the task of changing society by uniting the ranks of the working classes and poor of the entire region – as part of the struggle of the world proletariat. The South African working class needs a revolutionary party which raises the banner of proletarian internationalism against the narrow nationalism of the old anti-apartheid organizations that are in power.

Making such a choice, as the recent events have shown, is not simply the only way of preserving the future for the South African working class. It is also a matter of life or death today, to rearm the working class against the rise of xenophobia.