Capitalist politicians use xenophobia to divert attention from failures of profit system.
Over the past two months a new ‘wave’ of xenophobic violence threatened to engulf South Africa. Isolated attacks against foreign residents and foreign businesses took place in the south of Johannesburg and the west of Pretoria. But the swift action of immigrant groups and organised South African communities, with the Workers and Socialist Party (CWI South Africa) playing a leading role, for now at least, seems to have prevented the sparks from catching fire.
Even so, for several weeks there was near panic amongst foreign residents. They feared a repeat of the 2008 violence that saw 62 murders and the destruction of large numbers of small businesses, or the half dozen killings in 2015 leading to the temporary creation of a ‘refugee camp’ outside of Durban as foreign-residents fled the townships.
The counter campaign led by WASP, founding the Coalition of Civics Against Xenophobia in Pretoria, culminated in a march to Union Buildings (seat of the presidency) on 9 March. Up to 400 marched representing dozens of immigrant groups alongside South African community organisations under the slogan “Unite against poverty, crime and xenophobia”.
Xenophobic statements by Johannesburg mayor
From the end of January, the Mamelodi Concerned Residents (MCR) group, from the huge township to the east of Pretoria distributed leaflets across the city blaming “foreigners” for unemployment, crime and drugs and calling on residents to march against “illegal immigrants”.
This followed xenophobic statements by the new mayor of Johannesburg, Herman Mashaba. In December, he put the blame for crime in the city at the feet of “illegal” foreigners, demanded they leave, and called on the national government to restrict immigration. Mashaba is a member of the Democratic Alliance (DA), a white middle class-dominated neo-liberal party, but one that presents itself with a socially liberal face. That Mashaba could make these comments with zero consequences within his party is a symptom of the global ‘Trump effect’.
When Donald Trump was elected to the US presidency the CWI anticipated that his ‘legitimisation’ of anti-immigrant views would produce ‘mini-Trumps’ and embolden reactionary forces across the world. Mashaba has stepped-up to prove us correct! That a black mayor, in a majority black country, could copy the rhetoric of a racist like Trump demonstrates that it is class forces that drive ‘Trumpism’ – namely the crisis of the capitalist system and the complete inability of capitalist parties to put forward any sort of programme capable of overcoming it. The capitalist politicians find xenophobia and other reactionary ideas useful to try and divert attention away from the failures of their rotten profit system. For them they would rather incite a bloodbath by turning the working class against each other than face the possibility of united struggle.
Xenophobia is able to have some influence over some sections of the working class, and especially the unorganized poor and unemployed because of the grinding poverty that the crisis of capitalism means for the majority. In such desperate circumstances, and in the absence of mass organisations to lead disciplined struggle against the real enemies of the working class and poor – the bosses, the capitalist politicians and their system – people will look for any way to push their way to the head of the queue to eat. Indeed, it has become clear that much of the looting that accompanies outbursts of xenophobia is not perpetrated by xenophobic ideologues, but by the most marginalised and ground-down groups in communities – the unemployed youth, drug addicts etc. – who use the political cover given by the likes of Mashaba and the MCR to fill their empty bellies.
Coalition of Civics Against Xenophobia
The Mamelodi Concerned Residents’ march was granted permission without any questions raised by the DA controlled Tshwane (Pretoria) municipality. It went ahead on 24 February. The ANC controlled Department of Home Affairs agreed to meet the leaders of the march and promised a timeous response to their memorandum. Reports from WASP members living in Pretoria indicate that even EFF activists were involved in mobilizing for this march. With no programme for struggle to break with capitalism and address the underlying social problems that can fuel support for xenophobia amongst some sections of the working class and poor, all of the mainstream parties capitulated.
In this vacuum WASP was able to take an initiative. As soon as we became aware of the MCR march we organised the hundreds of worker activists under the #OutsourcingMustFall campaign to distribute leaflets in their townships countering the MCR’s lies and calling for organisation and struggle to deal with the very real issues of poverty, crime and unemployment. On 17 February we organised a public meeting, followed quickly by a second on 19 February appealing to foreign resident and immigrant groups. The response was excellent with 50 and more attending the second meeting representing more than a dozen communities. The meeting agreed to found an Anti-Xenophobia Coalition.
On 22 February, two days before the planned MCR march, the Coalition went ahead with a press conference with Mametlwe Sebei and Themba Ncalo (both leading members of WASP), alongside a leader of the Congolese community, acting as the Coalition’s spokespeople. Over the next two days these WASP leaders dominated the TV, radio and newspapers. This played an important role in giving confidence to the vast majority of South Africans who are opposed to xenophobia, and the tide, especially in the media, began to turn against the MCR and their march. We put forward a clear call for the organisation of community self-defence patrols to defend foreign residents and businesses in the run up to the march.
In a major victory for the campaign, Mashaba was forced to ‘clarify’ his xenophobic statements as having been misinterpreted. President Zuma finally made a public comment only the day before the MCR march, but this was only because the South African cell phone operator MTN’s Nigerian offices were attacked in retaliation to violence targeting Nigerians. Disgracefully, his message was one of irritation that anti-immigrant sentiment is also normal in Europe but it does not get labelled as ‘xenophobia’! This is another stark demonstration that reactionaries like Zuma think that the rise of right-populism in other parts of the world can justify their own capitulation to it.
When the possibility of withdrawing permission for the MCR march began to be debated in the media, the ANC-led South African National Civic Organisation (SANCO) and ANC-led Congress of South African Students (COSAS) intervened to mediate between the organisers and the Pretoria West police to ensure it went ahead as a ‘peaceful’ march – albeit still a xenophobic one!
The Somali community in particular responded to the call to organise community self-defence. On the night of the MCR march WASP leaders attended a community meeting in Pretoria West and played a direct role in organising patrols. In other areas, WASP members patrolled as part of their Community Policing Forum networks. In one area at the heart of the violence, WASP members reported that known ANC Youth League activists were trying to organise and incite looting against foreign businesses. That there was an orchestrated effort to incite a new wave of violence under the cover of ‘xenophobia’ is beyond doubt.
In the end, the MCR march, despite work to organise it taking place over months and it being talked about intensely in the media for weeks, failed to attract more than a few hundred. It was a dismal failure. The organisers themselves blamed the Workers and Socialist Party for this.
The anti-xenophobia Coalition decided to go ahead with its own march that would put the issues of tackling crime and poverty at its heart. By now the Coalition had been joined by an organisation of hawkers and small traders from Mamelodi itself. This was crucial for showing the real views of the residents of Mamelodi – these traders marched under slogans including “the mall is taking our jobs not our African brothers”.
In stark contrast however to the tacit support of the authorities for the MCR march, the Coalition’s march was obstructed at every turn. In the end it went ahead as an ‘illegal gathering’ and the Office of the President refused to even send a representative to receive our memorandum. This was a very important learning curve for the Coalition. The government had not been silent because they were unaware of the growing xenophobia; on the contrary they supported it.
Whilst the immediate threat of widespread xenophobic violence appears to have receded, the task of organising communities – uniting foreign residents and local – is just beginning. With the successes of the campaign under the Coalition’s belt, the strategic task of forming a country-wide socialist civic federation can take steps forward.