SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 190 July/August 2015

Combating xenophobia in South Africa

Two waves of xenophobic violence spread across South Africa earlier this year. In January, violence beginning in Soweto spread across the Johannesburg area. In April, the townships around Durban also erupted. Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Malawi, Somali and other nationalities have been targeted. Foreign-run small businesses in the townships have been a major target. Several people have been killed – both foreign and South African – many more injured and thousands displaced.

In 2008, when 62 people were killed in xenophobic attacks, many had hoped that it was an isolated ‘moment of madness’ that would never be repeated. At the time, however, the CWI warned that, because the violence was rooted in the appalling social conditions of working-class communities, it would unfortunately return. Unhappily, we have been proved correct.

Working-class and poor communities are angry. They are angry because 21 years after the end of the racist, apartheid, segregation system the majority still live in dire poverty. Mass unemployment, with nearly 40% out of work, means millions are unable to put bread on the table. Millions live in shacks in shanty-towns without water, electricity or sanitation. Crime and drug addiction feed off of this misery.

Yet alongside the poverty of the masses is the wealth of the elite. Inequality in South Africa is wider today than it was under apartheid. Just two South African billionaires have more wealth than the poorest 50% of the population. In these conditions of fierce competition for houses, jobs and other services, people will search for any reason why they should be advanced to the head of the queue to receive the crumbs of society. These social conditions are the real cause of the xenophobic violence.

The government of the African National Congress (ANC) and the political elite have fanned the flames of xenophobia. With one face, they hypocritically condemn the violence to reassure foreign investment and western tourists. With another face, they encourage the scapegoating of foreigners to hide their anti-working-class policies which are the real cause of the suffering of the working class and poor. It is the ANC government that has failed to build the required public housing, dragged its feet in implementing a national minimum wage, and lowered taxes on big business, passing on the burden to the working class through austerity and privatisation.

The ANC government has abandoned working-class communities. ANC councillors are often corrupt and incompetent. The ANC-led civic movement is corrupt and gives no leadership. Housing allocation is unfair and the ANC has now restricted public housing to those over 40. The struggle to find jobs is a chaotic free-for-all where people fight each other for a day’s casual work. Greedy bosses abuse foreign workers by underpaying them, driving down wages for all workers.

There is a vacuum of working-class leadership. There is no mass force willing or able to explain that the real causes of poverty and inequality are rooted in the capitalist system, and to point a way out through united working-class struggle. The consequence is xenophobic violence as working class and poor people turn on each other, letting the capitalist class and its political defenders off the hook.

The apartheid regime was overthrown by organising mass struggle upon the principles of non-racialism and non-tribalism, with the support of people from across the world. The townships were made ungovernable in the 1980s through a powerful country-wide civic movement, organised via street committees, linked to the organised working class in the trade unions. This working-class power must be rebuilt.

The Workers and Socialist Party (WASP) is putting forward a socialist programme to begin to overcome the vacuum of leadership and to unite communities for mass struggle. We need to give answers to the misplaced blame that foreigners are responsible for the lack of jobs and housing, for crime and drugs, and that foreign businesses use unfair practices which local businesses are unable to compete with. This is the only way to cut across xenophobic violence.

In many communities already, new independent crisis committees and community forums have been created. Where they do not exist they must be created. These organisations must involve all residents whether South African or from other countries. They must be accountable and democratic. Leaders must be subject to recall, and mass community meetings should be convened to decide on all major issues.

These structures must link up to form a new country-wide socialist civic federation. WASP is working with a number of organisations to try and take a step forward for this demand. A country-wide civic federation could lead national campaigns for house building, job creation, a national minimum wage, national labour registers to match workers with vacancies, and for the creation of state-supported cooperatives of small farmers and small businesses with guaranteed markets and prices.

Such community organisations, united in a federation, could begin to transform the spontaneous riot-like service delivery protests that take place daily into organised, disciplined and coordinated country-wide protests. These could be built up into a community general strike and national service delivery day of action, including a national march, reaching out to other sections of the working class for support.

Community organisations should take up the slogan: ‘nothing for communities, without communities’ – that no decisions affecting communities should be taken without their involvement. The work of local councillors and local councils should be scrutinised. Delegates from local organisations should observe all council meetings and report back to the community, organising lobbies and protests outside meetings where this is refused. Local organisations should demand that councils open the books to inspections by representatives of community structures, and should organise protests against tenders, outsourcing and privatisation of public works. To further increase the pressure, community organisations should begin planning a mass electoral challenge to corrupt and ineffective councillors in the 2016 local elections.

The widespread corruption in the police force and the harassment and extortion of foreigners means we can have no confidence in the police to tackle xenophobia. In 2013, a Mozambican taxi driver was murdered by police when they tied him to their van and dragged him through the streets. It is only organised communities that can stand up against xenophobia and stop the violence, killing and divisions. We have called for community-watch programmes under the democratic control of community organisations with the mass participation of the local people to protect foreign residents and businesses from violence.

In the Atteridgeville township outside Pretoria, civic structures linked to WASP have organised meetings with foreign residents’ groups to take a joint stand against xenophobia and have organised the training of unemployed youth to form community patrols. Community organisations should send delegates to participate in the Community Policing Forums and fight for local oversight of policing to combat corruption, harassment and the waste of resources. Community organisations must exercise oversight and review the drug-policing policies to combat corruption and campaign for high quality, free, drug rehabilitation programmes for addicts. Community-watch programmes must report all drug dealers and other criminals to the police and campaign for their removal from the community.

To combat gangsterism and organised crime, community organisations must organise mass protests. In Mokopane, the civic structures linked to WASP have organised several community shut-downs and mass demonstrations against the local taxi mafias and their murderous terrorisation of the area. This forced the authorities to arrest, charge and imprison several of those responsible for murdering community leaders who stood up to their corruption.

Community organisations can begin to implement measures that introduce elements of planning into the economic life of communities. This can help to cut across the conditions fuelling xenophobic violence. They must establish labour desks and build links with trade unions. Labour desks could draw up registers of the unemployed and their skills in order to negotiate with local businesses, including foreign-run businesses, to employ a quota of workers from these registers, the number depending on the circumstances of the business. These registers should be regularly inspected by representatives of the community to protect against corruption.

Local minimum wages could be agreed and enforced by community organisations to stop greedy bosses abusing workers from other countries and undercutting wages. These labour desks should also organise rotas for the hundreds of casual workers looking for piece-work who assemble on the corners of busy intersections daily and help ensure that all casual workers, South African and foreign, have a fair chance to earn a regular wage. Community organisations should create forums to encourage cooperation between local and foreign businesses, and develop business networks to defend their common interests against the unfair competition of big business.

Housing waiting lists should be taken out of the hands of corrupt councillors and gangster building developers and placed under the democratic control of community organisations. Fair and objective criteria should be used to prioritise housing allocation, including current housing situation, the number of dependents and length of time on the waiting list. Need must determine allocation. Housing waiting lists should be regularly inspected by local, elected representatives to protect against corruption.

The programme that WASP has developed as our answer to xenophobic violence has been unique on the left. Many have avoided the issue, uncertain how to answer the xenophobic prejudices of their own members. Others have adopted a useless moralism, condemning the ‘evil’ perpetrators of the violence and organising candlelit vigils.

The civic movement must give its full support to the creation of a mass workers’ party with a socialist programme and participate in all steps towards such a party. We must fight for a workers’ government so that the working class can take control of the borders and immigration. This will allow for a humane working-class immigration policy. A workers’ government with socialist policies could plan the integration of people from other countries into our communities and remove the competition for jobs, housing and services that leads to tensions and xenophobia when the capitalist class is in charge.

Shaun Arendse, CWI South Africa

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