No to xenophobia! Working class unity for jobs, education and services for all

Secretariat Statement

Workplace and community action to stop both murder, looting and government fuelling of xenophobia!

The Workers and Socialist Party condemns the xenophobic attacks that are centred in and around Durban and now spreading also to Johannesburg. We call on community organisations and trade unions across South Africa to take a stand to put an end to the attacks by organising assemblies against xenophobia in their locations and workplaces. This is particularly important in the affected areas such as Isipingo, uMlazi and KwaMashu. If ever there was a time for the United Front initiated by NUMSA to make its mark, this is it! WASP calls for the organising of marches to say a loud no to the xenophobic and racist murder and looting as well as to the ANC-government’s legitimisation of such attacks through its xenophobic policies that treat foreign-born workers and poor as criminals.

According to media reports, this latest wave of xenophobic violence began with an attack on foreign-born residents in Isipingo, south of Durban, apparently provoked by a shop firing its workers and replacing them with new staff of foreign origin. If true, this is a tragic image of the role that xenophobia and racism play in holding up class society. The boss who was taking advantage of the vulnerable position of immigrants to super-exploit them and press down on wages, working conditions and the confidence to take up struggle of all workers, South African and foreign-born, is free to continue doing so. Instead of taking up the fight with the boss against unfair dismissal and for equal pay for equal work, South Africans turned on Africans with their origins outside the border. In the three weeks that have followed, thousands of residents, most with their roots in Zimbabwe and the DRC, have fled their homes. Spaza shops have been looted and burnt and people have lost their livelihoods. At least five people have been killed in the violence.

The working class has no home country

The struggle against xenophobia and racism is a key pillar of WASP’s commitment to socialism. Workers and poor people from across southern Africa and the world have far more in common with each other than with their respective fellow citizen oppressors in big business and government. The claims that ‘foreigners’ take ‘our’ jobs, ‘outcompete’ locals in eking out a living out of spaza shops, ‘sell drugs’, are ‘just too many’ and so on and on, should be treated with contempt by everyone who supports the struggle for jobs, housing, electricity, water, sanitation and education for all. South Africa has massive wealth that could easily provide everyone in need with work, a living wage, quality education, develop working class areas with decent housing, modern services, recreational facilities and programmes to combat drug abuse  as well as a safe place away from war and persecution – if it was in the hands of the working class. So does the DRC, Zimbabwe and other countries from which workers and poor people have been forced to flee to escape persecution, mass unemployment or war (often, as in the case of the DRC, war over precisely the precious resources which capitalists, not least South Africa-based ones are scrambling for). Big business, the capitalist system and its political defenders in government should be the target of working class anger, not foreign-born class brothers and -sisters.

Tribalism next

The xenophobic myths that are used (even when pre-faced with “I don’t support the violence and looting, but…”) to justify murder and terror are underpinned by a narrow-minded racism which will tomorrow strike back at its supporters of today. This is racism, not just xenophobia, as the targets are black Africans and Asians with the notable exemption of whites. An interesting and little-known fact on the xenophobic pogroms of 2008 is that 21 of the 62 people killed actually were South Africans. Within this irrational frame of reasoning, the logical next step from killing those deemed one shade too black will be attacks on people or of the ‘wrong’ tribal origin. If xenophobic and racist divisions are allowed to grow further, the scene is set for Pedi-speaking workers and communities to be pitted against Shangaan and Venda counterparts in Limpopo, for Tswana-speaking residents of Rustenburg to chase away the Pondo- and Sotho-speaking mineworkers and their families to mention just a couple of examples. Every day sees dangerous glimpses of the potential for such conflicts to flare up.

ANC politicians and Zulu king fuel xenophobia

The ANC government has been forced to name this wave of violence as xenophobic and to condemn it. While this is one step forward from the stubborn denialism (the claims that all there has been to the attacks in recent months is ‘opportunist criminality’) and the open incitement to xenophobia from for example Ministers Nomvula Mokonyane and Lindiwe Zulu, it is being undone by two steps backward as every condemnation and caution issued by government is immediately followed by assurances that ‘illegal’ foreigners and unlicensed businesses will be dealt with. By continuing to cast suspicions on immigrants and refugees, the ANC-government is fuelling their effective criminalisation and is legitimising the brutal attacks it claims to oppose.

Beyond talk, the government’s actions and policies speak volumes. The right to asylum for those who flee war, political or religious oppression, has effectively been abolished in South Africa, with a backlog of hundreds of thousands of applications and refugees suffering massive abuse at the hands of government officials. For African immigrants, and anyone too dark-skinned in the ‘wrong’ area, constant ID-/ passport controls, arrests and police brutality are normal. Foreign-born shop owners have learned from experience that they can only expect extortion, intimidation and xenophobia from the police, and some have concluded that their only chance at protection is to arm themselves. Last year’s tightening of the Immigration Act and regulations are almost impossible to comply with. It is no coincidence that the sharpening of the law was accompanied with aggressive talk, preparing the ground for example for the ending of the special permits for the 250 000 Zimbabweans who live and work in South Africa by the end of 2017. Now, the ANC is preparing to use the xenophobic violence to reinforce its right-wing and xenophobic shifting of government policy, as seen in the calls by ANC general secretary for the establishment of refugee camps on the border. The message that is sent out by government is that ‘foreigner’ equals ‘suspect criminal’ and ‘legitimate target’.

The government has in this way put together the firewood for a big conflagration. All that was needed was for someone to drop a match. This was done by the Zulu king, Goodwill Zwelithini when he said in a speech that foreigners should be chased out of the country “like you shake lice off a blanket”. He is being defended by Police Minister Nathi Nhleko as simply restating government policy – because he was talking about ‘illegal’ foreigners, mind you! WASP condemns this official xenophobia as strongly as we do the burning and looting.

Divide and rule

For the capitalist bosses, racism and xenophobia are also useful as justification for sub-existence wages and sub-human working and living conditions for black, and in particular foreign-born, workers. This can be seen very clearly in the mining industry. The capitalists also do their best to make use of racial and ethnic differences to divide and rule the working class. The maintenance of the migrant labour system long after the end of apartheid is one of the signs of this. So for the working class, unity across ethnic lines is a must.

The organised workers, with the old National Union of Mineworkers and Cosatu in the lead, established a proud tradition of unity in struggle. It is no coincidence that xenophobia is breaking out this year in the wake of the effective collapse of Cosatu. It is only the organised working class that has the power to take all of society forward based on collective organising and class-unity in struggle for a socialist society. With the paralysis and breakdown of Cosatu over the past three years in particular, in place of the forces holding workers and communities together based on joint class interests a space has been opened for those, like the king, who try to rely on inflaming divisions to reinforce their privileged positions.

The situation screams out for the organised workers and communities in struggle to give a new lead. WASP is working to get the United Front, initiated by NUMSA, trade unions and community organisations to organise marches and solidarity action such as workplace and community meetings to shout out the class alternative to xenophobia and to stop the violence from spreading to new areas.

Ruling party and the state part of the problem, not the solution

We cannot rely on the police, government or ruling party leaders to put an end to the xenophobic violence. The brutal police attack on the march against xenophobia which was held in Durban on April 8 is a clear indication of this. Although the march had a permit police would not allow it to go ahead. The demonstrators were assaulted with water cannons, tear gas, rubber bullets and even planks. A xenophobic mob made up of amongst others taxi rank workers and drug addicts, according to the report by Abahlali baseMjondolo, had been mobilised to attack the march, apparently in an organised manner with people being bussed in from as far as Port Shepstone.

We can clearly have no confidence in government-orchestrated manifestations against xenophobia, the deployment of more police or of the army. The immediate answer is to work hard to mobilise the rank-and-file of trade unions and communities for a resounding mass action rejection of xenophobia. Going forward, it is critical that such mobilisations contribute to the rebuilding of a worker-controlled and class-independent labour movement, the unification of community struggles in a country-wide, socialist civic organisation and the bringing together of all working class struggles under a clear anti-xenophobic, anti-racist and socialist banner in a new working class political party.

While at one level embarrassing for the ruling class and government, xenophobia is above all a convenient distraction from the reality that all working class and poor people are ’illegals’ in their world where capital equals citizenship, especially at a time like this when the economy is deeply mired in crisis for which the same elites want the workers and poor to pay. The answer to the hunger and desperation of working class communities is not xenophobia but to reach out to immigrant and refugee communities that feel isolated from the broader working class and to unite communities and workplaces in struggle that can direct the anger towards the only legitimate target: the capitalist system. As seen in the last few weeks the future holds either socialism or barbarism. It is only a socialist programme, which is by definition internationalist and anti-racist, that can provide the basis for unity.


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