Soweto riots: for united struggle against unemployment and poverty

The only way to understand the tragic events of this week is to examine their roots in the brutal social conditions of the capitalist system. South Africa is a country scarred by mass unemployment, crippling poverty and gross inequality. Nearly 40% are unemployed; among the youth unemployment is over 50%. Half of all black households (not individuals, but entire households) struggle to survive on less than R2,500 per month; over 16 million depend on social grants. Yet alongside the poverty of the masses is the eye-watering wealth of the elite; Johann Rupert and Nicky Oppenheimer have more wealth than the poorest 26 million. Society is a giant heap of combustible material. That is does not burst into flames more regularly – as it has done this week – is the real surprise.

The events of this week again demonstrate the consequences of the political vacuum that exists. Explosions of anger and all the brutal consequences of misdirected rage will be a recurring feature of society as long as there is no mass working class party putting forward a socialist alternative. We need such a party to voice the anger of communities but to also explain that the capitalist system and the politicians that defend it are the real causes of people’s suffering. Crucially, we need such a party to point the way out of that suffering – united mass struggle for a socialist society.

Despite our sympathy with the justifiable anger felt by those who took part in looting this week at their terrible social conditions, the Workers and Socialist Party nevertheless condemns the xenophobic attacks on foreign-run spazar and tuck shops in Soweto. The lack of humanity shown in these attacks is terrible. Like us, the majority of Soweto residents will be disgusted. At least three people have died and hundreds more have fled their homes and abandoned their businesses. We stand in solidarity with our foreign-born class brothers and sisters who have been targeted in this violence and call on all working class fighters and socialists to do likewise.

The spark that set Soweto alight has been described in detail by the Daily Maverick. Late afternoon on Monday, an 18 year-old nyaope addict allegedly attempted to steal from a Somali-run spaza shop in Snake Town. According to local people he regularly stole from the shop and was known to the staff. He was confronted by a Somali staff member but refused to leave. A second Somali staff member pulled out a gun to scare the boy away. But the boy remained defiant and an argument developed. A crowd gathered to watch and the police were called when the gun was spotted.

The trigger for the violence was the police’s failure to find the gun when they searched the shop. Fuelled by xenophobic fears the crowd decided it was unacceptable for ‘foreigners’ to have firearms and if the police would not do something then they would. With the police still outside the Somali-run shop, the crowd went round the corner to a Pakistani-run shop and looted it. It was only when the crowd moved on to a second Pakistani-run shop that 14 year-old Siphiwe Mahori was shot dead, allegedly by the Pakistani owner. Whether he intended to kill Siphiwe we cannot know. But a second person was shot three times in the arm and other shots did not find a target suggesting general panic and mayhem.

Roots of violence in social conditions

Mass poverty, unemployment and inequality are the real cause of the anger felt by the tiny minority of South African-born Soweto residents who took part in the violence. But these problems will not have been addressed by attacks on foreigners and foreign-run shops. In 2008, xenophobic violence spread across Johannesburg. Thousands of foreign-born residents were displaced and 62 were murdered. Then, like today, people talked about foreigners ‘stealing’ jobs, not paying taxes and taking business opportunities from South Africans. But unemployment, poor service delivery and poverty have continued and worsened in the seven years since that brutal ‘culling’ of foreigners from communities. Clearly they were not to blame for the terrible conditions of the poor majority. Nor are they to blame today.

A partially-deaf 74-year-old Malawian man is amongst the dead this week. He was disembowelled before being set on fire. Tragically, those involved in the violence will have more in common with this man than they do with ‘fellow’ South Africans, black or white, who are members of the rich elite. One of the ‘complaints’ is that foreign-run spaza shops do not pay their taxes. Leaving aside the sudden concern for SARS and leaving aside the enormous government corruption when spending tax-money (e.g. Nkandla!), the few thousand Rand per year that SARS might be able to claim from foreign-owned spaza shops is less than a drop in the ocean compared to the tax avoidance of the rich and big business. Just 9,000 rich individual avoid paying R48 billion of taxes every year. Further, R140 billion leaves the country each year in the untaxed transactions and profits of big business. It is this money that could make a meaningful difference to the unemployment and poverty faced by the residents of Soweto, not taxes on those selling mealie-meal out of garages.

The majority of foreigners living in townships have travelled here from other poverty-stricken neo-colonial countries to try and find some sort of normal life. In particular, people from Somalia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Malawi have all been mentioned as targets in the current violence. Somalia is a war-torn ‘failed-state’ run by war-lords and pirates; the population of Pakistan are terrorised by Taliban suicide-bombers and other anti-working class jihadis, the bomber drones of US imperialism and the arbitrary terror of their ‘own’ rogue military; Malawi ranks 174 out of 187 countries in the United Nations Human Development Index (56 places behind South Africa); in Bangladesh over 40 million people survive on less than R14 per day. The brutal conditions of world capitalism are the main reasons that people leave their homes, friends and families to come to South Africa.

Xenophobia divides and lets the capitalists rule

The police and the ANC government are desperate to say that the attacks are not ‘xenophobic’. Unfortunately, there is no other description for the singling-out and targeting of foreign-born residents. The ANC do not want to admit xenophobia because they are worried about South Africa’s international reputation. The world capitalist powers hypocritically condemn xenophobia whilst their imperialist foreign policies trample over ‘human rights’ and democracy. But more than that, the ANC knows they have helped to create the conditions for xenophobia to rear its ugly head.

The ANC has been in power for over twenty years. In that time they have implemented capitalist policies that are completely unable to address the problems of unemployment, poverty and inequality. With these problems come others – crime, drug-addiction, domestic abuse and other social-ills. The ANC government must take responsibility for the violence this week.

But it is not just indirectly through its capitalist policies that the ANC government encourages xenophobia. They also use it explicitly in order to divide the working class. Zuma himself rubbished Malawians last year when defending his anti-working class e-tolls policy. He said “we’re in Johannesburg… This is not some national road in Malawi.” Capitalist politicians are always willing to encourage xenophobia to try and divert the attention of the working class and poor from capitalism’s responsibility for unemployment and other problems.

Following the lead of the capitalist politicians, xenophobia is widespread in the police. No one can forget the murder of Mozambican taxi driver Mido Macia in Daveyton in 2013. Police handcuffed him to their van and dragged him through the township until he was dead. On Friday, The Times showed pictures of three police officers walking away from a crowd looting a foreign-run spaza shop. Eyewitness News reported on the radio that another policeman had been caught taking-part in the looting! All of this says that the police will not treat crimes targeted at foreign-born residents seriously. This has emboldened those who have taken part in the violence this week. It is also not surprising that foreign-born residents in the townships have purchased guns to defend themselves rather than relying on the police. The arrest of eight foreign-born residents in Soweto for the illegal possession of firearms this week is another aspect to the human tragedy that has unfolded.

Drawing a division between South African-born and foreign-born divides the working class and damages the struggle to change society by disuniting the working class. We must unite against our common class enemy – the capitalists. The trade unions must make efforts to organise foreign-born workers. Likewise, the trade unions must struggle to organise the unemployed and wage a mass campaign for job creation. In such a campaign, the Socialist Youth Movement could be an important bridge between the organised working class movement and the township youth.

A country-wide socialist civic, jointly organising South African-born and foreign-born residents, is also necessary. Not only could such a civic address the service delivery issues of communities through united mass struggle but it could also address the social problems and community tensions that sparked this week’s riots. For example, the issue of democratically organised cross-community self-defence is posed when the police and social services fail to act on issues of crime, drug-addiction, the control of guns etc. NUMSA’s United Front could start to raise such ideas as part of its community campaigning.

All of our struggles must set socialism as the goal. A socialist society will be organised to meet the needs of all and not just the profits of the rich. Upon such a basis the social conditions that give rise to xenophobia will be abolished and replaced by human solidarity.

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