After middle-class moralising ends, xenophobia requires a root-cause critique

Inside a refugee camp in Soetwater, Cape Town during the xenophobic attacks of 2008.

Media adverts, marches, speeches and campaigning generally missed the point: a layer of barely-surviving young men were the main attackers and had long lost patience.

Political symbols in South Africa are here today, gone tomorrow, but the durability of an oppressive economy seems to last. In March, the University of Cape Town students’ excellent #RhodesMustFall campaign was displaced, horrifyingly, by a #RhodesBordersMustRise attack by the poor on the poor.

As dozens of shack settlements, inner-city areas (especially near migrant-labour hostels) and large townships were suddenly torn with violence, at least ten deaths followed, along with displacement of several thousand immigrants.

In the Durban city centre, a few Congolese and Nigerian immigrants, well-schooled in defence from their home war zones, fought back. Nor did the xenophobic attacks reach Johannesburg’s Hillbrow inner-city zone, where resistance would have been intense because of the high number of immigrants living there.

Inside a refugee camp in Soetwater, Cape Town during the xenophobic attacks of 2008.

But in less concentrated sites in shack settlements mainly in the Durban residenal periphery, more than 1,000 victims were repatriated to Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Zambia and Malawi. Even though the public shaming of South Africa was acute and solidarity protests and boycott threats rose against South African embassies and corporations in those countries as well as in Nigeria, Jacob Zuma’s government initially did very little to resolve or even properly band-aid the situation.

Media adverts, marches, speeches and campaigning generally missed the point: a layer of barely-surviving young men were the main attackers and had long lost patience with such sanctimonious preaching. Finally, after more than three weeks, the army was called out to replace the police in several hotspots.

Some middle-class NGOs and religious faith leaders provided emergency charity aid which stabilised refugee camps, and several anti-xenophobia marches during April briefly reclaimed central city spaces. However, the tone of nearly all middle class public commentary on xenophobia was moralising. It was unable to comprehend the underlying conditions that led the lumpen-proletariat to act against so many foreign shopkeepers, workers and families, just as they had in 2008 and 2010.

Durban’s xeno epicentre

According to City Press journalists, Jeena’s Warehouse in Isipingo was the site of the first attacks, on March 30: “Wholesaler Goolam Khan says that the casual workers he hired in their place were for- eigners, saying he has a strict policy of hiring locals. But he did hire a security company after strikers picketed outside his shop and, he claims, began vandalising property and intimidating customers. The security company employs foreigners – that’s what many believe sparked the first wave of attacks.”

Take every Zimbabwean back to Zimbabwe, and you will s ll be unemployed. You can kill all the people of Zimbabwe, and you will s ll die in poverty. Your problem is the ANC

Immigrants in search of work are typically young males whose families stay behind in neighbouring countries until they can become rooted. The men, who sometimes send remittances home, will accept much lower wages than local residents (who usually must support larger families) and can save money by often quadrupling up in small inner-city apartments or township shacks – often sleeping in shifts – which puts upward pressure on rental rates. Unscrupulous employers or landlords increase their own power by threatening to tell the police and Home Affairs about the illegal immigrant, as a weapon of super-exploitation often used especially on farms to avoid wage payments. This is a common practice against migrants all over the world.

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Retail overtrading

Another structural cause of xenophobia is excessive township retail competition: “overtrading.” This results from immigrants – especially from Somalia, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and China – having advantageous relations with wholesalers. The collective credit and bulk purchasing power usually found in immigrant retail syndicates swamps the spaza shops run by local residents.

Battles between petty capitalists then move from price wars to physical intimidation. Scores of high-profile “service delivery protests” by communities against their municipal governments have turned into xenophobic looting sprees against the immigrants’ shops often instigated by local spaza shop owners. Opportunistic theft then emerges in the chaos to the benefit of youth, competing spaza shop owners (and their kombi taxi-driver goods distributors) and indebted shoppers.

The Greater Gauteng Business Forum’s Pretoria leader, Mpane Baloyi, articulated this sentiment about immigrants two years ago: “Our government should stop issuing asylum to these people; they should rather place them in camps. We don’t want them on our streets, not because we hate them, but due to economic space.”

Xeno Zwelithini’s ill will

But why, on March 30, did this round of attacks begin? The isiZulu command “abahambe!” (foreigners must go!) was heard often that day, along with “the King has spoken!”, as hundreds were chased from their shops as well as shacks near the Isipingo suburban center.

Ten days earlier, Zulu king Goodwill Zwelithini had indeed spoken about immigrants at a “Moral Regeneration” rally in northern KwaZulu-Natal: “You find their unsightly goods hanging all over our shops, they dirty our streets. We cannot even recognise which shop is which, there are foreigners everywhere… We ask foreign nationals to pack their belongings and go back to their countries.”

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When does “foreign” begin as a concept here? As Julius Malema told a rally against xenophobia in Johannesburg’s restive Alexandra township, “These borders are not our borders. These borders are imposed on us by the colonisers. I have come here to plead with you… No Zimbabwean has taken your job. You want a job, go to Luthuli House. Take every Zimbabwean back to Zimbabwe, and you will still be unemployed. You can kill all the people of Zimbabwe, and you will still die in poverty. Your problem is the ANC.”

Zuma’s ANC government is at fault for tightening immigration regulations the last few years, which compels refugees towards illegal informality. Like Thabo Mbeki, he has also promoted sub-imperial policies in the region in order to secure contracts for favoured corporations. Pretoria’s consistent support to erratic, repressive neighbours like President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, the Swazi tyrant monarch Mswa and the corrupt regime of Joseph Kabila, often appears motivated by familial, per- sonal or long-standing liberation movement loyalties. More refugees result.

More pressure than mere appeals and marches is needed to change the Zuma government’s approach and finally get to the root causes. What power do activists have?

One factor obvious in recent weeks was the “brand damage” the government is feeling; it is apparently only such damage that pushes Zuma to act. As Bandile Mdlalose from the Community Justice Movement put it, “We in Durban civil society should consider a boycott campaign: against the Tourism Indaba next month, against other big events at the International Convention Centre in the following weeks, and even against any Commonwealth decision, expected on September 2, to give the 2022 Games to our undeserving city.”

Like protesters in other countries who are tackling the South African brand so as to force the Pretoria regime to adopt more humane policies, perhaps progressives here should also debate how to shift from moralising towards standing up alongside African protesters, to gain sufficient power that root causes can finally be addressed.

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