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From The Socialist newspaper, 28 May 2008

South Africa: Attacks on refugees and migrants reveal capitalism's barbaric underbelly

THE WAVE of xenophobic pogroms which have swept through the squatter camps adjoining black townships around Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town, has so far claimed more than 50 lives and has left over 80,000 homeless.

Migrant workers and refugees have been left cowering for shelter in inhumane conditions in police stations, churches and the homes of sympathetic people in the suburbs. Zimbabweans who have fled the violence of Mugabe's regime are returning out of a greater fear of staying in South Africa.

Weizmann Hamilton, of the Democratic Socialist Movement (CWI, South Africa) reports on the current crisis and the issues underlying it.

THE PERPETRATORS have targeted black African immigrants - Zimbabweans, Mozambicans, Somalis, Malawians, Zambians and Nigerians - attacking their victims with pangas (machetes), knives, hammers and firearms in a barbaric outpouring of rage and hatred. As poor Africans turn upon poor Africans, immigrants have lost all their homes, personal belongings and the little savings they had been able to put away.

The black working class majority does not share the xenophobic sentiments that have fuelled this wave of reaction. Even most of the minority who resent the presence, particularly of the more educated migrant workers in the lower end of the jobs market, would not act upon that resentment.

In fact there is an overwhelming sense of revulsion amongst the working and middle class at these horrific developments. But the reality is that there has been, so far at least, no organised resistance, no counter demonstrations and no organised defence of the immigrants.

This is in part due to the shock induced by the suddenness with which the violence has exploded and the growing evidence of a certain level of organisation behind this reaction. But it must be acknowledged that there is present amongst the most downtrodden, desperate and alienated sections of the working class a seething discontent that has found expression in xenophobia.

That sentiment, born in conditions of poverty, squalor and degradation, has formed the explosive ingredient that has set the townships ablaze with xenophobic hatred detonated by conscious political opportunists, determined to ruthlessly exploit the possibilities of establishing themselves as warlords, combined with a criminal element out to loot, rob, rape and steal.

But the context has been provided by the near complete political demobilisation of the working class outside of the workplace especially in the townships, the lowering of political consciousness, the sharp ideological turn to the right by the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and the moral and political degeneration of the political and economic elite.

The organs of struggle, known as 'locals' which included township civics, and youth organisations created by Cosatu (Congress of South African Trade Unions) in the struggle against the apartheid regime and the bosses in the 1980s have long atrophied; with many activists sucked into positions in government, parastatals [government owned companies/agencies] and the corporate world.

Within ANC branches genuine working-class activists have been elbowed out by careerists, opportunists and place-seekers.


The government's reaction has been a masterpiece of ineptitude, confusion and incomprehension about what lies at the root of these events.

The Department of Home Affairs, widely regarded as the most incompetent government department, has played an important role, alongside the police, in creating the atmosphere of animosity towards immigrants.

The message communicated to immigrants that they are not welcome has become entrenched, expressing itself in official indifference to systematic attacks against immigrants in the Western Cape last year and in Pretoria townships earlier this year.

It reveals itself in hostility towards political asylum applications especially from Zimbabwe, the artificial distinction between political refugees and so-called economic migrants, the lengthy delays in asylum applications and the enactment of legislation empowering police to stop and search any person to establish if they are documented immigrants.

Afrikaner farmers farming near the Zimbabwean border, recently reacted to the increase of Zimbabwean immigration by engaging in the macabre sport of hunting like wild animals immigrants evading border controls and jumping the border fence.

Whilst the callous indifference towards the plight of the Zimbabwean masses, reflected in president Tabo Mbeki's foreign policy [his support for Robert Mugabe], has rightly earned him widespread ridicule, it has reinforced the prejudices and the brutality of the leaders of this xenophobic reaction.

The political life's mission of the ANC elite - and this applies to both the Mbeki and the Jacob Zuma factions - has reduced itself to a despicable, obsessive pre-occupation with self-enrichment, draining away the last remnants of the ANC leadership's political and moral authority.

Nothing is sacred anymore; as shown by the mushrooming of the funeral undertaking business as the government's genocidal Aids policy claims the lives of 1,000 victims a day, to the privately-run Lindelani detention centre for illegal immigrants from which tens of thousands are deported annually after spending time in a facility notorious for inhumane conditions and police brutality.

Lindelani provides a tidy profit for the black economic empowerment firm involved in running it and includes individuals from leading "struggle" families who spent years as honoured guests in the countries dubbed the 'front-line states' during the anti-apartheid struggle, whose citizens they profit from ill-treating and deporting today.

The ANC leadership has dishonoured the memory of the tens of thousands who struggled, sacrificed and died for the defeat of apartheid both in South Africa and in the front-line states many of which were bombed in the apartheid regime's cross border attacks.

Whilst the ANC leadership has condemned the xenophobia they have also denied that these violent attacks have anything to do with poverty and unemployment. They insist that this is pure criminality or the machinations of "right wing populists" and even dusted off the old urban legend of a "third force". Like inhabitants of a different universe, ANC structures have been issuing pamphlets to people living in squalor outlining the government's achievements in building houses, and the provision of electricity, water and sanitation!

The ANC's neo-liberal capitalist economic polices have led to 40% unemployment, an enormous gulf between rich and poor, growing indebtedness amongst the working class and above all a resentment that whilst the majority languishes in poverty, a tiny black elite - the so-called black diamonds - are becoming rich beyond their widest dreams.

The government has reacted to the latest crises caused by the electricity black-outs and the escalating food prices with callousness. The Minerals and Energy minister advised people to go to bed earlier as this would make them cleverer! The Minister of Finance suggested people could soften the impact of rising food prices by growing vegetables in back gardens! It is from this deep swamp of discontent that the elements leading the xenophobic attacks have fished.

But whilst leadership in this crisis could never have been expected from the ANC leadership, a striking feature of the situation is the apparent incapacity to fill this gap by the leadership of the organised working class, in particular Cosatu.

Cosatu called a demonstration in Johannesburg with little mobilisation that attracted no more than 300! It has issued predictable denunciations of xenophobia and calls for "African unity". As a worker organisation they have also fired the obligatory verbal salvoes against the bosses calling for the poor to direct their anger against the capitalists. But there is only muted criticism of the government's role and responsibility for this crisis.

Without mobilising on the basis of exposing the direct and obvious linkages between the policies of the government and the actions of the capitalists (who have exploited the much cheaper, and in many cases more skilled labour of immigrants) Cosatu's position comes across as abstract and meaningless.

Leadership crisis

This contradiction is of course rooted in the Cosatu leadership's determination to remain in the Tripartite Alliance with the Communist Party and the ANC.

The effect of this policy is that under this leadership, Cosatu has not only surrendered its class independence, it is actively colluding in sowing illusions in some of the ANC proposals to solve this crisis, such as cooperating with Community Policing Forums and the police to identify the ringleaders so that they can be prosecuted.

The arrest, prosecution and imprisonment of all persons guilty of robbery, assault, rape and murder is, of course, necessary. But we should not confuse the roots with the branches. This is a political and socio-economic problem which criminals have exploited regardless of the degree of organisation any investigation may reveal.

The current crisis is, however, an opportunity to revitalise the old traditions of struggle, solidarity and socialism. Despite the ideological failures the leadership appears to be suffering, the working class remains potentially the most powerful force in society.

The labour movement must build on the magnificent demonstration of international working-class solidarity recently demonstrated by the Transport and General Workers Union in refusing to unload the shipload of arms destined for Zimbabwe from China. The union was acting in defiance of the ANC government which had already issued a permit for the arms to be transported across SA under the pretext of meeting its "international obligations".

There was also the public sector strike last year - the biggest and longest in South Africa's history. This year was greeted by the first ever national strike by the National Union of Mineworkers on the question of safety.

The current wave of reactionary xenophobic violence is a warning that unless the vacuum on the left is filled by a mass workers' party with a socialist programme, there will be future attempts to exploit the discontent particularly of the poorest of the poor.

The full version of Weizmann's article can be read on

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In The Socialist 28 May 2008:

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Campaign for a new workers' party: conference 2008

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International socialist analysis

South Africa: Attacks on refugees and migrants reveal capitalism's barbaric underbelly

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The Wire - Reviewed by Michael Wrack

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Industrial news in brief


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