My Thoughts on Xenophobia

My Reflections

The acts of violence that recently swept across South Africa against foreign nationals have once again brought to the fore questions of identity, nation and what it means to be African. I have followed the news and read several commentaries. Achille Mbembe and Trevor Ncube have been some of the brave non-South African voices that made a contribution based on their experiences of the different manifestations of xenophobia or, more specifically, Afrophobia, as they would like to call it. These and others have been very helpful for those of us tracking issues from afar, but I feel that there is still something behind the story that is not being discussed. The dominant arguments/refrains can be classified within the three clusters, and I will show that these have become rackets in themselves not challenging us on how we can collectively overcome the challenge we face. In other words, they provide us with a comfortable lens of looking at society without necessarily hearing the concerns of others. I think the brothers and sisters of South Africa who took to the streets and engaged in violence have some form of a grievance, and there is need for a genuine audience to listen and take up their issues.

In summary, we have 3 dominant strands of arguments; (i) foreigners are taking our jobs and they must go back, (ii) Africa also contributed to the dismantling of apartheid, and (iii) related to (ii), we are all Africans and we should learn to live and coexist together. The ‘foreigners are taking our jobs’ position is statistically valid but it also ignores other dimensions such as skills matching, desirability of the jobs that foreigners do, and also acceptability of the wages that foreigners get. In a context of high levels of unemployment, this will always come up and should not be easily dismissed. The second position, that Africa contributed towards South Africa’s liberation, is very true despite some recent attempts to wipe away African countries and their regional blocs’ solidarity in the dismantling of apartheid. Lives were lost, economies disrupted and other political leaders were sidelined because of their commitment to the liberation of South Africa. However, I do not think we made that contribution so that we can go and settle in South Africa. It was our way of standing with fellow African brothers and sisters who were under an evil system of rule. We also look back on that day in 1994 when South Africans were allowed to vote with pride and celebrate Freedom Day on the 27th of April.  In brief, we made a contribution so that a fellow African nation could have majority rule and her people could have the dignity of being able to choose their leaders. There should be no debt for such acts of solidarity and South Africa is not the only country that received such solidarity. The third strand of the common arguments is that we are all African and we should be able to co-exist, and we are embarrassed by what our fellow nationals are doing to others. If I were South African, I would probably belong to this cluster, which makes a lot of sense, but sadly does not address the first question as to why people are engaged in violence. Reminding those engaged in, or supporting violence against foreign nationals that the person they are killing or planning to kill is also an African like them makes it seem as if they had forgotten or were not aware of that fact. I do not think so. They are very aware that they are about to kill a fellow human being. It is an expression of deeper rage.

Sadly, these three clusters of arguing do not bring us anywhere close to a solution except maybe pushing for punitive sentences for those caught organizing and engaging in violence. Then what? Have we addressed Xenophobia for good? I think we should really think about a more systematic and long-term process to deal with this issue. All of us, and not just the South African government. Here I think President Zuma’s question, paraphrased to read ‘… why are all these foreigners here’, provides us with an opportunity to be a bit more rigorous in trying to address the matter.

My starting point is that the acts of violence are being done in the name of jobs and economic well-being. Foreign nationals are seen as dipping too much into the national cake at the expense of nationals. Then, we need to look at historical patterns of production and accumulation, and how foreign nationals have historically contributed to the South Africa economy. Historically, South Africa has always benefitted from migrant labour, especially to work on the farms and mines. Labour recruiting stations for South African mines were established across the sub-region. Migrant labour was mostly underpaid and not accorded present day rights and privileges that the unions are demanding. The official process of recruiting foreign nationals to service the needs of mines and farms may no longer be existent, but it continues through informal means and continues to serve the profit maximization goal of capital. In the end, we have massive exploitation of labour with disastrous consequences, as in Marikana. In fact, any attempt to look at acts of violence against foreign nationals living in townships as separate from the struggles for better pay and better jobs is misguided. There is a close relationship, but the gap in articulation is mostly because of the manner in which the working poor are organized or disorganized. It is the logic of capital accumulation that is under scrutiny. Why do businesses prefer to employ foreigners? It is not because they work better. That is just patronizing. It is because they are not unionized and can be easily underpaid with no recourse for complaining.

Secondly, when South Africa attained independence in 1994, expectations were high that with the removal of colonization and apartheid the sub-region was now ready for regional integration. Indeed, by then, the SADCC had become a model of integration for other sub-regions, such as the East Africa block and the West Africa block. But instead, efforts at economic integration in Southern Africa have slowed down. South Africa has played a major role in the sub-region, but its focus has mostly been in ensuring stability through facilitating dialogues, quelling coups and peacekeeping. Pretoria’s budget for diplomacy across the Sub-Saharan Africa is probably the biggest. However, most of South Africa’s focus has not been towards social and regional integration, which was originally the hope of the Frontline State, and the precursor to SADCC, but instead on ensuring stability to allow business to operate with no disruptions.

It is important to bear in mind that South Africa is a sub-imperial force and an important intermediary for international capital. It has worked within that logic, ensuring that the sub-region has peace and stability, and intervening where her economic interests are under threat, for example, in Lesotho. It has not taken advantage of its advanced economy to pursue a regional integration model that ensures wider and equitable growth but has instead pursued and defended her economic interests, working closely with its representatives of capital. It is telling that during one of President Zuma’s first trips into Africa, covering Angola and DRC precisely, he was accompanied by businessmen with interests in mining and agriculture. Since the late 1990s, South African-financed shopping malls, housing mostly South Africa retails shops and supermarkets, have become a permanent landmark not only in Southern Africa, but all the way to Accra, Ghana. In the extractive sector, South African owned/aligned mining houses have pursued a similar model of extracting primary commodities with limited re-investment in down-stream and side-stream value chains. In some cases, these companies use mostly South African labour on six-week rotations. In brief, South African companies have pursued an FDI model into Africa without reforming exploitative patterns inherent in global accumulation processes or at the very least attending to the concerns of their fellow Africans.

Many African countries are currently experiencing very limited prospects for the growth of their national savings accounts because, despite widespread GDP growth, the share resources going to locals, in terms of Gross National Income, is very insignificant thanks to investors like South African companies that are quick to repatriate their profits. Trevor Ncube laments the fact that South Africa did not play a decisive role in constraining Mugabe in Zimbabwe. I see it differently. That was probably never their objective. Instead, they had huge economic interests. One of the immediate outcomes from the South African negotiated Government of National Unity was the awarding of a contract to resurface Zimbabwe’s major highway from Plumtree to Mutare via Bulawayo and Harare. The contract was awarded without going to tender on a build, operate and transfer (BOT) basis, despite the fact that there has been a consortium of local businesses asking government for a similar deal. I am sure there are many other cases across the continent. I would like to submit to you, Mr. President, that the answer to your questions is these are ‘chickens merely coming back home to roost’. If other non-South-African economies are not growing, labour will continue to flock to Egoli!

To be fair, South Africa is not entirely responsible for the mess we are in. The governance records of many African countries leave a lot to be desired, but that may distract me from my main argument, which is the role of South Africa in the continent and in particular Southern Africa. I have already stated that South Africa takes a sub-imperial approach. This simply means that it does not have the same capacity of an imperial power like the USA, for instance, but is in a position to act as an intermediary for imperial powers. For example, South Africa’s membership into the BRICS group is not mostly because she is an economic powerhouse, which she is. But, it is also because it has the capacity, as South African Airways puts it, to ‘take Africa to the world and the world to Africa’. It provides an excellent launching pad for many would-be investors into Africa, and also takes advantage of her influential position in both the SADC and at the AU to ensure a conducive business environment. South Africa has chosen to subordinate itself to the dictates of international capital and preserve the status quo beyond its borders on behalf of business rather than being the champion of the developing region.

Now, what is to be done? The first imperative is to create jobs. Honestly, this is a no-brainer. The doomsday prophecies about the collapse of the Rand will always be there. But, without the ANC taking on leadership and taking a developmental state position, they can only work on the margins and tinker with welfare reforms which, in themselves, could be a disincentive for economic growth. Beyond that, I will not meddle into the murky waters of national economic policies.

Currently, the SADC is engaged in an attempt to roll out an industrialization strategy. Although not yet expressed officially, everyone knows that the success or failure of the program rests squarely on South Africa. Is South Africa interested in a program that will assist member countries to develop industrialized capacity, which may potentially reduce their dependence on goods imported from South Africa? We will see. Potentially, the creation and rolling out of an industrialization strategy that benefits from agriculture and mining could create millions of job across the sub-region, thereby lessening the lure of crossing the Limpopo in search of greener pastures.

Yes, there are other short-term measures that could be taken, such as improving border patrols, reducing corruption within the department of home affairs, and fining businesses that employ undocumented foreigners. I would like to submit to you that at some point in the life of a government, lethargy will set in and foreigners will still descend on your shores. Help African countries grow their productive capacities. In other words, create incentives for people to stay in their countries.

Furthermore, this matter should not be treated as an isolated event or as South Africa’s unique problem. It is systemic and regional in nature. Those calling for a conference/summit on this matter are absolutely right. South Africa’s current diplomatic efforts, through sending ministers to different African capitals, are commendable. But, that is just for the moment. In the absence of a coherent South African and regional strategy, this is like patching together a badly damaged road while waiting for the next rains to see what happens. We do not know how it will resurface, but I can assure you it will, if nothing is done. And next time, it may not just be the seven lives we counted in this round. We should also take cognizance of the shifting political interests. What if, the next time, the ANC government is in support of this as the cause of economic stagnation and lack of jobs? Let me give you an example. Zimbabwe has, since the 1980s and well into the 1990s, experienced some levels of grassroots based organized violence against predominantly white farmers, although, thankfully, there were no murders, but mostly disruption of production right up until 2000. Then all of a sudden, the tone of government changed from condemning these skirmishes to endorsing them as a genuine grievance mostly because ZANU (PF)’s political fortunes were declining.  I hope we will not have such parallels in South Africa.

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