Following clashes between the police and migrant shopkeepers in central Johannesburg last week, politicians, the police and union leaders have made reprehensible statements about migrants. The rapid and alarming normalisation of shamelessly xenophobic language in recent days must be condemned in the strongest possible terms.
As many scholars have shown, the road that led to the genocides perpetrated by the Nazis in Germany and the Interahamwe in Rwanda was first made with language that dehumanised part of the population. In the United States, President Donald Trump’s dehumanisation of migrants has already led to the establishment of internment camps. Dehumanising words often turn into actions, state-sanctioned ideologies and the material infrastructure of oppression.
As grotesque as he is, Trump is no outlier. Xenophobia, and other ways of dehumanising vulnerable minorities, have been central to the rise of the far right across the planet in recent years. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Mihály Orbán has consistently spewed crude forms of xenophobia. In 2015, he declared “a crisis situation due to mass immigration” and went on to build a fence along the country’s southern border with Serbia. Orban is also a notorious anti-Semite.
In Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s India, the Hindu nationalism of his rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party has emboldened his supporters to carry out regular and often fatal attacks against the country’s Muslim minority who live in fear following his re-election earlier this year.
In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro, who openly lionises the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985, recently said: “We feel profound repulsion towards those who are not Brazilian.”
The trouble at home
As South Africa slips deeper into a profound economic and social crisis, marked by massive and growing unemployment, recently pegged at 38.5%, a crumbling public health sector, failing municipalities and increasing crime, political elites are looking for vulnerable scapegoats to deflect the sometimes volcanic anger produced by growing desperation.
Verbal attacks on migrants by government officials and politicians in both the ANC and the DA have escalated to the point where xenophobic statements by the political elite are now systematic. Both the ANC and the DA made grossly xenophobic statements during the run-up to the general elections earlier this year, with the DA running on a promise of ‘securing the borders’ and ‘fixing home affairs’.
Former businessman-turned-populist DA mayor Herman Mashaba has regularly tried to blame state failure in sectors such as crime prevention and public health, among others, on migrants. Facing an uncertain future after the ANC announced it would table a motion of no confidence against him, Mashaba wasted no time in airing further xenophobic opinions. This time he pointed his finger at national government, the department of home affairs and border control.
Mashaba is not alone. When Minister of Home Affairs Aaron Motsoaledi was the minister for health, he repeatedly made grotesquely xenophobic statements in an attempt to blame the crisis in the health system on migrants.
Battle for the street
The recent surge in xenophobic statements by public figures follows the attempt by the police, widely derided as seriously corrupt, to stage a raid on migrants eking out a living on the streets of central Johannesburg. These attacks on vulnerable migrants trying to make a living are dangerous and may set a worrying precedent.
If government was truly serious about counterfeit goods and the effect their sale is said to have on the country’s economy, it could do a number of other things to address the matter rather than harassing working-class people at gunpoint. Instead of confronting people with nyalas, police armoured vehicles, government could start with tackling those who import counterfeit goods. Or better yet, it could address the corruption at the ports where these goods arrive, starting with the dishonest customs officials who let them pass through. Of course, though, there is an entirely separate discussion to be had about the wisdom of the government acting to protect the interests of big, multinational corporations while it consistently fails to provide the most basic forms of safety to ordinary people.
Following the clashes between the police and migrant shopkeepers and traders last week, politicians jumped at the opportunity to express their anger and disgust towards “foreigners”, gladly joining in the global rise of right-wing, xenophobic and racist discourse.
Gauteng member of the executive council for community safety Faith Mazibuko said: “We condemn all criminal elements hellbent on undermining the rule of the law in this country and making this country ungovernable. We can’t co-govern with criminals, especially foreign nationals who want to turn our country into a lawless Banana Republic.”
Mazibuko was in the news earlier this year after a recording emerged where she made disparaging comments about white and Indian workers in her department in a rage-filled rant. Her comments about a “banana republic” carry serious racial undertones against migrants.
Mazibuko was not alone in her contempt towards migrants. Gauteng Police Commissioner Lieutenant General Elias Mawela warned “these foreign nationals” that there would be repercussions. “Such lawlessness cannot be allowed to go unpunished,” he said in a statement. Mawela’s statement creates an obvious “us vs them” situation, attempting to portray law enforcement as innocent victims.
The Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (Popcru) went even further in its attempts to paint the police as targets. Popcru spokesperson Richard Mamabolo said in a statement that the union condemned “the mob attack on police”. It said nothing about the well-known extent of corruption in the police and the routine harassment of migrants by the police. Many migrants, refugees and asylum seekers have shared stories about how they have been targeted and harassed by unscrupulous police officers who see them as easy targets from whom to extort money and solicit bribes.
Even more bewildering, Mamabolo said: “We strongly feel that the Thursday activity was coordinated and planned to detail, partly aimed at provoking and portraying police to be brutal and incompetent.” Mamabolo warned the African Diaspora Forum (ADF), a migrant-led organisation that was established following the 2008 xenophobic violence, that it should “be at the centre of promoting obedience to the law of this hosting country”.
Mamabolo’s statement follows years of xenophobic discourse from the police, government officials and politicians who have sought to portray migrants as criminals. Gauteng Premier David Makhura’s comments after last week’s clash followed the same narrative of criminal migrants targeting law enforcement who were just trying to do their jobs.
“Some foreign nationals who sell counterfeit goods and occupy buildings illegally in the Joburg CBD attacked our police with bottles and petrol bombs. This despicable crime against our state will never be tolerated. [Operation] Okae Molao will respond in full force to defend [the] rule of law,” Makhura said in a statement.
By painting all migrants as criminals who sell counterfeit goods and drugs, and hijack and occupy buildings in the inner city, these politicians try to whip up support for themselves at the expense of some of the most vulnerable people in our society. If they succeed in winning support from ordinary South Africans, who are justifiably frightened of out of control crime, they will endorse a tougher approach by the police and sustain the impunity with which law enforcement target migrants in the inner city.
Trade unions join the dangerous game
Earlier this year, Zwelinzima Vavi, general secretary of the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu), exposed his own prejudice in disparaging tweets about street traders in Mount Frere.
He tweeted: “These are new shop owners going for midday prayers. Too many things going wrong? How did their goods come this far? How did they go through borders – were duties paid? What contributions to the tax man? What is the impact to local manufacturing sector? What’s happening to jobs?”
He was widely condemned for his xenophobic and Islamaphobic tweets, but defended them by referring to the high rate of unemployment in South Africa, and the “dumping of cheap goods that has destroyed manufacturing”. This defence panders to the same populist rhetoric used by unscrupulous politicians.
Vavi’s comments not only went against the rich history of internationalism and pan-Africanism in trade unions in South Africa, but they also conflicted with Saftu’s principles laid out in its founding document, which states: “Unions must fight for the maximum unity of all workers and reject all divisive and negative sentiment such as racism, xenophobia, tribalism and ethnicity, all of which are products of the capitalist system which exploits divisions within the working class”.
In spite of this organisational declaration Vavi follows the same script increasingly used by opportunistic politicians.
Any person professing progressive views must reject the rapid normalisation of blatantly xenophobic statements. The political elite, with increasingly crude forms of support from government officials, police officers, and now even some trade union leaders, are playing a very dangerous game, a game that could well cost lives in the near future. A line in the sand must be drawn.