Across the planet, xenophobia has become a central tactic by right-wing demagogues to deflect critical attention away from elites. By fabricating an illusion of common interest between elites and the rest of society, xenophobia scapegoats highly vulnerable people for the social devastation wreaked by elites.
No one in the United States is impoverished because their neighbour is from Mexico. No one in England is impoverished because their neighbour is from Poland. No one in South Africa is impoverished because their neighbour is from Zimbabwe. Yet in all these countries, and many more, elites speaking in the name of the people cynically seek to redirect the popular anger and fear that has developed as a result of economies that work very well for the rich but are not viable for the majority.
Along with a swing to the right in many countries, the deliberate cultivation of xenophobia as a political strategy results in extraordinary cruelty to migrants and sometimes actions that are undertaken in full knowledge that they will result in deaths. If there is a figure of the moment, a figure that illuminates the brutalities of the global conjuncture, it may well be a migrant making their way across the Rio Grande or the Mediterranean.
The ANC took dangerous xenophobic positions soon after taking office. By 2000, the party had undertaken what was described as a “US-style bid to rid SA of illegal aliens”. Communities were encouraged to “root out” migrants in the name of patriotism. The police launched Operation Crackdown. The departments of home affairs and labour launched a joint operation called Operation Clean Up. This language would not be out of place in fascist politics.
The deliberate attempt by the state to incite xenophobia began to have horrific consequences in May 2008, when migrants and people from ethnic minorities were attacked across the country. Since then, repressive and abusive state action – formal and informal – has become a cyclical and escalating phenomenon. In 2015, Operation Fiela, a brutal state attack on migrants, repeating the language of fascism, was a new low.
Growing social catastrophe
Today, South Africa is in a massive and desperate social crisis. Unemployment is at just over 43%. For young people, the unemployment rate is just over 55%. The International Labour Organization, a credible United Nations agency, places this as the worst youth unemployment rate on the planet. The rate of unemployment for Black people is worse than it was under apartheid. Inequality is worse, too.
In the 1994 election the ANC promised a jobs bonanza. But the party has, undeniably, failed to realise this promise. In fact, its economic record is one of growing social catastrophe for the majority. Things are likely to get worse in the near future. The long jobs bloodbath in manufacturing will, as austerity corrodes the state, begin to hit public-sector workers, too.
The employment rate during the Great Depression in the US was just under 25%. That period is remembered in novels, films and the popular imagination more broadly as a time of great suffering. But in South Africa there has never been a real sense among elites that mass unemployment is a major social crisis, or that it could become a major political crisis.
It is difficult to think of a modern society that has had rates of unemployment even close to what is currently being endured in South Africa without major social upheaval, be it to the right, the left or politically inchoate. The social crisis in South Africa is simply not sustainable. Something has to give.
Neither of the two dominant factions of the ANC have any commitment to ameliorate the crisis. The increasingly economically conservative faction around President Cyril Ramaphosa is pushing a hard austerity programme that will swiftly worsen the social crisis. The sole political project of the kleptocratic faction around Ace Magashule is to enrich a tiny, politically connected elite at the direct expense of the majority.
As a result, both factions require an ideological project to sustain consent for their authority. They have both chosen to incite xenophobia for this purpose. The language of the kleptocratic faction is increasingly crude but while the Ramaphosa faction uses more temperate language, it is also becoming increasingly xenophobic. Ramaphosa-aligned KwaZulu-Natal premier Sihle Zikalala recently responded to organised intimidation of migrants, including attacks on their stalls and shops, with the announcement of a campaign to “remove illegal immigrants from the province”.
As xenophobic rhetoric from both factions of the ANC – and the state – escalates, there are two deeply disturbing parallel developments. One is how xenophobia is being normalised across society.
The DA and Herman Mashaba have embraced the politics of xenophobia. It is now common to see xenophobic language and opinion saturating news reports. And the trade union movement, with its long and global history of progressive commitment, including a rejection of xenophobia, was compromised when South African Federation of Trade Unions general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi posted tweets in early 2019 that were widely understood as xenophobic and Islamaphobic.
Churches, too, have been swayed. The “mainline” churches had developed a significant commitment to solidarity with the oppressed by the 1980s. There were currents that, following liberation theology, were explicitly committed to “a preferential option for the poor”. But on Monday 23 November, Bishop Sandile Ndlela of the United Methodist Church, speaking in support of a particularly ugly and threatening protest against migrants in Durban, one that followed direct attacks on migrant stalls and shops two weeks previously, said: “All the wrong things that are happening came from the people outside.”
Christianity, like Islam, is a religion explicitly predicated on a commitment to the universal. In his Epistle to the Galatians, the apostle Paul insisted: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female.” In the first Epistle to the Corinthians, he declared: “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing.”
One cannot simultaneously be a xenophobe and a Christian. Ndlela’s position is morally scurrilous and would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
But it is not only the normalisation of xenophobia across electoral politics and in the public sphere more broadly that is deeply concerning. The second disturbing development regards increasing attempts to incite and organise xenophobia on the terrain of popular politics. The All Truck Drivers Foundation and people claiming to be Umkhonto weSizwe veterans are at the forefront of this. There has been brazen intimidation and violence.
Opposition to xenophobia
This is a gathering political crisis that, unaddressed, will inevitably lead to violence, terror and deep and lasting damage to our democracy. As we have seen from Kenya to Zimbabwe and India, or, indeed, in European fascism, once political elites begin to organise and mobilise street violence, democracy is seriously damaged.
Banal rhetoric from liberal counter-elites about human rights will not solve this crisis. The xenophobes need to be taken on directly and every effort made to crush the growing attempts to organise xenophobic street violence.
Democratic popular organisations have often taken principled positions on xenophobia, welcomed migrants into positions of leadership and, in some cases, offered concrete support to migrants during and after attacks. This has included grassroots organisations, most notably but not exclusively Abahlali baseMjondolo, and the progressive currents in the trade union movement.
It is in these spaces that real popular opposition to xenophobia can be built. The key trade union principle that if you work here you are from here and its community equivalent, that if you live here you are from here, need to be affirmed as inviolable axioms for progressive politics. It is now vital that a broad and united front, led by popular organisations rather than non-governmental organisations, be constituted with the explicit purpose of opposing xenophobia and any other attempt to scapegoat vulnerable minorities for the social crisis induced by elites.
Progressive popular organisations need to offer credible explanations of the social crisis, and strategies to resolve it, to take up the battle of ideas against the xenophobes and offer concrete support to migrants and practical opposition to xenophobia, especially in its increasingly organised forms.