During the struggles against apartheid, millions of peoples throughout the world supported the peoples of South Africa in their struggle against oppression, racism and murder.
The first World Conference to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination was held in Geneva in 1978, at a time when the states of Africa were pressing the United Nations to denounce racism and the illegal occupation of Namibia by the apartheid army.
The second World Conference to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination, held in Geneva, August 1983, supported the struggles of the peoples of South Africa against apartheid. It was at this second conference that apartheid was designated a ”crime against humanity”.
The second conference formulated measures to ensure the implementation of UN instruments to eliminate racism, racial discrimination and apartheid and to ensure support for people struggling to obtain social justice and freedom of movement.
Hundreds of thousands of South Africans (if not millions) had claimed this freedom of movement, especially after the Soweto uprisings in 1976. In all parts of Africa the poor and exploited made sacrifices to support the global struggle for freedom. Africans from South Africa moved freely across borders and lived in neighbouring African states, which were bombed and attacked for supporting the freedom struggle. This is known by some of the leaders of South Africa but not widely by those who were born after 1988.
When the African National Congress (ANC) came to power in 1994, this government did not acknowledge the sacrifices of peoples outside of South Africa. What was needed at that historic moment was a clear understanding that reconstruction in South Africa should be linked to the reconstruction and rehabilitation of all the societies and peoples that were hurt and bruised by the economic and military policies of apartheid.
Intellectually and politically, the leadership of the ANC became subservient to the neoÂconservative ideas of neo-liberalism. This support for the economic policies of apartheid led to the Africanisation of the bureaucracy and the support of a small comprador class of Africans under the guise of black economic empowerment. This political posture was supported by the South African Communist Party, which believed in the development of productive forces and support of capitalism before there was economic and social transformation in South Africa.
It was this social and economic context that plunged the society into even more extreme inequalities than under apartheid. As South African capital boomed and corporations expanded, the conditions of the poor and exploited deteriorated inside and outside the country.
Despite the fact that, in the dying days of apartheid, workers across Southern Africa had agreed on a charter for social and economic rights, this charter was forgotten once the ANC came to power. Instead, the political leadership inspired anti-African xenophobia, bigotry and discrimination against Africans. This took the form of an anti-African racist immigration and visa regime. Poor African workers from neighbouring societies were made scapegoats for the absence of jobs, proper housing, electricity and clean running water.
In the professional spaces where skilled Africans journeyed to South Africa to seek to break the hold of apartheid bureaucrats, insecure nationalists mobilised apartheid ideas to keep down African professionals who had moved into the society to support universities, schools, hospitals and middle-level bureaucracy.
ANC leaders who had lived in other parts of Africa took a back seat when the minister of home affairs at the time, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, issued a statement that there were millions of African illegal immigrants in South Africa and these illegal aliens were responsible for crimes. The leadership of the ANC did not repudiate Buthelezi’s statement.
Later, the warning of Frantz Fanon on the failings of the African middle class began to become manifest as the government of Thabo Mbeki lost direction and wallowed in spurious and dangerous theories, the most dangerous of which related to the question of health and the viruses sweeping Southern Africa.
The ANC government under Mbeki has supported regional leaders who turned their back on their people. The most outstanding example is that of the material and political support granted to Robert Mugabe during the years of rampant patriarchy, militarism and exploitation in Zimbabwe.
As conditions deteriorate for Africans in Zimbabwe, millions have flocked to South Africa. Mbeki has said that there is ”no crisis” in Zimbabwe; poor South Africans now see African immigrants as the cause of crime, violence, unemployment and overcrowding.
World conference, 2001
In 1997, while Nelson Mandela was still president, the UN General Assembly decided to convene the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance by no later than 2001.
Because of the major struggles against apartheid and the importance of Southern Africa as a site for the continuing struggles against xenophobia and racism, it was agreed that South Africa would host the conference in Durban. This decision reflected growing concern about the rise worldwide in incidences of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance, and recognition of the prospects for combating these phenomena.
The Durban conference was historic. It brought together those struggling against racism and xenophobia from all parts of the world. There were far-reaching resolutions and declarations that called on all humans to seek to build the institutions and programmes to reverse and transform 350 years of racial capitalism, slavery, apartheid and other forms of injustice.
It was at this historic meeting that the UN conference declared slavery and the Atlantic slave trade a ”crime against humanity”. Within South Africa, leaders such as Desmond Tutu called for a deeper discussion of reparation. Scholars and concerned activists called for a justice and reconciliation commission, which would focus on the systematic exploitation endured by the majority black population. In the words of the activists: ”The aim of such a commission is to focus on the systematic character of racial capitalism, which began long before the institutionalisation of apartheid.”
International attention to the declarations of the Durban conference was diverted by the events of September 11 2001 in the United States. Under the guise of fighting a global war on terror, international capital supported economic terrorism across the globe, especially in Africa where the basic rights of workers and poor farmers were eroded by neo-liberal legislation.
This is the background that explains the absence of clear leadership for the people of South Africa. Poor workers have identified their neighbours as the enemy as the battle for life itself has become a dog-eat-dog struggle. Working women and poor women are particularly vulnerable to masculinist violence, rape and violation. Patriarchal ideas abound to the point where it is held by ignorant males that having sexual intercourse with virgins can cure HIV/Aids.
World Cup and gentrification
While turning its back on the conditions of the exploited, the South African leadership embarked on a campaign to host the World Cup in 2010. This required a major diplomatic offensive to gain the support of Africans.
The award to South Africa of this important cultural event was celebrated by Africans at home and abroad. However, it has been used as another opportunity to support local and foreign entrepreneurs. Poor citizens of South Africa have watched as whole neighbourhoods are razed to make room for stadiums, and ideas to upgrade communities have opened opportunities for speculators to remove poor people from their neighbourhoods.
This is the context for the recent violence and struggles in the townships between poor people in various South African townships.
The world economic crisis is being felt among the grassroots. Poor people attacked poor people and, at the last count, at least 50 people died and close to 100 000 fled their homes during the xenophobic violence earlier this year that extended well beyond the Gauteng area to Cape Town.
During the diplomatic campaign for the World Cup, the South African leadership had lobbied the Caribbean region. In turn, the Caribbean region had called on the South African government to carry forward the agreements of the World Conference against Racism and to convene the review of the Durban declaration of 2001.
It was against this background that the Caribbean region was stunned when it heard of the violence against poor citizens from other countries.
On May 25, the 45th anniversary of African Liberation Day, the participants of the Nation Building Summit convened in St Croix, US Virgin Islands, condemned ”the discrimination and violence meted out to African brothers and sisters from other African societies who are currently making their life in South Africa”. The resolution read in part that:
”On this African Liberation Day, we, the participants in the African Liberation Day ceremonies, condemn in no uncertain terms the attacks on Africans in South Africa. We believe in the view of Marcus Garvey is that Africa is for Africans at home and abroad. The attacks against neighbouring peoples who are fellow Africans run counter to the spirit of African unity and go against South Africa’s post-apartheid quest for equal rights, justice and democracy.”
This author shares the view that there is a need for the renewal of the call for a charter for the rights of workers in Southern Africa. In light of the shared struggle for liberation and for the unity of African peoples, this author calls on the decent workers and ordinary people of South Africa to oppose xenophobia.
Organs such as the South African Human Rights Commission and the church groups that have opposed xenophobia should be applauded. South African progressive forces must urgently reopen discussions on racism, xenophobia and other forms of injustice.
The Durban review is just as important as the World Cup. South Africa’s position as a front-line member of the Southern African Development Community, the African Union and the pan-African world necessitates urgent and assertive intervention.
Decent people everywhere must stand up against xenophobia and racism. The struggle against apartheid is a process, not an event.