/ 17 November 2023

Increasing xenophobia highlights the need for political change

The immigration debate in South Africa is framed around whether foreigners can benefit the economy.
In recent weeks the xenophobic discourse from the ANC has worsened and there has been an uptick in reports of xenophobic violence. (Paul Botes/M&G)

As the crisis deepens in South Africa we are all, including the middle classes, being squeezed to breaking point. The poor are in desperate circumstances suffering endemic unemployment and hunger. As the economy worsens the middle classes find themselves deeper and deeper in debt, and often struggling to keep their homes and to keep their children in decent schools.

We all suffer from Eskom’s failures, decaying infrastructure and the general sense of hopelessness brought about by the gross corruption of the state and Cyril Ramaphosa’s failure as a president. And although it’s certainly worse for the poor, the middle classes also live at constant risk of increasingly brazen and violent crime.

The new trend of kidnappings, often by people in police uniforms, to get access to people’s banking apps is terrifying. Nobody trusts the police; for many people they are just another gang. 

South Africans are desperate and frightened for good reason. We all know that if we can’t find a way to change course the future will be hellish. But we need to be clear that we are in this crisis because the ANC has collapsed into a violent and corrupt organisation controlled by avaricious people with no concern for society. Of course, the colonial and apartheid past laid the basis for the crisis and white capital continues to exploit. But we elected the ANC to deal with all this. Instead it has become a predatory force devouring our hopes at every turn. 

There is no party on the ballot for next year’s election that has any chance of channelling our fears into a viable alternative to the ANC. Parties such as the Economic Freedom Fighters and the Patriotic Alliance are likely to be as bad or worse than the ANC in power. The Democratic Alliance remains in the hands of a rightwing white cabal. The opinion polls do show that the ANC will be severely punished in the coming elections. But punishing a ruling party is not the same as building an alternative. 

We need a credible vision for the future, but that vision has not emerged from electoral politics, nor from civil society. We do have a strong union in the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), the biggest in Africa, which is effective at dealing with workplace issues and often runs strikes. But, unlike in the 1980s, the union movement is not able to give leadership to wider society. It defends its members well, but in a time of mass unemployment and political crisis we need much more than that.

Abahlali baseMjondolo is the largest movement of the urban poor anywhere in the world and is widely respected for its ethical leadership and democratic practices. Its last membership audit showed more than 120 000 members and this past weekend alone it launched six new branches. But the movement has never entered electoral politics; it doesn’t have a coherent strategy for this. Calling on its members to vote against the ANC cannot generate a coherent alternative to the ANC. 

It was hugely heartening to see the scale of the protest in Cape Town for Palestine this past weekend. We were all reminded of the best of ourselves and that some of the legacy of the mass organisation of the 1980s remains. But we don’t see similar kinds of protests emerging from civil society to demand action against crime, unemployment and corruption. No leadership has emerged to organise and mobilise despite the scale and severity of the crisis.

Things cannot continue as they are. We all know this. And for as long as we fail to generate a credible electoral alternative or to generate a credible civil society response to the crisis there is a danger that desperate people will scapegoat others for the crisis. In South Africa we all know how this plays out. It is migrants who will be blamed. 

In recent weeks the xenophobic discourse from the ANC has worsened and there has been an uptick in reports of xenophobic violence. Some of the media are, as usual, being irresponsible and repeating xenophobic ideas. There is now a risk of a full-blown social panic emerging around the idea that migrant-owned spaza shops are selling poisonous food to children. When the media and politicians treat this as credible, and when the police raid migrant-owned shops rather than shops in general, that risk is escalated.

Xenophobia, often mixed with Islamophobia in India, the United States and Europe, is central to the politics of the new right. They ignore the damage that out of control capitalism has done to people and the institutions on which they depend and instead tell people that their lives are getting worse because of migration. This is patently nonsense but when people believe it they turn on each other and don’t confront their rulers. Cultivating xenophobia has become a very successful strategy for rightwing populists around the world.

There is a huge risk that as the ANC realises that it could well lose power in the next election it will seek a quick fix rather than starting to fix Eskom and the police, deal with poverty and get the economy going. That quick fix would almost certainly take the form of actively cultivating xenophobia and scapegoating migrants for the ANC’s own failures. 

This is an alarming prospect. For one thing, if it is effective the ANC will continue to damage the country while its people attack migrants instead of opposing their new oppressors. For another, the risks of violence against migrants by both the police and street mobs will go through the roof. Any decent person must shudder at this thought. 

In this time of crisis it is urgent that we build an alternative to the ANC, but we lack leadership. 

This cannot be overstated. But it is also vital that we build a united front to oppose xenophobia and all other attempts to scapegoat vulnerable groups for the state’s failure. 

Civil society cannot take on the project of building a political party in a unified way. But it can take on the project of building a united front against xenophobia. We need a crisis civil society meeting with all the most important players in one room. This must include the organisations such as labour federation Cosatu, Numsa and Abahlali baseMjondolo, the progressive religious organisations and the progressive NGOs (who need to set aside their hugely damaging sectarianism). That meeting needs to come out with a declaration of opposition to xenophobia and solidarity with migrants and a strategy to organise in support of the declaration. 

We need, in the words of Martin Luther King, to act with “the fierce urgency of now”.

Dr Buccus is senior research associate at the Auwal Socio-economic Research Institute and post-doctoral fellow at the Durban University of Technology