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South Africa – the shadow behind the rainbow 

JM Thorn

30 June 2008

The outbreak of xenophobic violence that swept South Africa in May will have taken many casual observers by surprise.  Sparking off in the Alexandra township, to the north of Johannesburg, the violence spread to the city centre and across the rest of the Gauteng region. Central Johannesburg resembled a battlefield, as the police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse angry crowds.  In the space of just a week 50 people had lost their lives, 650 had been seriously injured and an estimated 80,000 displaced. Most of the victims were migrants from other parts of Africa. 

What made these events particularly shocking was not just their barbarity but also their jarring contrast with the mainstream view of post-apartheid South Africa.  Truth and Reconciliation, post-apartheid healing, rainbow nations and multi-party democracy all appeared to be sent crashing.   Yet if these had really taken root such events would never have happened.  The xenophobic violence has exposed the claims made about the settlement in South Africa to be myths.  What has come crashing down are the ideological edifices that served to cover up the fundamental rottenness of the deal that the ANC made with imperialism and of the society built on that deal. 

A tinderbox 

When ANC came to power in 1994 it carried with it the hopes of millions of poor black South Africans who wanted transformation of the country.  The masses, well aware of the legacy of the apartheid, were not expecting change overnight but rather a progressive improvement of their conditions over a period of time.  However, even these modest expectations have been disappointed.  Once in office the ANC quickly abandoned any plans for reconstruction and development in favour of neo-liberal orthodoxy.   Promised improvements in housing, electricity and water supply, health and education have not materialised.   The majority of the poor find themselves living in conditions that are as bad as or worse than under apartheid.  At the same time they have seen an emergence of a black elite.  These people, many of who are leading ANC cadres, have been incorporated into the existing class structures of South African society and become fabulously wealthy. This process is trumpeted by the ANC as black empowerment.   This layer of black capitalists is really a very minor component of the ruling class - their existence being largely dependent on corporate patronage. However, they perform the critical function of blurring the race – class divisions in South Africa and giving the appearance of some form of normality. 

The broader picture is that the ANC government has actually presided over a widening gulf between rich and poor.  There is a huge polarisation in the country with immense wealth concentrated in the hands of the few and a large section of the population living in poverty.  One in three people of working age are unemployed in a country with no unemployment benefits. Around 7.5 million South Africans have no access to adequate housing. In Johannesburg there are 200,000 shacks where the poorest blacks are forced to live.  The housing crisis has also been getting worse, with the number of people living in shacks and backyards growing by 26 percent between 1999 and 2001. By 2005 about 2.4 million people were living in shacks. One in ten South Africans still use bucket toilets.  Many earn as little as $35 a month. The scourge of HIV/Aids has affected a huge section of the population, and crime has become widespread.  50 percent of the population live below the poverty line. 

The poorest 10 percent of the population makes do with only 1.4 percent of national income, while the top 10 percent consumes 44.7 percent.  This is a higher level of inequity than under apartheid!   These are the material conditions that have created a tinderbox for xenophobic violence.  For years the shantytowns of South Africa have been pressure cookers of poverty just waiting to go up in flames.  The effects of current global economic downturn, particularly rising food prices and inflation, applied even more pressure.   The outcome was violence against an available though blameless target – African immigrants. 

Migrant labour

As the biggest economy in the region South Africa is a destination for African migrants seeking a better life.  It is also a destination for refugees fleeing persecution.   In recent years there has been an influx of immigrants from Zimbabwe fleeing economic collapse and political repression.  So while the official population of South Africa stands at 49 million, there is an immigrant population of anything between 3 and 5 million, mostly from Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Nigeria. 

All this piles on the pressure in a country where there is already extreme inequality and mass poverty.   Migrants have added to the overcrowding in the sprawling shanty towns and squatter camps that surround every city, but they are not the cause of it.  Responsibility for the conditions in which poor South Africans and migrants find themselves lies firmly with the ANC government.  It has failed to deliver basic services to the poor, and in the case of Zimbabwe has backed the repression of the Mugabe regime that has created millions of refugees.  Unfortunately, in an environment where the poorest layers of the population feel threatened and people have been disoriented by the right ward shift of the former liberation movement, immigrants become a scapegoat for all the social ills that afflict the country.  It is particularly tragic that many of those who have fallen victim to this violence are from Zimbabwe.  The leader of the Zimbabwe Exiles Forum in South Africa has described their situation as “falling from the pot into the fire.”

The large number of immigrants in South Africa is also evidence of the economy’s dependence on migrant labour. The government has encouraged migration while refusing migrants the legal status that would offer them the same protection as citizens. As a result, migrants are open to the most blatant forms of exploitation and serve as a reserve army of cheap labour. It is estimated that one third of the workforce in the mines are from other African countries.  However, this is not a new phenomenon.  Immigrants - especially those of African descent, and from far countries as well as near - have always been a component of South African society.  This long history of immigration cuts against the assertion that South Africans are inherently prejudiced. 

What has given rise to tension is the recent expansion of the hated migrant labour system that was a key feature of the apartheid era economy.   It was thought in 1994 that the ANC government would rid the economy of migrancy, and turn single-sex migrant hostels into family homes. But hostels remain, and in Johannesburg, these buildings full of unemployed men were the source of many attacks.  While the racially-defined geographical areas have disappeared, the economic logic of drawing inexpensive labour from distant sites is even more extreme.  Instead of hailing from the “independent homelands” such as KwaZulu, Venda, Bophuthatswana or Transkei, the most desperate migrant workers in South Africa’s major cities are from Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia.  The value of these migrants to South African capitalism was made brutally clear recently by the chief economist of one the country’s leading banks:  "They keep the cost of labour down ... Their income gets spent here because they do not send the money back to their countries.” 

The exploitation of immigrants has produced super profits for South Africa based corporations. After falling due to overproduction and class struggle during the 1970s-80s, profit rates rose from 1994-2001 to the 9th highest in the world, while the wage share fell by 5 per cent over the same period.  For capitalism the new South Africa has all the benefits of apartheid without any of its negative connotations. 

Political response 

The ANC’s response to the outbreak of anti-foreigner violence was one of indifference and denial.   President Thabo Mbeki only appeared on television to make a statement after the violence had gone on for two weeks.  Mbeki did not visit any of the townships. A spokesman said that he was too busy. Instead, he went to Japan. Other ANC leaders tried to deflect attention away from the Government.  Gwede Mantashe, who is both secretary general of the African National Congress and chair of the South African Communist Party (SACP), declared that its polices were  “not at fault” and that the ANC was seeking  “to fight poverty and to provide services to the people”.  He claimed that it was corrupt elements among the township dwellers, who had “taken occupation of more than one RDP house [a prefabricated box provided by the state] and sell their houses instead of living in them”, that were to blame. 

Some ANC leaders have also been deliberately fanning xenophobia.  Prior to the recent outbreak of violence the minister of safety and security, Charles Nqakula (also a member of the SACP) fronted a drive against “illegal immigrants”.  The supposedly more radical figures within the ANC have expressed similar views.  Jacob Zuma, who is now president of the ANC, and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela both visited the areas hit by violence.   But like other ANC cadres they claimed that it was the responsibility of criminal elements.  None of the factions within the ANC have an answer to the social problems exposed by the outbreak of xenophobic violence.  Indeed, by criminalising both poor South African and migrants, they are actually preparing the way for greater repression.  Troops have already been deployed and there are calls for the formation of pro-government vigilante groups.  Within this context it’s really no wonder that South African leaders should be quiet on Mugabe – when they look to Zimbabwe they see a possible future for their own country and the methods they may have to use to maintain themselves in power. 


The recent anti-immigrant attacks in South Africa are a tragic testimony to the failure of the settlement there. The masses struggled to put an end to apartheid, hoping this would bring real improvements to their living conditions. Instead what they have seen is a small minority layer of the black population climbing up the social ladder, being absorbed into capitalist society, while the overwhelming majority are left at the bottom, struggling to survive in terrible conditions.  Moreover, this has happened over a period when the economy was supposedly “booming”.  What will be the scenario when South African feels the full impact of the world economic downturn?  The recent outbreak of violence may be a precursor of something worse.  Of course this nightmare is not inevitable. That all depends on whether the working class can offer an alternative.  And certainly there are grounds for optimism. The South African labour movement has a proud tradition of class struggle, solidarity and internationalism. Only recently South African dockers refused to unload a Chinese ship laden with arms destined for Zimbabwe.  However, the major obstacle to building an alternative is the alliance between the trade unions and the ANC.  As long as the workers movement places under itself under the leadership of a party committed to defending capitalism its potential can never be realised. The breaking of the alliance is therefore a precondition for any positive political developments in South Africa.

The recent violence in South Africa also has a wider significance as its peace process was held up as an example to the rest of the world.  Its settlement was promoted as a model of “conflict resolution” for countries as diverse as Ireland, Palestine and Iraq.  The ANC actively promoted this and dispatched cadres around the world to spread the good news.   Now that the claims for the South African settlement have been exposed as myths what implications does that have for those, such as Sinn Fein, who associated themselves with it and have gone to such lengths to support an imperialist settlement just as empty as the South African model? 

Who in Ireland will stand outside the cosy collaboration of imperialism, nationalism and trade union partnership?  If the socialists and workers don’t organise the tensions and failures of fake settlements will lead to an explosion of sectarianism and reaction.  That’s the lesson in South Africa.  That’s the lesson here.


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