THE PERSISTENT PREVALENCE OF xenophobic attitudes within the working class is no surprise. Nor is the emergence in many townships of Operation Dudula, an openly reactionary and right-wing organisation. Equally unsurprising is the resonance of Operation Dudula in townships with long histories of heroic resistance to oppression and exploitation under apartheid-like Soweto, Alex and so on.
What we need to understand is that the rise of xenophobic attitudes within the working class is directly connected to the generalised weak state of working-class organisations. Since 1994 there has been a systematic process of political and organizational demobilisation of the working class in the country. It is this that creates the space for conservative tendencies to take hold. The ANC and its allies are the prime agents of this process of depoliticisation and demobilisation. Township branches of the ANC are spaces for self-enrichment and patronage. Gone are the days when branches were organs of people’s struggle, in the early 1990s.
This declining hegemony of the ANC is a direct consequence of its pursuit of neoliberalism – the political and economic programme of big capital, encapsulated in Gear. Cosatu played no small role in this depoliticisation, with its religious reverence for the Tri-partite Alliance and its servility to capital. The social movements of the early 2000s failed to occupy the political vacuum. They could not stem the tide of the decline of the working-class movement and eventually collapsed.
Some attempt to use structuralist explanations to make sense of these conservative tendencies within the working class. The neoliberal austerity policies of the ANC government are presented as the basic source of the outbreak of xenophobic actions. Neoliberal austerity created extreme poverty and unemployment. With immigrants entering this space of scarce resources a fierce competition then materialised between the South African and non-South African sections of society. Employers are blamed for employing migrants instead of South Africans.
But these structuralist explanations are not sufficient to account for the widespread xenophobic attitudes within the working class. Such explanations suggest a direct connection between poverty, unemployment and xenophobia. As long as there is poverty and unemployment the working class will automatically be xenophobic. But if that is the case then socialism is but an illusion.
It is the absence of a vibrant and progressive political movement with deep mass roots that is facilitating the consolidation of conservative sentiments within the working class. There is an absence of an alternative explanatory and organising framework rooted in the masses. Where organisation exists, it is sporadic and too weak to stem the conservative tide.
Organisation is central
It is only possible to combat xenophobic tendencies within the working class through organisation. The key task now is to deepen the organisation of the working class. Central to this task is to organise the non-South African sections of the working class. Sometimes it is stated that it is difficult to organise immigrants. However, when we look at the history of the working class movement in South Africa, migrant workers from all over Southern Africa played a central role in the building of the early trade union movement. Migrant workers, despite the ever-present threat of deportation and repression, constituted at certain periods the backbone of the mass movement. Coming to mind are the periods of the 1940s and 1970s.
Organising migrant communities
In the early phases of the social movements, in particular the Anti-Privatisation Forum (APF), there were attempts to either organise immigrant communities or to develop links with organisations of the immigrant communities. For instance, the Inner-City Forum (in Johannesburg), an affiliate of the APF, took up issues affecting immigrant communities. Another forum, the Ubuntu International Forum (UIF), brought together organisations of immigrant communities and APF affiliates in Johannesburg to take up issues of immigrant communities. The UIF published a newsletter, ran workshops on xenophobia and initiated programs to raise awareness about immigrant communities. Joint campaigns were also undertaken, and here the prime example is the struggle to close the infamous Lindela transit camp. However, with the decline of the social movements, many of these initiatives shipwrecked.
The early history of the trade union movement and social movements demonstrates that it is possible to organise immigrant communities. These initiatives to organise immigrant communities were premised on an understanding, especially within the social movements, that the African immigrants are here to stay and have a right to share in the wealth of the country.
South African capital in Africa
This understanding is derived from the actions of the South African state and capital in the rest of Africa. The policies of the South African state are directly responsible for extraction of wealth from Africa into South Africa. And this wealth is concentrated into the hands of a small minority in South Africa.
The concentration of wealth in South Africa, and the state policies that facilitated this concentration, led to the integration of the regional economy into the South African economy. The Southern African economy is dominated and dependent on South African capital. This has been the case since the days of Cecil John Rhodes more than a century ago. When referring to the South African economy we cannot leave out the rest of Southern Africa. And like in the rest of the world, the direction of migration is towards the country where wealth is concentrated. In the case of Africa, that is South Africa. On the continent of Latin America, it is the USA.
Accept migrants as permanent
The acceptance of the permanent presence of immigrant communities within the country, and their right to share in the wealth, would provide a solid political foundation for the unity of the two sections of the working class – the South African and non-South African. Such a political understanding would enable progressive working-class formations to avoid slipping into xenophobic attitudes when addressing the issues of immigrant communities. It would also avoid the reliance on other class forces to deal with these issues.
Sometimes there are calls made on employers and the state to enforce a quota system so that there is a “proper ratio” between South Africans and non-South Africans. But we must accept the immigrants as class brothers and sisters. Only that would enable the working class to impose on the ruling class an alternative programme of the re-distribution of wealth from the rich to the poor.
John Appolis is active in the trade union movement.