SAFTU wishes to categorically reiterate that we are opposed to the two extremes in the debate on migration. One argument is that there should be no boundaries and no borders, so as to allow completely free movement.
Further, there should be no regulations, no passports and no quotas in any sector of the South African economy.
On the other hand, there are those who, like Donald Trump, hate immigrants, and believe that all migration and movement of workers must be stopped, through higher-voltage electronic fences, erection of high walls, and more brutality by Home Affairs, army and police at the border.
SAFTU is a progressive, internationalist formation of poor and working-class people. The return of xenophobic tendencies amongst our own rank-and-file working class is as dangerous today, as it was in May 2008, July 2010, 2015-16, April-September 2019 and March 2021. These prior outbreaks of an Afrophobia pandemic are anathema to the trade union movement, for whom an injury to one is an injury to all. This is more than just a slogan, it is our spirit of Ubuntu and cuts across borders.
What is different and more dangerous now, is the rise of newly-powerful political parties – sometimes in a ‘kingmaker’ position in split municipal and metro councils – whose leaders spout anti-immigrant sentiments. Now they are joining opportunistic individuals in the working-class townships to foist toxic, right-wing politics.
They throw their matches of hate atop a powder keg of working-class grievances that has steadily risen even after the last explosion, last July in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.
Those grievances reflect desperation and dog-eat-dog capitalist survival tendencies. We fear that today, the targets of the angry masses are immigrants, but tomorrow they could just as quickly turn into inter-ethnic battles.
And they could also lead to a right-wing political movement of the sort large parts of Europe, the U.S., Brazil, the Philippines and other torn countries have seen rising to prominence over the past half-dozen years.
Since genuine grievances of working-class South Africans during Covid-19 – when millions have lost jobs and incomes – are not being addressed, this frustration is not surprising. President Cyril Ramaphosa has revealed his corporate roots by agreeing to an unprecedented austerity programme, one that will be reaffirmed by Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana in his budget speech next month.
Even in the immediate wake of the July 2021 violence, Ramaphosa could offer only a tokenistic R350/month grant to unemployed people (between 18 and 60 who would not otherwise qualify for social grants). Because unemployment rose substantially in the second half of 2021 to a level now of 47%, it is logical that communities and workers are furious with how little the state is willing to do against the forces of capitalist crisis.
And without strong progressive leadership, the vast majority have lost hope. As we said in August 2019, xenophobic attacks are no solution, as they try merely “to shift the blame for all this onto the shoulders of other working-class people who are victims of exactly the same problems.” And, we reminded then, because of SAFTU’s founding congress’s firm commitment to international and pan-African solidarity, we should never forget that migrant labour was the basis of the super-exploitation of black workers by the apartheid regime which stole their land, forced them to live under inhuman conditions in hostels and paid slave wages.
Apartheid’s core economic features of regional and national migrant labour and land theft have never been properly addressed. Indeed as we concluded in April that year, “The continued eruption of the xenophobic attacks, 13 years after the blood-baths of 2008 attacks, proves government’s lack of seriousness to deal with the issue.”
Today’s new concerns now relate to organised attacks by parties like the Patriotic Alliance and ActionSA – as well as people we often fight for justice alongside in the Economic Freedom Fighters – and township movements like Operation Dudula.
The shady forces behind Dudula – which is launching another formal Soweto branch this weekend – include those who sign pamphlets as “Military Veterans and Umphakathi” (the community). Why are the uMkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans Association members often labeled xenophobes, such as in March 2021 in Durban? At the time, we recorded our alarm, at the allegations that MKMVA soldiers are the ones involved in these attacks. MK was built, sponsored and supported by governments of other countries, and had its training camps setup in African countries. Though MKMVA KZN has distanced itself from the attacks, it would be a huge dishonour and shameful if indeed some of its members are involved in this. Thus, SAFTU calls on MKMVA to come out boldly condemning the attacks and Xenophobia in all its manifestations.
The hatred being generated in Soweto by Operation Dudula contrasts with all the social movements which have fought for justice there, including the 1976 students, the 1980s civic associations, churches, youth and women’s movements, the early-2000s Anti-Privatisation Forum affiliates and groups like Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee, who were all pan-Africanist in outlook and opposed to xenophobia. Organised labour always found grounds for unity with these community-based progressive movements.
The degeneration of movements towards the political right is amplified when high-profile party leaders like Gayton McKenzie and Herman Mashaba attack immigrants, and when even the Economic Freedom Front’s leaders impose their intimidating presence against foreign-born workers in Midrand and Cape Town this week.
Don’t attack symptoms, solve the crisis at the root
The causes of xenophobia must be confronted, just as much as we defend our African sisters and brothers from the most morbid symptoms, which include pretending that visits to employers to harass them to hire more local workers, is a genuine, durable fight against exploitation.
This unsatisfactory response to a deep structural problem, in turn, leads some ordinary working-class people to acts of extreme aggression against sisters and brothers.
There are, instead, structural reasons for xenophobia:
1) employers’ dividing-and-conquering the regional workforce to lower wages and reduce unions, for which the solution is pro-labour regulation and a massive job-creation programme, requiring the termination of Treasury’s austerity in next month’s budget;
2) township spaza shop wars in which immigrants may have purchasing advantages through “economies of scale” buying from wholesalers, for which the solution is for the state to ensure there is cross-subsidisation in supply of vital goods – e.g. not just minimal Free Basic Water and Electricity, but also subsidised food and essentials, so as to raise standards of living;
3) the competition for housing space (e.g. several immigrants crowding into what might be a single-family home or flat), for which the solution is a mass housing construction campaign with state subsidies first and eventually state-built housing so as to dramatically reduce the housing shortage; and
4) the Southern Africa region’s volatility causing a refugee “push” into South Africa, due to geopolitics in which our government supports oppressor regimes facing unrest (Zimbabwe and Eswatini), or Joburg mining corporations engage in resource-related displacement and warlordism (especially in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, where AngloGold was implicated in human rights abuses with warlords, and the likes of Tokyo Sexwale and Khulubuse Zuma have been active), or where SA capitalists have crowded out locals (especially through regional wholesale-retail chains which import goods – mostly manufactured in China – and thus deindustrialise vast swathes of the region, especially Zimbabwe), for which the solution is less “uneven development” by supporting genuine regional industrial development and serious localisation policies.
Where the state has a constructive role to play.
The deepening socio-economic crisis in South Africa must be confronted, and the scramble for survival must end so that everyone living in our country is free from want. That does not mean open borders at this stage, since our capitalist economy could not handle the resulting oversupply of labour. But it does mean a commitment to an Africa that can defeat – not amplify – the 1884-85 “Scramble for Africa” conference in Berlin that carved out borders with no Africans present.
There are, too, internationalist obligations for South Africa to extend a helping hand to those in need outside our borders, as part of a common humanity. In doing so, we would recognise how many of the problems our neighbours face can be traced to the decisions of South African elites.
The additional dilemma the state must take on with compassion, is ending the flouting of laws especially in the hiring of illegal immigrants by employers seeking a lower wage bill, or hiring immigrants as scabs during strikes.
To this end, we affirm the need for the state and civil society to conduct a thorough structural audit of how the immigration crisis has affected the various parts of South African society, including housing, infrastructure, the provision of services, crime, and market relations.
Our role in the working class
To conclude, we think the South African working class can shake of xenophobic instincts. First and for most, the trade union must work to strengthen itself so that it can fight against any kind of exploitation and abuse of workers, irrespective of the originality of a worker. It is this weakness on the part of the trade union that create space for opportunists to jump into the bandwagon and to conduct inspections.
Equally we need a stronger developmental state with capacity to enforce its own laws.
We must confront and condemn employers who employ and underpay illegal immigrants and local workers alike, and therefore we blame employers and not migrant workers.
SAFTU also condemns the failure of the ruling elites in other African countries to take care of their citizens, and we offer continued solidarity to African workers and community movements which fight for democracy and economic justice.
And in offering these reforms as vital, we also strongly condemn the use of violence against all foreign nationals, including illegal ones. We need to explain the sources of illegal migration, to preserve the unity of workers and our anti-xenophobic values.
But just as great a concern, is the militarisation of migration control, including the corruption so prevalent in border management. Since the state is failing, we must condemn armed local gangs which fight business turf wars against foreign businesses. We condemn vigilantism in all its forms and recall for all workers, the way our people have for centuries developed alternative ways to deal with community problems.
In all these ways, our role in working-class formations is clear. Always fight xenophobia, and take no populist shortcuts to popularity. Always look for the root causes and show how capitalist tendencies must be contested; otherwise, not only xenophobia but many other morbid symptoms will result.
And finally, always show our humanity to fellow Africans so that the crises we face can be tackled collectively, and not in the form the xenophobes prefer: with self-destructive hatred.