Xenophobia and Social Movements


Kenneth Tafira builds on the issues raised in the discussion on Xenophobia at Winter School, and argues for strong organisation

The discussion on xenophobia at Winter School 2008 focused mainly on the recent xenophobic pogroms, the emphasis being on the causes. A number of these were identified: Lack of service delivery, coupled with intermittent poverty, leading to frustration and anger. Unfortunately this frustration and anger was misdirected, and non-nationals bore the brunt. Corrupt officials fatten their pockets selling RDP houses, while the rest of the poor need homes. The suspicion was that ‘illegal’ immigrants were accessing these houses and with high unemployment, it made economic sense for some homeowners to rent them out to both immigrants and locals, while the homeowners themselves, continue living in shacks. But when the communities saw immigrants living in the rented houses, they suspected that they had bought them.

In the bigger picture, immigrants come and settle in poorer areas, and are seen as competing for scant resources with local residents, causing friction as a result. Skilled immigrants end up taking menial jobs and engaging in small time vending. In this case, jealousies and myths abound and immigrants are seen as leading much better lives than locals. Therefore they are accused of being in the position to ‘steal’ wives and girlfriends. Moreover, since government’s immigration policies are racist and xenophobic, xenophobia becomes institutionalised. Government departments like Home Affairs and the South African Police Services are major culprits. Police daily harass, abuse and arrest immigrants in the streets and demand bribes. It is not surprising that xenophobia tends to seep down into the lower layers of society.

The root causes, however, lie in the unequal neo-liberal programme pursued by the government since 1994. It is a fact that policies like GEAR have resulted in retrenchments, massive unemployment and general poverty. Despite its vast resources, South Africa has a huge gap between the rich and poor and it seems that the richer are getting richer and the poor poorer. Many in South Africa live in abject poverty with no running water, electricity and other basic amenities and they also lack access to quality education, which is expensive. The gap between the rich and the poor widens as this lack of education inhibits chances of climbing the social ladder. The popular opinion is that the fight needs to be taken to the ANC government, for reneging on its promises to the people, and the capitalist system, which has bred dire socio-economic living conditions.

Another contentious issue raised at the Winter School was that immigrants are a source of cheap labour; that they accept jobs for a lesser salary than their local counterparts would. Therefore they are seen as causing unemployment and lowering wages. However, it was noted that this contention is superficial because immigrants mostly do menial jobs shunned by locals.

Immigrants have been accused of exacerbating crime, engaging in robberies and drug dealing. On face value, this might seem like fact given the high levels of crime in the country, but history shows that crime has always been a major problem in the country. Violent crime in South Africa is not new. Historically it was concentrated in areas where black people lived as a result of social dislocation caused by apartheid policies. Criminal gangs have been in existence since the turn of the twentieth century. In Soweto there were ten known gangs by mid 1960s and by 1970s there were over fifty, the most prominent being the Hazels and the Vikings. Moreover criminal gangs don’t work in isolation but in partnership, and their composition in many instances is multi-national. Statistics from the Department of Correctional Services reveal that only 4% of convicted inmates are non-nationals. One then wonders, if immigrants are committing crime on such a grand scale, why they are not being arrested and filling up the jails?

The role of the petty bourgeoisie in the pogroms came out prominently during the discussions. Fearing competition from immigrant traders, local petty bourgeoisie, who include local party officials with business interests, gave the perpetrators moral and financial support. Researchers on xenophobic violence point out that local small business people were stimulating the violence by sponsoring gangs of youths. Alcohol played a central role, since most of the perpetrators were intoxicated.

It became clear during the discussion that all these issues stem from a lack of knowledge and awareness. Apartheid and colonialism conditioned Black people to hate each other and people were socialised along tribal lines. During these processes Black people were dehumanised and debased. However, the racialisation among Black communities during the xenophobic attacks is a particular historical development of racism. This is contingent to the prevailing social and material conditions of society. The roles of yesterday’s apartheid racism are reversed and local Black populations take a superior position while Black African immigrants are seen as inferior. These are lasting effects of colonialism.

The mainstream media has also played a role in fanning a hatred of immigrants by criminalising them and laying the blame on them for all sorts of social vices, including disease and the corruption of local youth. This is hardly surprising given the media’s powerful hold on the minds of people.

Activists were warned of the use of xenophobic utterances and the expression of attitudes that fan xenophobia. Fighting xenophobia in communities becomes an impossibility if activists and social movements themselves harbour xenophobic attitudes and views. Activists were reminded of the power and effect of the use of words like ‘foreigner ’ and ‘these people’. Such words are derogatory and humiliating. Moreover, the use of xenophobic language indicates that it originates from a psychological attitude which activists need to be aware of. Xenophobic behaviour separates and discriminates against people and the result is the failure to build and strengthen working class organisations in communities.

Way forward for movements The need for popular education and internationalism has never been as important as it is now. Using the old struggle maxim ‘each one, teach one, reach many’ becomes central in the fight against xenophobia. We need to educate each other about these issues and change our individual mindsets. My argument is therefore that the working class must free itself of all biased nuances and prejudices against foreign nationals.

If our movements continue to exhibit behaviour that is destructive and divisive, the whole notion of internationalism will be endangered. The principle call for ‘Education for Liberation’ is still very relevant and we must be aware that when we shout ‘NO ONE IS ILLEGAL!’ and ask for ‘OPEN BORDERS’ we must really mean it. We need to clearly and soberly understand these slogans, for they are the fundamental galvanising and rallying points of working class liberation, internationalism and the fight against xenophobia. If the working class cannot liberate itself then it cannot liberate the whole of humanity Campaigning for the shutting down of the notori- ous Lindela deportation centre is a good starting point, because Lindela is a symbol of xenophobic hatred, discrimination, abuse of immigrants and rep- resents a rotten and corrupt system. In a number of informal interviews immigrants reported of a chain of corruption which runs from the police officer on the street through police stations up to official in the Department of Home Affairs. To refuse to pay bribes leads to deportation. Movements can use this op- portunity to strengthen and build their fight against xenophobia and make demands that can end all abuses of immigrants. Of course, we need to under- stand migration patterns and the role of international capitalism and its control of African economies, which they destroy though Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPS), causing retrenchments, unem- ployment and inequalities. Other imperialist machin- eries prop up civil wars, making millions from arms deals, resulting in a large influx of refugees.

It follows to say that social movements need to have ‘a presence’ and be ‘visible’ in the communities they are working in. The pogroms have revealed a major weakness in both the movements and the working class, resulting from the fragmentation of movements and lack of political education in the vulnerable classes.

With sufficient organisation, mobilisation and education, a community can have the capacity to stand up and defend vulnerable groups in society. A case in point is the Merafong Demarcation Forum (MDF), which, during the pogroms, managed to come out and boldly state their solidarity with immigrant communities. In public announcements MDF declared that the focus of their struggle is aimed against the government, and that to fight immigrants diverts the force of the struggle movements. Likewise in the East Rand, Kathorus Concerned Residents (KCR) intervened and stopped the attacks. This exemplifies the communities’ self defence.

This is an opportunity to build and strengthen working class organisations and to come up with organisational and political strategies. It is therefore vitally important that movements take the initiative and link the fight against xenophobia with calls for service delivery and the struggle against neo- liberalism.

At this point, social movements need to campaign for the unionising of immigrant workers. The capitalist system is benefiting immensely from the exploitation of cheap labour. Unionising immigrant labour will go a long way in eradicating friction between the working class and will create a uniform class struggle.

Similarly, progressive social movements need to organise and engage immigrant organisations and form a united front rather than separate organisations.

Patterns in the approach of organisations As mentioned earlier, the pogroms exposed the major weaknesses in the social movements. Hope- fully we can learn from these experiences. One glaring shortcoming is a lack of consistency. Since the successful anti-xenophobia march on 24 May 2008, no major anti xenophobia event has taken place. However, the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee (SECC) held a march to Home Affairs office in Orlando in Soweto on 18 July 2008. They have come up with innovative programmes of campaigns, workshops and classes which will educate the communities and members of social movements in Soweto and other areas about xenophobia, its causes and relevance for communities.

Additionally, the Sonke Gender Justice painted a mural in Yeoville in October 2008. However, the impact might be minimal because the area is not a xenophobic ‘hotspot’. It follows to say that organisations have been wary of doing programmes and have not been engaging communities in the worst affected areas, as they deem this to be too dangerous. Does that mean, therefore, that these communities can’t be engaged and they will live with plague of xenophobia forever?


The argument remains that organisations need to build, strengthen and mobilise themselves to be effective against xenophobia. Xenophobia, like all deep seated prejudices, will take a lengthy time to eradicate. The struggle will not be won overnight, but needs a patient, sustained and dedicated approach. Little has been done; much still needs to be done.

no time to agonise but organise.

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