Koni Benson* argues that, contrary to widely reported views in mainstream media, the poor are the most sympathetic of Zimbabweans’ struggle for democracy
The dominant story in the mainstream press is that the South African poor act out of desperation when migrants and refugees are violently attached. That the ‘problem’ is competition for scarce resources and that SA must first solve its poverty crisis, and then desperate South Africans will stop lashing out at desperate asylum seekers.
This story of displaced frustration and resentment does not fairly represent the range of opinions, and even more importantly, organized actions of the poor and working class in South Africa who support refugees and migrants, especially those from Zimbabwe. In fact, new research shows that while xenophobia is visible amongst the poor in South Africa, it is also precisely some of the poorest South Africans who have been the most sympathetic to the struggles of Zimbabweans worst effected by the current crisis.
South African working class movements have mobilized around the current political situation in Zimbabwe. In fact, the issue of Zimbabwe has captured the attention and has been prioritized by grassroots activists in South Africa. These are movements of the unemployed, those deprived of basic services and those struggling to raise find taxi fare to attend meetings. Yet they are taking a stand on Zimbabwe. Why?
This support is rooted in the belief that international solidarity is decisive to support Zimbabweans who are resisting an ‘elite transition’ which will not change the structures of inequality in any meaningful way. At a recent Conference in Durban, one Bulawayo debt cancellation activist called for solidarity between the poor in South Africa and Zimbabwe because their interests were the same. South African activists at the conference likewise argued that “we see our problem as rooted in poverty and elite deal making, which sees no international boundaries.” In this view, President Mbeki and his SADC counterparts will not act against the Mugabe regime, instead they prefer an ‘elite transition’ similar to those in South Africa, Namibia, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Such models exclude the majority of the people from the process, inevitably the resulting system leaving them at the mercy of the oppressors and exploiters.
Recently over 2,500 people came out in protest against the Mugabe regime in Durban. Abahlali baseMjondolo (South African Shack Dwellers Association) hosted members of the Combined Harare Residents’ Association (CHRA), worked with the Zimbabwe Crisis Coalition, and drew comparisons between Operation Murambatsvina and shack demolitions in South Africa. In Cape Town, People Against Suppression and Oppression of People (PASOP) held regular pickets. The
TAC and the Social Movements Indaba created Africa desks to better address the issues. These movements have a clearly defined ‘enemy’ so to speak- and it is not displaced Zimbabweans crossing the border in search of survival.
In Cape Town for example, women from a range of grassroots organizations came together after the March 11th violent attacks on women activists in Zimbabwe to analyze the relationship between state and domestic violence and speak out on the way elite politics were being played out across women’s bodies.
They argued that: “We see no distinction between domestic and state violence, or between Zimbabwe and South Africa when it comes to responding to the attack on our sisters”. They collectively wrote a solidarity statement and in April held a picket on the days the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) convened a stay away. “We write this statement to acknowledge and listen to the pain of Zimbabwean women and to support their quest to become full citizens, which we in South Africa are also fighting for. We recognise that in the context of poverty, displacement, violence, and exclusion state oppression adds another unbearable layer to women’s oppression which we are determined to fight together…We in South Africa know too well the gap between the hard earned theories set out in law, and the reality of women’s access to justice in practice”.
Most interestingly these women welcomed Zimbabweans into South Africa, arguing: “We recognise the national boundary between us and Zimbabwe as a colonial creation and just as we were welcomed into Zimbabwe during our struggle, we welcome Zimbabweans fighting for a free Zimbabwe into South Africa.”
These working class organisations, relatively small and weak as they, remain remained determined to support Zimbabweans worst affected by the ongoing political situation in the country. Their perspectives and actions are being overlooked in official talk about Zimbabwean refugees ‘flooding’ across the border and the rhetorical questions of how South Africa can possibly help because of poverty issues ‘at home’.
In fact, South African poor are arguing that the melt down in Zimbabwe shares its roots with the same forces rapidly entrenching poverty across the region. It is precisely this support by struggling South Africans for Zimbabweans who are fighting for an alternative Zimbabwe that is being ignored in the press and falling off the radar of the South African imagination of the poor who are painted as inherently xenophobic.