Xenophobia in South Africa fractures international working-class solidarity

The COVID-19 pandemic has strongly impacted migrants in South Africa who have been facing increasingly violent attacks and marginalization over the past decade, reinforced by xenophobic rhetoric on a state-level

July 07, 2020 by Pan Africanism Today Secretariat
Malawian migrant, Eliza Banda sits in the corridor outside her sixth-floor apartment after being evicted. Johannesburg CBD. Picture: James Oatway / New Frame

As the prime destination for income-seekers in Southern Africa, South Africa’s lock down conditions have been detrimental to low-income immigrants, most of whom do not qualify for the meager COVID-19 relief packages. As South Africa nosedives into a greater economic, political and health crisis resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, advocacy for the rights of migrant workers ought to be at the forefront of building international working class solidarity.

From the creation of the mining industries at the turn of the twentieth century to the post-1994 opening up, migrant workers have always lived a precarious life in South Africa, despite the crucial role low-wage workers play in the exploitative economy. Since the notorious 2008 xenophobic attacks in South Africa, the country has experienced increasingly violent attacks. The COVID-19 pandemic has further placed the plight of immigrants in South Africa under scrutiny as reports of starvation, suicide and looting of foreigner-owned shops have increased; while most immigrants do not qualify for the limited relief packages offered by government.

While outbreaks of xenophobic violence are usually associated with periods of economic and political instability, the prejudices and negative attitudes towards migrant peoples which manifests in these outbreaks are reinforced in daily discourse and national policies. As economic interests shift over time, so does public discourse and societal scapegoats. The 2019 South African national elections saw political parties rally support through anti-immigrant sentiments, allowing the ruling African National Congress (ANC) to blame poor migrants for South Africa’s high unemployment and crime rates. The ruling elite and big business use the fractures within the working class to exploit racism, patriarchy, religion and ethnicity both in extracting profit as well as in dividing the working class. Today, communities feel justified in looting and violently attacking migrant people, based on many irresponsible statements made by government officials and the proposed “Put South Africans First” post-COVID-19 economic policy.

In the most recent weeks, there has been consensus across political lines and business that the government ought to focus its resources on prioritizing South Africans in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Herman Mashaba, former DA mayor of Johannesburg, has contributed to the xenophobic twitter campaign, #PutSouthAfricansFirst, urging the government to ensure stricter regulations of borders. Former Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba continues to tow a xenophobic line despite a constitutional court ruling on 29 June 2020, declaring the Mashaba-led 2019 Johannesburg inner city raids unconstitutional. In these raids, police broke down doors and removed families from their homes at night demanding immigration papers and searching their personal belongings. Between 30 June 2017 and 3 May 2018, “the City of Johannesburg, South African Police Service (SAPS), Johannesburg Metro Police Department (JMPD) and Department of Home Affairs immigration officers conducted about 39 raids” at the 11 listed residential buildings. The 2019 xenophobic violence which broke out later in the year resulted in over 12 deaths and hundreds of people injured.

The laws of South Africa continue to safeguard discrimination against migrants. The 2014 amendments to South Africa’s Immigration Act increased immigration restrictions resulting in no immigration benefits for parents or legal guardians of South African children. The parent/legal guardian of the child is only offered immigration benefits if s/he is married to the other parent. Furthermore, children born of a foreign parent in South Africa cannot be registered for a birth certificate if either parent does not possess valid immigration documents. Immigration laws are highly unjust as restrictions limit access to justice. The war on immigrants and xenophobic sentiments are classed expressions of violence as the victims of xenophobia are usually the most vulnerable and poor members of society. Furthermore, immigration legislation allows international travel to be easier for middle and high-income travelers as immigration policies are guided by the 2017 White Paper on International Migration for South Africa. The paper positions itself as anti-poor and anti-unskilled immigrants, as this policy shift singularly focuses on seeking to attract highly skilled labor through granting point-based work permits. This position of attracting only skilled immigrants and rejecting asylum seekers and refugees is anti-African as the core of Africa’s labor force is engaged in informal labor.

In terms of the number of immigrants, South Africa remains the most significant destination country in Africa with around 4 million international migrants residing in the country. The infamous 2008 xenophobic attacks in South Africa displaced tens of thousands and resulted in the deaths of 60 people. They are the notable mark of many violent outbreaks of xenophobia in South Africa over the past 12 years. As South Africa’s socio-economic crisis has deepened, so has the intensity of anti-immigrant sentiments in townships across the country. Lack of coordination from the state in responding to xenophobic attacks resulted in no prosecutions for xenophobic violence in 2008.

The continuation of these events places South Africa in step with the global rise of right-wing forces that are characterized by strong anti-immigrant sentiments in order for migrants to become the scapegoats of capitalism’s contradictions and failures. The ruling elite and big business use the fractures within the working class to exploit racism, patriarchy, religion and ethnicity both in extracting profit as well as in dividing the working class. As South Africa heads into the ‘eye of the storm’, with rapidly rising confirmed COVID-19 cases, it is important that we respect the human dignity of all migrants and refugees.