Looting and xenophobia: the ugly face of the economic crisis
by Ronald Wesso | Amandla! Issue No. 66 | October 2019
The wave of xenophobic demonstrations and attacks around Gauteng during September raises the question: what would an effective response to xenophobia look like?
The fact that there are strong links between continued poverty, inequality and unemployment and widespread xenophobia is clear. Black communities are tormented by divisions and conflicts along a number of lines, including that of gender and nationality. These are ultimately driven by their extreme exploitation and humiliation at the hand of the racist capitalist power structure embodied by white monopoly capital. Any effective strategy to end the hatred, discrimination and violence directed against Africans perceived as foreigners must therefore include the goal of putting an end to poverty, inequality and unemployment and the racist capital that produces it.
Such a general approach carries the risk of reproducing moralism and dogmatism. It can lead to an approach in which actions are intended to demonstrate the moral good intentions and ideological ”correctness” of activists, even if they have zero or even negative consequences in the political sphere. Given that most self-declared leftists draw inspiration from sectarian ideologies associated with these practices, this danger is always present. A commitment to analyse and respond to the specific political and economic impulses behind these xenophobic attacks can help us avoid this danger.
Attack on working class living standards
One starting point for such an analysis could be the observation that in the economic sphere we are dealing with more than the general presence of poverty, inequality and unemployment. The last few months have seen the coming together of important changes in the flow and regulation of wealth distribution. There have been increases in Value Added Tax and the prices of essential commodities. Combined with mass retrenchments and a renewed commitment from the state to neoliberalism, these amount to a massive attack on the living standards of the working class.
Resurgence of White Monopoly Capital
The beneficiary of this attack is a small group of monopoly capitalists at the very top of the business and state hierarchy. Groups like Old Mutual, Sanlam, Remgro and Anglo American represent the traditional white owners of South Africa, with direct continuity with Apartheid and colonialism. They have fought a battle against the ”state capture” agenda of the sections of the black middle and aspirant capitalist class led by Zuma and the Guptas. Through this they reasserted their control of key economic and political institutions and used this renewed control to divert greater shares of social wealth flows to themselves.
They have retaken control of institutions which showed some relative autonomy during the Zuma era. These include treasury, the state owned enterprises, the presidency, the ANC presidency and national executive committee, and Cosatu. All classes have lost out to this renewed control and confidence of White Monopoly Capital (WMC). Even executive managers are being reigned in across the boardrooms of capitalist firms.
This particular austerity attack represents an historic shift. It signals the breakdown of the social compact of the mid 1990s. WMC no longer needs to make the concessions it made during the political and labour relations negotiations that worked out the terms of the transition from Apartheid. The strong labour and political movements of the black working class and middle class forced it to concede a number of rights and resources within the neoliberal framework it was able to win. The cooption of the ANC and Cosatu into that very framework has fatally weakened the resistance capacities of these movements. This was demonstrated in the victory of WMC during the ”state capture” battle. On the back of that victory, white monopoly capitalists are deepening their monopoly over South Africa.
The economic moment is therefore less defined by a crisis in the classical Marxian sense, where overproduction and chaos bring large sectors of the economy to a halt. Its defining feature is more a politically driven reconquest and grab of wealth and power by the same social grouping responsible for colonial conquest, slavery and Apartheid. The extreme concentration of wealth that this produces will produce a crisis which has not yet happened.
What has happened is that this rightward shift in the body politic has affected all social groups and institutions and acquired many ugly faces. Every backward looking, oppression-loving group and ideology has emerged with renewed impetus and malevolence. Racists, sexists, homophobes, neoliberals, tribalists and militarists have all spoken with vicious confidence as they celebrated the renewed dominance of white monopoly capitalists with a horror fest of downwardly directed violence. Maybe in this climate it would have been a surprise if the xenophobic outbreaks did not happen.
Violence deliberately organised
Importantly, the xenophobic outbreaks did not happen as the direct and simple result of the increased economic hardship of the poor. It was deliberately organised by definite political institutions and groups.
In the centre of Johannesburg, an alliance between the DA leadership of the city, the Johannesburg Metro Police Department and the South African Police Services took the initiative. They organised a series of raids on traders that was aimed at ”seizing counterfeit goods”. This action to protect the interests of European and American corporations was aimed against African migrants.
The fashion district where these raids took place is 500 meters from Jeppe hostel, which was the origin of xenophobic demonstrations and attacks a week later. This outburst was the direct result of the state actions a week before. But even here there was very deliberate organisation required. New Frame has reported how a group called Sisonke People’s Movement organised the demonstrations in question after a long engagement with the police. This group seems to be aligned and integrated with the governance structures of the hostels around Johannesburg, which in turn have strong links with traditional leaders in KwaZulu Natal.
This same pattern of open or tacit alliances between state structures and non-state rightwing groups, directing intimidation and violence against African migrants, was visible in the attacks on migrant truck drivers. Media reports pointed fingers at the group called the South African Truck Drivers Association. The shutdown of the Pretoria city centre should be seen in the same light. Taxi associations declared themselves against xenophobia and claimed their major concern was drug abuse. It cannot be denied though that their interventions on drug abuse had the line of ”foreigners corrupting our children” and was targeted against migrants from Nigeria.
Violence triggered by the state
The overall pattern of xenophobic outbreaks is that it is triggered and enabled by the state and organised by groups who target African migrants. They do this in response to the problems created by the renewed wealth grab by white monopoly capital. Xenophobia has found a social basis in a hyper-nationalist middle class and political agents who derive legitimacy and power from organising on the basis of representing “our people” against “foreigners”. Its connection to increased economic hardship is clear but it will not disappear automatically if the economic situation of xenophobic groups improves. Such improvements may actually consolidate it through the creation of a South African layer of better off workers and middle class people higher on the social hierarchy than a migrant working class.
An effective leftist response would therefore target both the political agents of the wealth grab and the organisers of xenophobic outbreaks. They must be identified, studied, exposed, confronted and cut off from the sources of their power.
Ronald Wesso is media coordinator at the Casual Workers Advice Office (CWAO), a non-profit organisation based in Germiston, Gauteng, with a focus on supporting the struggles of precarious workers. The CWAO offices were attacked and burnt during the recent xenophobic violence in Gauteng.