Xenophobia is a global crisis, but in South Africa it is taking a particularly violent form. The daily accumulation of insults and harassment within the state and society periodically turns into open street violence in which people are beaten, hacked and burned alive. If there is a useful global point of comparison, it is perhaps with the communal riots that tear Indian cities apart from time to time.
The state has tended to withdraw as a neighborhood is plagued by xenophobic violence. When she arrives, after the destruction, the eviction of people from their homes and the killings have ceased, she usually arrives to arrest the migrants rather than the perpetrators of the attacks. It is the African and Asian migrants, mostly poor and from the working class, who have to face this pincer movement of the populace and the police.
The gravity of the situation in South Africa first came to global attention in May 2008 when xenophobic violence, sometimes intertwined with ethnic sentiment, claimed the lives of 62 people. At the time, the country was led by Thabo Mbeki, a man with deep and authentic pan-African commitments. But by the end of 2007, Jacob Zuma’s path to the presidency was clear, and the ethnic chauvinism he had brought into the public sphere was rampant. The limited social support offered by the state was increasingly understood to be tied to identities such as ethnicity, nationality, and claims of belonging to long-established communities.
By the time Zuma took over the presidency in May 2009, it was common for party officials in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal to tell impoverished people that they had not been given houses or other rights, due to an “influx” of “foreigners”. or people from “other provinces” — a euphemism for ethnic identity. There have been instances where people, seeking the approval of political authority, have begun to “cleanse” their communities themselves.
Today, nearly 15 years after the 2008 attacks, the situation is much worse. Most South Africans live in a state of permanent crisis since the colonial conquest of land, livestock and autonomy. But for most young people, this permanent crisis no longer takes the form of the ruthless exploitation of labor under racial capitalism. Last year, youth unemployment reached 77.4%, the highest rate of any G20 country. As Achille Mbembe, the Cameroonian philosopher who writes from Johannesburg, argued in 2011, the intersection of race and capitalism has made people “trash”.
The pain of young lives lived in permanent suspension is often turned inward. There’s a massive heroin epidemic, depression and anxiety are rampant, and the rates of violence, largely gendered, are terrifying.
In this crisis of lasting social abandonment, there are attempts, sometimes extraordinarily courageous, to build forms of politics around the affirmation of human dignity. They often encountered severe repressions, including assassinations. But unsurprisingly, there are also attempts to build popular forms of politics around xenophobia, some of them with fascistic elements. Young people, mostly men, are summoned under the authority of a demagogic leader, provided with a rudimentary uniform in the form of a T-shirt and the possibility of exercising a certain power in the name of the “society of cleaning “. Evil is disguised as virtue.
At the same time, all major political parties, including the ruling African National Congress (ANC), shifted sharply to the right and became increasingly xenophobic. In government, the ANC has always run a very exclusive migration regime and is now set to end the permits, established more than 10 years ago, which gave an estimated 178,000 Zimbabweans the right to live, work and live. study in South Africa.
His rhetoric has also shifted sharply to the right. Party spokesman Pule Mabe recently declared “the hunt for illegal aliens”, adding, “we can no longer guarantee their safety”. The party’s political conference in early August proposed “a well-coordinated strategy to track down foreigners in an irregular situation”. This strategy explicitly included the recommendation that “the branches of the ANC must take the lead in this regard”.
Many analysts believe that the ANC, which has already lost control of many major cities in South Africa, will be unable to win the next national elections in 2024. As the party faces the prospect of losing power to the first time since the end of apartheid, the temptation to make migrants the scapegoats of its failures is intensifying. Alarmingly, the new parties occupying the political space opened up by rapidly declining support for the ANC are more or less uniformly forms of authoritarian populism organized around xenophobia.
Former business tycoon turned politician, Herman Mashaba’s fast-rising election-riding ActionSA party mixes hardline neoliberalism with xenophobia. In 2018, Mashaba staged a “citizen arrest” of a migrant, then tweeted: “We are [not] will sit down and empower people like you to bring Ebola to us on behalf of small business. The health of our people first. Our healthcare facilities are already stretched to the limit. This amalgam of a vulnerable minority and disease evokes the horrors of historical forms of fascist mobilization.
The public discourse of the state, government and most political parties regularly confuses documented and undocumented migrants as “illegal aliens”, “illegal aliens” with criminals, and, in recent days, following of a gruesome gang rape on the outskirts of a decaying mining town, rapists. When police come under pressure to address concerns about crime, they frequently arrest migrants, often including people with papers rather than perpetrators of actual crimes.
Left-wing mass organizations, with political identities rooted to a large extent in factory, mining or land occupation, have often opposed the turn to xenophobia, and it is common for migrants to occupy leadership positions in these kinds of organizations. But while they can provide nodes of refuge, they lack the power to effectively oppose the rapidly deteriorating situation domestically.
Without a national force with the vision and the power to offer an emancipatory alternative to the toxic politics, sometimes with fascist elements, that pits neighbors against each other, the country is on a knife edge.