Spartacist South Africa No. 12
Xenophobic Looting in Soweto
For Class-Struggle Defence of Immigrants!
Full Citizenship Rights for All Immigrants!
At least six people are reported dead, scores of foreign-owned spaza shops violently looted and thousands of immigrants displaced in the worst anti-immigrant attacks South Africa has seen in the last seven years. It started in Snake Park, but quickly spread to other parts of Soweto and other townships around Gauteng Province. The attacks were sparked by the killing of a 14-year-old youth when a Somali shop owner fired shots at a group of youth threatening to loot his shop and destroy his property.
The current attacks are a horrific reminder of the May 2008 xenophobic attacks, during which 62 people were killed, hundreds injured and many thousands left homeless. Since then, there have been smaller outbreaks of anti-immigrant violence on a regular basis. To name just a few of these: In 2011 several foreign-owned shops were looted and burnt in the Port Elizabeth townships of Motherwell and KwaDwesi; In 2013 the East Rand township of Duduza erupted with violent looting of foreign-owned shops, spreading to other nearby areas like John Dube and Tsakane, following a dispute between a Somali shopkeeper and a customer over airtime.
There are widespread reports of cops’ collusion in these attacks—including telling immigrants to go back to where they come from, demanding bribes in return for protection, and directly taking part in the looting. A cop was filmed taking part in the looting of a foreign-owned shop in Dobsonville. In other places like Zondi, residents reported that cops instructed looters to queue outside a targeted foreign shop and only allowed four looters at a time to prevent a stampede. As part of the bourgeois state—an organ of class domination and oppression of one class by another—the job of the police is to defend capitalist rule and profits by violently repressing the working class and the poor.
Notwithstanding the empty statements of government ministers decrying the looting and promising police protection to foreigners, the fact is that the cops get the green light from their masters in the ANC/SACP/COSATU Tripartite Alliance government. This capitalist government bears full responsibility for stoking anti-immigrant hatred and marginalising immigrants through repressive state crack-downs—from the persistent round-ups, months-long detention in hellish deportation prisons, and increasingly restrictive immigration laws.
Following the outbreak of the latest round of xenophobic violence, government ministers and ANC big wigs poured fuel on the flames with nationalist demagogy, and blamed the immigrants who were victims of the attacks for defending themselves. ANC boss and former SACP and COSATU leader, Gwede Mantashe, ranted that “we have an army throughout the country that we have no control over”. He called on the security ministers to take action and on the communities to monitor immigrants living in their neighbourhoods. As the attacks were raging, the Department of Home Affairs announced its intention to investigate the legal status of the foreigners doing business in Soweto. In what is a clear case of self defence—an elementary human right, which we as Marxists uphold—the Somali shop-owner Senosi Yusuf, who shot 14-year-old Siphiwe Mahori, has been ridiculously charged with murder.
The ANC government absurdly denied that the lootings were a case of xenophobia, laying the blame on drug abuse and criminality. Reports by journalists in the field and communities show that almost exclusively foreign-owned shops were looted, while those belonging to South African citizens generally continued to operate with no disruptions. The ANC leaders’ complaints about drug abuse-related criminality were echoed by the main opposition party, the neo-liberal, white-dominated Democratic Alliance, which called for the reintroduction of specialised police units on drugs and gangs. The only thing these bourgeois parties offer in response to the social misery confronting the youth today is increased cop repression and putting more young people behind bars.
Underlying the attacks on immigrants are the horrible living conditions in most black townships—marked by widespread unemployment; generalised poverty; lack of basic services like water, electricity and roads; lack of proper housing; poor or nonexistent health facilities and schools; etc. Twenty-one years after the end of apartheid, with the attendant empty promises of a “better life for all”, it is becoming increasingly clear to the black toilers that the Tripartite Alliance has done nothing to alter the social and economic conditions of the impoverished masses.
Behind the liberation rhetoric of the ruling Tripartite Alliance and the democratic trappings of “one man, one vote” is the reality of neo-apartheid capitalism, based on the same social and economic foundations of white minority rule: the brutal superexploitation of the overwhelmingly black majority by a tiny, fabulously rich white capitalist class now sprinkled with a few black front men like Cyril Ramaphosa, Patrice Motsepe, Tokyo Sexwale, etc. To divert anger from themselves and the capitalist rulers, the ANC Alliance tops scapegoat immigrants, many of whom are fleeing economic collapse and civil war in their countries of origin. From mass unemployment, crime and poverty to lack of housing—the capitalist government that oversaw the Marikana massacre blames immigrants for the failures of neo-apartheid!
Some South Africans in Soweto stood up in opposition to the attacks against immigrants, including by confronting the youth who were looting. What these conditions cry out for is the mobilisation of the powerful trade unions in defence of the immigrants and to unite all the oppressed in the struggle for jobs and quality housing for all. COSATU issued a statement against the looting, but this statement called on the very same police that were taking part in the attacks against the immigrants to act even-handedly.
Like their ANC Alliance partners, the COSATU bureaucrats use anti-immigrant chauvinism to deflect mass anger and also to cover up for their own role in selling out working-class struggles. For example, in a series of tweets in December 2014, COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, while claiming to “condemn xenophobia”, complained that “the current displacement of Africans even in spaza shops mainly by guys from [the] East is not politically sustainable”, making blanket charges of “smuggling” against Chinese shop-owners. This chauvinism was echoed by ANC minister of water and sanitation, Nomvula Mokonyane, who in January railed on Facebook about a “takeover” of township spaza shops by “people of Somali or Pakistani origin”, which she called “a recipe for disaster” that she would raise with the authorities. COSATU is an integral part of the South African capitalist government through its ANC/SACP/COSATU nationalist popular front. Break with the bourgeois Tripartite Alliance! For the class independence of the proletariat from all bourgeois parties!
A large percentage of workers in mining and other industries in South Africa come from neighbouring countries and have been an integral part in building the economy and the labour movement. It is in the vital interests of the entire workers movement to defend immigrants, both as a measure of self defence and to maintain the integrity of the working class movement. Immigrants must be organised into trade unions with full rights, pay and benefits. This requires fighting for full citizenship rights for all immigrants and against deportations by a Leninist vanguard party fighting as a tribune of the people.
Attacks on foreign-owned shops have become a feature in many of the service delivery protests in black townships, which are mainly composed of unemployed, desperate youth, would-be petty proprietors, and others with little to no direct relationship to the means of production. Youth unemployment in particular is dire, with recent statistics indicating that 71 percent of all unemployed are between the ages of 15 and 29. General unemployment amongst the blacks is in the region of 40 percent. What’s needed is the mobilisation of the township poor behind the social power of the trade unions. A class-struggle perspective would mean linking the fight to defend immigrants to a fight for jobs for all to deal with the astronomical levels of unemployment through a shortened workweek with no loss in pay and massive public works programmes to provide roads, housing and other desperately needed services for the masses.
Adequate housing for millions in the townships and squatter camps, electricity and clean water for the entire population, free, quality education and healthcare for all and all the other desperately needed measures—to achieve these requires the socialist transformation of society. The industrial and mining proletariat has the power and class interests to unite all of the oppressed in a determined struggle for a revolutionary workers government.
Widening Cracks in the “Rainbow Nation” Myth
Advanced workers and revolutionary-minded youth need to understand that the scapegoating of immigrants is just one aspect of the capitalist rulers’ racist “divide-and-rule” schemes that threaten much broader sections of the working masses. During the 2008 anti-immigrant attacks some Venda, Shangaan and Xhosa-speaking South Africans were also victims of the violence. The fact of the matter is that little has changed in the “new” South Africa. The white bourgeoisie retains an iron grip on the productive forces of the country—the mines, factories, banks and land—while subcontracting the administration of the bourgeois state to the ANC-led Tripartite Alliance. These unchanged apartheid-era economic and social conditions allow the white minority to continue enjoying First World living standards while the black masses are trapped in Third World poverty.
Under such conditions and a declining capitalist economy, the frustrations of the masses have manifested themselves in growing divisions along tribal, ethnic and racial lines. For example, in recent months legitimate grievances against lack of basic services in Malamulele, Limpopo Province, have been diverted into tribal tensions between the Tsonga and the Venda. Early last year, disgruntled black petty bourgeois mobs in KwaZulu-Natal (including supporters of the bourgeois ANC and EFF) were involved in war-like racist mobilisations against Indian counterparts they accused of getting better tender deals. Meanwhile, reports of white racists’ attacks on blacks are on the increase. All these instances provide a damning verdict on the bankruptcy of the “rainbow nation” myth that somehow the racial, tribal and other divisions inherited from apartheid could be overcome while leaving intact the capitalist system and attendant social structure.
We characterised the deal between the ANC/SACP/COSATU Tripartite Alliance and the white minority rulers as a betrayal of the national struggle for black liberation. Eighteen years ago we wrote that:
“Widespread expectations for better housing and jobs cannot be met; even simple democratic demands such as the right to an education for all children or the right of women to birth control and abortion are denied to the overwhelming majority by social inequality and lack of facilities. If the masses’ frustration does not find expression along class lines it will fuel and embitter every other kind of division.”
—The Fight for a Revolutionary Vanguard Party: Polemics on the South African Left, April 1997
The ANC-led nationalist movement cannot bring social progress to the nonwhite masses because it is committed to maintaining South African capitalism. It is precisely for this reason that the divide-and-rule practices inherited from British imperialism still exist today. They can only be ended when the national question is transcended and the enormous wealth is taken away from the white capitalist class and their black junior partners. The way out of this dilemma is the forging of a Leninist-Trotskyist party that fights for a workers revolution centred on the black majority and whose ranks must be drawn from the multiracial and ethnically diverse South African society.
Black Liberation through Socialist Revolution
Emphasising the interrelationship between the fight for working class power and for national liberation of the oppressed majority, we call for a black-centred workers government. This slogan is aimed at bringing the class principle to the fore, based on the Leninist understanding that the struggle for national liberation, using the methods of class struggle, can be a powerful motor force for socialist revolution in South Africa. It is based on a recognition of the overwhelming weight of the national/racial question in this country, where the majority of the African people are oppressed by the privileged white minority. Our call for a black-centred workers government seeks to address the felt burning needs of the black masses for genuine national emancipation and equality, and to highlight the fact that the proletarian revolution is very much the supreme act of national liberation.
Our call also draws a line against those who refuse to recognise or are indifferent to the fact that the racial hierarchy established under British colonial rule and perfected under apartheid—with whites on top, followed by Indians, coloureds, and blacks at the rock bottom—continues to define the social reality of neo-apartheid capitalism. Most of the pseudo-socialist left embraces nationalist fictions like the “rainbow nation” or “nonracialism” in one form or another, which deny or downplay the continued existence of dramatic divisions along colour, national and tribal lines among the oppressed nonwhite masses. In practice, these fictions serve to prettify the racist reality of neo-apartheid capitalist rule and provide a cover for the ANC, DA and other bourgeois forces to promote vicious divide-and-rule.
A distinct phenomenon of South African capitalism is the strong overlap between racial and class oppression. While we support the struggle for national emancipation, we are irreconcilably opposed to all nationalist ideology. Historically, the depth of black national oppression was characterised by the absence of a black property-owning class, thus strengthening the false consciousness that all blacks share the same interests which stand above class divisions. While the objective reality has changed under neo-apartheid, with political power being given to a black elite and the development of a relatively tiny black bourgeoisie that act mainly as black front men for the still dominantly white capitalist class, the ideological grip of nationalism remains deep amongst the working class and the oppressed and acts as a major obstacle towards the development of class consciousness.
The ANC/Alliance nationalists, as the new overseers of racist South African capitalism, have relied on the same “divide-and-rule” strategy as their white predecessors, pitting different sections of the oppressed against each other. The brutal oppression and vicious scapegoating of immigrants from Africa and Asia is one of the clearest examples of the reactionary face of black nationalism.
A black-centred workers government would have to demonstrate in words and deeds that it is not a new black nationalism in a disguised form. A key task of such a government would be to transcend the national, racial and tribal divisions by fighting for and ensuring democratic rights and national equality of all the peoples of South Africa. It is on this basis that we emphasise the inclusive nature of this slogan: a black-centred workers government would include full democratic rights and an important role for the coloured and Indian toilers, as well as those whites who would accept a government based centrally on the black working class. South Africa conforms in an exceptionally clear way to Trotsky’s conception of permanent revolution which posits that national liberation and social and economic modernisation in colonial and semi-colonial countries can be achieved only through proletarian revolution.
We do not regard as sacrosanct the colonialist-drawn borders between African countries that have no correspondence with tribal or ethnic groupings. We fight for a socialist federation of Southern Africa where there will be equal rights for all the myriad peoples of the region. The South African proletariat, which is exploited by the capitalist class whose holdings extend throughout Southern Africa, has the social power that is key to liberating not only the downtrodden masses in this country, but those of the entire region groaning under neocolonial misery. Immigrants from neighbouring countries working and/or staying in South Africa will act as a human bridge connecting the proletarian revolution here to revolutions throughout the region. Socialist revolution and the expropriation of the bourgeoisie can lay the material foundations for social and economic progress and genuine equality. But such a perspective can only be realised through the extension of the socialist revolution to the most advanced imperialist countries and the establishment of a collectivised, planned, socialist world economy. This is the revolutionary Trotskyist programme of Spartacist South Africa.