Posted on October 2, 2010


This week, South Africa experienced a week of tears as xenophobic violence shattered much of what remained of the image of this country as a beacon of peace and tolerance. Our transition to a liberal parliamentary democracy was seen by many as the harbinger of a new society, despite surging crime levels, unemployment and lingering poverty.

But our week of tears has been particularly bitter in that the poor, dispossesed and exploited who suffered, did so at the hands of their fellows. This was not a case of an old guard re-emerging to wreak bloody havoc.

And government cannot escape its share of responsibility, despite the frankly silly protestations of the Pahad brothers, deputy foreign minister Aziz and minister in the presidency, Essop with their imputations about media, third force and right-wing responsibility.

Poverty, bureaucratic inefficiencies, arrogance and corruption all played a part in creating the conditions in which frustration and hopelessness could turn to blind rage. And the social and economic environment of a country is largely created by governments, encouraged always by those who profit most from the status quo.

So it was that our government, in alliance with domestic business and supported by most opposition parties, promoted the virus of nationalism which, in the right conditions, can mutate into rabid xenophobia. In July, seven years ago, when the Proudly South African campaign was launched, this column noted: “Proudly South African or proudly xenophobic. That is the question facing the more class conscious elements of the trade union movement.”

The column added that this use of nationalism contained “the whiff of a Shakespearean tragedy” where “forces beyond the the control of the well-meaning players conspire to guarantee grief”.

The union federations did at least express some “ideological and practical” reservations. Their initial demand had been that South Africa should not import goods from countries that did not adhere to labour standards — to wages and conditions — at least on a par with those in South Africa. This was the practical application of an injury to one being an injury to all, of internationalism.

Still, they capitulated although Gwede Mantasahe, then general secretary of the National Union of MIneworkers warned that “xenophobia is a risk in a campaign like this”. But Cunningham Ngcukana, then president of the National Council of Trade Unions, noted that it was “better to be inside than out”.

This stress on “South Africaness” was further exacerbated by the tendency of government and home affairs officials to refer to migrants by the dehumanising term, “aliens”.

A section of the media played its part echoing such terms and the perceptions they convey. From such seeds of nationalism the virulent poison of xenophobia seeped quickly into a culture already steeped in sexism and violence.

Aggressive, night-time police raids on refuges at the Johannesburg’s Central Methodist Mission and patronising and ill-considered statements by authorities, from MPs to ministers, all added to the mix. A clear target for communal frustration and anger was created.

But most unions, although to the forefront in protests against the recent barbarism, have failed to address the fundamental issue of nationalism: they have failed to acknowledge that it was lines drawn on maps by imperialists in Europe that made aliens, foreigners and makwere-kwere of fellow Africans.

They also continue to accept the “imagined communities” of nations in blatant contradiction to their professed adherence to the slogan: workers of all countries, unite.

This seems particulartly sad on the eve of Africa Day and on the 137th anniversary of the first “week of tears,” the crushing of the Paris commune of 1871 when workers and the poor, for the first time in modern history, seized control, for just two months, of their destiny.

Posted in: Archive - 2008