Fascism coming into its own

Posted on February 7, 2022


(First published on Fin24 and in City Press, South Africa)

The recent action by Economic Freedom Fighters and members of the Patriotic Alliance, barging into restaurants to demand that more South African born workers be employed, was, frankly, illegal and xenophobic. The beating up of street traders assumed to be “Aliens” by “Operation Dudula” thugs in Soweto while “clearing them out” was only slightly cruder.

But there is also a political dimension: these actions signalled the quite strong emergence of a local brand of fascism. This is an ideology that distils the poison of nationalism and tends to require two additional elements: a leader/savour of “the nation” along with one or more communities to be blamed for all the ills of society.

It is an ideology that exists as a form of political virus in every society marked by inequality and exploitation. In times of economic growth, stability and general feelings of hope for the future — a good example being the immediate post 1994 period — it is relatively dormant, often to the extent that it is barely noticed, a minor pimple on the backside of the body politic.

But at times of crisis and when the existing political order — especially of the liberal, parliamentary variety — is seen widely to be failing and the traditional Left seems ideologically bankrupt and compromised, fascism can come into its own.

It is now starting to do so. On the leader/saviour front we have Julius Malema, Gayton McKenzie and Nhlanhla Lux. They promise a better life for all, if only we could rid ourselves of the foreigners who are “stealing our jobs”.

In doing so, they indulge in actions that amount to trespass, intimidation/threatening behaviour and, arguably, extortion in setting time limits for their demanded employment ratios to be achieved. They also reveal a perhaps wilful ignorance about the nature of the economy.

It is a simple fact that competent workers provide the best assurance that an enterprise will survive. If it does, the workers, all local residents, earn wages which they then spend on products and services produced by other workers. As various surveys have shown, migrant workers create and do not destroy jobs.

That no action has been taken — and none will probably be taken — against the thuggish behaviour of the xenophobes is worrying. But even more worrying is the fact that the government, let alone the labour movement, has not moved strongly against this dangerous nonsense.

In fact, in the wake of the restaurant raids, it was reported that the labour department had decided to launch a “mega blitz” by its inspectors directed at foreign workers in the hospitality industry.

This is an industry that is an easy public relations target because it is a sector — along with agriculture — that is perhaps the greatest area of worker exploitation, of illegally low wages and dangerous conditions. Yet to blame for this are the employers, not the workers.

But at a time of faction fighting and fears within the ANC of losing electoral control, it seems as if the government feels it necessary to start boarding the xenophobic bandwagon. However, labour minister Thulas Nxesi, a former teacher union general secretary, did subsequently backtrack slightly, pointing out that the role of labour inspectors was to ensure that the labour laws were adhered to.

These laws applied to all workers, irrespective of where they were born. However, even Nxesi made a concession to the xenophobes, noting that more, especially semi-skilled, jobs should be made available to South Africans.

But restaurant work, in many instances, is multi-faceted and often requires considerable skill. Nxesi also mentioned agricultural work in this category. Once again, it is a question of yes and no: much agricultural work is highly skilled. Which is why sheep shearing, for example, tends to be dominated by Basotho teams.

One of the biggest questions in all of this is: where were the trade unions? They should have been to the forefront in opposing the xenophobic raids. After all, one of the cardinal principles of the labour movement is solidarity, summed up in the oft quoted slogan: workers of the world, unite!

And unions, above all, should be aware that all existing surveys on work and migration tend to show clearly that migrant workers do not steal jobs; that the impact overall of “foreign workers” on national — and wider — economies is almost always beneficial.

This is the clear message that must be conveyed while putting forward an alternative, more democratic and inclusive vision of the future. For all its faults, the best hope of achieving this remains, organisationally, the labour movement, linked with various emerging citizen groups.

Failure to develop a real alternative, or even to act against this emerging social disaster, will mean more of the same — only much worse — perhaps under the rule of xenophobes.