A simplistic & anti-democratic blame game

Posted on April 19, 2022


(First published by Fin24 and City Press)

More than 20 years ago, before its quite recent gentrification, I moved into the Cape Town seaside suburb of Muizenberg which then housed, courtesy of the United Nations, a large group of Angolan and DRC refugees.

These new arrivals spoke foreign languages — mainly French, Lingala and Portuguese — and sometimes displayed a self-confidence that many of the older residents found disconcerting.

There were rumours about crime and drug dealing by “Nigerians”. These proliferated. And there was drug dealing, with police apparently turning a blind eye. But the dealers were members of that long-established Cape gang, the Hard Livings from Manenberg. And other criminal activities, such as break-ins, were most often carried out by locals.

Most of that vibrant and friendly refugee community, including a fifth-year Angolan medical student who worked briefly as a car guard, have long since returned to their homes. But some married locally and stayed on, including Eric, a BCom graduate who handled supermarket trolleys and worked as a car guard before starting a cleaning business.

That experience underlined for me the evidence presented in numerous studies about the impact of migrant labour: often, migrants benefit the societies into which they have moved; they also tend to create jobs, not deplete them.

For all the double talk and sometimes desperate attempts at fence-sitting, South Africa is in the midst of a simplistic and anti-democratic blame game.

And a part of this is the Employment Services Amendment Bill published by labour minister and SA Communist Party heavyweight, Thulas Nxesi.  This Bill and policy outline proposes tougher controls on the employment of “foreign nationals” and supports quotas for such workers “in any sector”.

It is being promoted as a contribution to easing the current unemployment crisis. But it is, in fact, a genuflection to xenophobia: a reaction to ANC fears about losing electoral ground to the rising nationalistic right.

However, it is not only the government and the ANC that have succumbed to an ideological current that is also being played out in other parts of a world battered by mini-wars, and increasingly affected by the poison of nationalism. Trade unions too, are generally hedging their bets as putative warlords attempt to dominate politically by deflecting the anger of the exploited majority away from the real causes of their woes.

It is much the same as blaming the deaths and destruction in the KZN floods this week solely on God. This amounts to blaming a deity for a natural act made worse by such factors as a lack of preparedness, inadequate planning and poor drainage.

However, on the political and economic front, versions of nationalism are essential to this blame game. They can be national, regional, local, ethnic, linguistic, religious or tribal, along with any combination of these. Patriotism is not just the refuge behind which scoundrels hide, it is their siren call to the fearful and increasingly jobless to rally to protect “their” elites and so deflect from the real problems in society and who and what are responsible.

This makes for difficult philosophical/ideological times for the country’s once quite powerful and fairly united trade unions, for all their differing traditions. Most still profess an orientation to “socialism”. And, with very few exceptions, the internationalist call for workers of all countries to unite remains part of the creed of the South African labour movement.

But, from about 1996, with increasing bureaucratisation and the spread of union-based investment companies, the former stress on militant democracy and proactive campaigning for a fairer economy went by the board. Today this is very obvious in the way almost all appear to be hedging their bets when it comes to attitudes toward “foreign” workers. There may be some murmurs of dissent about elements of the government’s proposed new, “foreign worker”, policies, but no headlong opposition. Yet, ironically, most of those targeted are workers from across borders inherited from — and imposed by — imperial Europe and colonialism.

This puts most unions in broad support of the proposed news laws to limit the employment opportunities of “foreign nationals” who are claimed to be “stealing jobs” from the native born. There is no evidence to support this; only the claim that “foreign” workers labour for longer hours for less pay.

But desperate workers around the country are often paid an illegal pittance for long, hard labour: ask any of the thousands who line main roads in urban centres every morning frantically hoping for work — any work and for any pay. Most are South African citizens and they are not to blame for working cheaper and longer than the law allows.

To blame here are the employers, along with the labour department, for not enforcing the law. Trade unions also bear responsibility for, in many cases, being far too slack in organising workers and policing the protection that the labour movement fought for and won over many years. Many have become, by merit of investment companies, overly dependent on the very capitalist system that is based on the exploitation of labour.

It is a simple fact that a profit-driven system demands that the most competent, efficient workers be hired at the lowest possible rate. It was this reality that gave rise to the trade unions: they are products of the system, not alternatives to it. They were established — and should continue to exist — to fight to protect workers from even worse exploitation; to fight for decent work and decent pay for all workers.

The proposal of set quotas in various sectors therefore seems like another version of the “cadre deployment” — hiring individuals on the basis of political loyalty rather than competence — that has proved so disastrous, especially at the local government level. In what seems an obvious concession to xenophobia, the government also proposes to prohibit foreign nationals from starting small businesses in “certain business sectors”.

This is clearly aimed at township spaza shops and similar establishments that provide services to the bulk of the country’s urban working class. Such businesses, when operated by non-citizens, are claimed to amount to “unfair competition” often because, in the case of spazas, they stock more goods, sold more cheaply. Yet where this is true, it is largely because such businesses are more efficiently run, often in premises rented from South African citizens.

It is the residents of informal settlements and townships who would suffer if poorer services were offered and higher prices charged. As with any calls or policies that divide workers, the result is to victimise the poor, wherever they come from.

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