Xenophobia, Politics and labour unions

xenophobia_attacks.jpegIt is widely recognised that one of the biggest issues in post-apartheid South Africa has been the prevalent high unemployment levels experienced by our impoverished and "previously disadvantaged populations. While much has changed in South Africa, the redistribution of wealth has hardly begun, with only the emergence of a small black elite partially i

The majority remain largely neglected. Even those who are employed are paid menial wages, while the unemployed are left dependent on meagre government grantsleaving neither group content. The frustration among the working class has been brewing for a while, as their wages are often equivalent to less than 1% of the wages paid to their CEOs and senior management.

Worker dissatisfaction is clear: almost every labour union has held strikes striking in the past twelve months, and the National Union of Metalworkers (NUMSA) recently called for the nationalisation of South Africas billionaires fortunes. The order of the day has become unions demanding higher wages, civil society demanding more employment opportunities, and community members staging violent protests against politicians and their frivolous spending.

With all this tension, it is no coincidence that many South Africans, some of whom were ultimately involved in the horrific xenophobic violence in 2008, believe that immigrants have increased competition for the few jobs that remain. Indeed, “They are stealing our jobs!” was one of the more common allegations made by blood hungry mobs as they searched for their victimstheir neighbours, the “lesser” Africans, the foreigners. Men and women, young and old, were killed, beaten, raped, and stolen from. The xenophobic violence made victim thousands of Zimbabweans, Congolese, Somalis, and other Africans from all over the continent.

The question that followed became the subject of hundreds of meetings, lectures, workshops and debates: could this have been avoided? What caused such great tension?

Thoughtful investigation reveals that it many factors came into play, that it was a complex and unfortunate combination of conditions. Poor service delivery, poor education, crime, unemployment, poverty, a large undocumented population, police brutality towards immigrants, possibly a third force, and foreigners undercutting local markets were among the conditions frequently cited as contributing to the tensions that led up to the attacks. The result of this violence was a large internally displaced population. Initially, people fled to police stations in search of safety and later government accommodated them temporarily in halls and tents.

The next question was centred on reintegration: how do you create a safe environment for immigrants and how do they return to their host communities? There was a focus on the tensions that existed in the impoverished township communities, with an overwhelming view that they could not easily be alleviated. This posed a great threat to reintegration, as it forced the realization that if the causes of xenophobia were not easily eliminated, there would be more violence and could be no true security for immigrants.

While I agree with many parts of the theory that community uprising is the culmination of tensions over service delivery issues, I cannot concede that this tension was the only cause, or even the main cause, of the xenophobic violence. It would not possible for hate to have been directed at immigrants without a segregated population, where each insular community was equally ignorant and suspicious of the otherignorant of the cultural practices and suffering faced by the other. The difficulties of this divide can be seen in the labour force, with a vast demographic of vulnerable groups preyed on by opportunistic employers.

Many of these employers seek to undercut and disrespect South African Labour laws. Certain groups are especially vulnerable to these abuses because of race, gender, nationality, or ethnicity. Among these groups, one of the most vulnerable is the immigrant population. The immigrant population has suffered greatly in large part because of the crises at refugee centres across the country, including capacity problems and rampant corruption, which leaved many undocumented. Most undocumented immigrants are ill-informed about their rights, and are thus subjected to some of the greatest abuses.

Employers often take advantage of how desperate these foreign nationals are for money, employing them at wages which are often well below the legal minimum wage. Undocumented immigrants are often refused overtime pay and benefits and, in some cases, are denied payment altogether. Combined with this unethical behaviour, employers often use immigrants to divide labourers. They are used to work during strikes and are not often unionized. This behaviour creates tension in the larger labour community, because the immigrants vulnerability brings down wages, living conditions, and rights for all labourers.

It is a great injustice when people who are already victims of a desperate situation are further punished because of the deliberate wrongdoing of abusive employer.

It is thus important that Zimbabweans participate in demands for better wages and working conditions, and ultimately join unions. While there are clearly tensions present among labourers, it must be noted that probably the strongest allies to the Zimbabwean people in South Africa are the trade unions. It has been demonstrated year after year that South African trade unions believe in a better Zimbabwe. This they have made clear with their continued public condemnation of the Mugabe regime, both in words and in action. I was overjoyed last year when the our unions refused to off load the guns sent to Zimbabwe from China. In the midst of all the hostility and xenophobia, it is clear that Zimbabweans have a friend in the trade unions.

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