Xenophobia, politics and labour unions

xenophobiaCAPE TOWN - It is widely recognised that one of the biggest issues in post-apartheid South Africa has been the 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 integrating in

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.

Recently the National Union of Metalworkers (NUMSA) went so far as to call 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 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 many factors came into play, that it was a complex and unfortunate combination of conditions. These included 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.

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 be 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.

This can be seen by the attitude of foreigners towards locals, ignorant of the historical disadvantages faced by black and coloured South Africans, such as Bantu education (a system in which South Africa deliberately provided an inferior education to the oppressed majority). Many immigrants believe South Africans to be stupid or lazy, while also failing to take into account that Zimbabweans, for example, benefited from an education system widely recognised as being among the best in the world between 1980 and 1999.

Host communities do not realise what tragedies have led to the forced migration of thousands of people from other African countries, instead they largely believe that the migration was calculated and aimed to undermine South Africans, intercept jobs, and steal opportunity. Another gross ignorance has been the belief by many South Africans that if someone has not got documents they are criminals, a belief which ignores the dire situation at refugee centres across the country.

The divide in civil society can be taken advantage of, for example, in the labour force, where a vast demographic of vulnerable groups are preyed on by opportunistic employers. Most undocumented immigrants are ill-informed about their rights, and are thus subjected to some of the greatest abuses.

This 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 deliberate wrongdoing of the abusive employer.

It is thus important that Zimbabweans participate in demands for better wages and working conditions, and ultimately join unions. Probably the strongest allies to the Zimbabwean people in South Africa are the trade unions. This they have made clear with their continued public condemnation of the Mugabe regime, both in words and in action. In the midst of all the hostility and xenophobia, it is clear that Zimbabweans have a friend in the trade unions.

Post published in: Opinions

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