Daily Maverick: We must build a powerful united front against xenophobia

Imraan Buccus, The Daily Maverick

The ongoing attacks on women and migrants have led to deep pessimism about the state of SA. Social cohesion and human rights seem like a distant dream, and it’s not just the president who has been absent. Civil society and trade unions largely seem missing in action too.

Alarmingly, one major civil society organisation issued a long statement on xenophobia which presented the crisis as one solely suffered by African migrants, and completely left out the fact that many migrants from Asia have also been attacked. This statement, with its crass disregard for Asian migrants was, itself, xenophobic. 

Much reporting in the media is also complicit with organised xenophobia. Migrants holding citizenship are routinely described as “foreigners”. Xenophobic mobs attacking people on the streets are described as “protesters”. Police statements conflating two separate categories of people, “migrants” and “criminals”, are reported uncritically.

The politicians in the ANC and the DA, with Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba arguably being the most crude and dangerous, who have incited the latest wave of attacks seem to be able to descend into Trumpian forms of politics without consequence. They are not recalled from their positions by their parties, civil society does not picket their offices, trade unions do not promise to go on strike until they are removed from power.

The inevitable consequence of the normalisation of xenophobic rhetoric by politicians means more street violence, and more impunity for the escalating violence. In this crisis it is vital that we are able to build the largest possible coalition against xenophobia, with mass-based organisations such as trade unions, social movements and community organisations in the lead, backed by progressive civil society, faith-based organisations and progressive academics.

If we are not able to build such a united front, and to make it a powerful force in the national debate and in the streets, the xenophobes will continue to effectively spread their poison on social media, and to engage in violence on the streets. We cannot assume that this problem will be resolved by the state. The small groups calling for xenophobic violence engage in hate speech with impunity. Attacks often happen with the police standing by watching, making no attempt to intervene.

It is clear that this crisis cannot be resolved by the state and that, if we are able to resolve it, the political commitment to do so will have to come from within society.

To fully understand the current crisis we must understand that since 2004 there have been escalating popular protests, many targeting local councillors. These protests have posed a serious challenge to the legitimacy of the local state, sometimes resulting in “no vote” campaigns or support of independent candidates at elections.

In Durban, sustained organisation has led to a vibrant alliance of shack dwellers, flat dwellers and street traders that has mounted effective opposition to former mayor Zandile Gumede, the remains of the Zuma faction in the city. Well-known grassroots activists like Des D’sa, S’bu Zikode and Verushka Memdutt have become significant players in the city’s politics.

For corrupt local officials and politicians, turning popular anger against migrants makes perfect political sense. It deflects growing popular anger towards scapegoats who are not easily able to defend themselves. This was the logic of Adolf Hitler’s anti-Semitism in the 1930s. It is the logic of the anti-migrant politics of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson today. It is not always fascism in the classical sense but it is always a deeply reactionary form of politics with some clear links to the basic logic of fascism.

Any society in which armed mobs hunt fellow residents in the streets with effective impunity is a society in which, along with basic human rights, democracy is at serious risk. In India the far-right project, often termed fascist, that now runs the state has its roots in the 2002 pogrom against Muslims in Gujerat, and, before that, the destruction of the 16th-century Babri Mosque in the city of Ayodhya, in Uttar Pradesh in 1992.

The entry of the mob backed by powerful political elites into politics is always the end of meaningful democracy for vulnerable groups. The end result doesn’t have to be uniform totalitarianism but often results, as in India, in democracy for some and authoritarianism for others. This is where we are now headed. It is a matter of serious urgency that we build a powerful united front against xenophobia, against attacks on women and for genuine democracy.