South Africa: Xenophobia or Afrophobia?

By Denja Yaqub, assistant secretary, Nigeria Labour Congress

April 20, 2015 -- Vanguard (Nigeria), posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Until 1994, for over a century, South Africa was locked against the rest of Africa and indeed the country and her people were not easily accessible to the rest of the world as the white minority used its might to impose racial segregation, which denied the majority black of everything, including quality of life. The rest of the world rose in support of the black majority in popular agitation for the liberation of a country held in the worst and unusual form of domination in all spheres of life.

The "support" given by the rest of the world was not because it was South Africa. It was because a part of humanity with legitimate rights to their land had been deprived and decimated only because they have resources of global economic values and not just because of the colour of their skin. Everyone saw the anti-apartheid struggle as a liberation struggle, an integral part of the global struggle against oppression, all forms of oppression.

South Africa and her exceptional experiences in severe oppression and exploitation, even before the advent of apartheid, is one country whose people got the best global solidarity during the years of the struggle against apartheid. No one saw that struggle as "their" struggle. It was our collective struggle.

The leading anti-apartheid organisation, the African National Congress (ANC), maintained offices in several countries abroad, including Nigeria. Not a few South African citizens attended public schools, including universities, in Nigeria, with full scholarships/fellowships paid for by the Nigerian government. There were several organisations involved in mobilising people and resources, organised by Nigerians, in our voluntary quest to be part of the liberation struggle.

Indeed, there was the Nigeria-African National Congress Friendship and Cultural Association (NAFCA). There was the Youth Solidarity on Southern Africa and Nigeria (YUSSAN). YUSSAN was on most campuses of Nigerian universities and other tertiary institutions, mobilising students across the country against apartheid South Africa.

Other organisations, including the Nigeria Labour Congress, National Association of Nigerian Students, Women In Nigeria as well as the government of Nigeria were actively involved in mobilising people, opinions and resources against apartheid.

Nigeria was certainly not the only country whose citizens and governments actively participated in the international struggle against apartheid. Many African countries indeed provided cover for leading South African activists in exile.

Violence on immigrants

That some South Africans today have decided to unleash deadly violence on immigrants, especially those of African extraction, is nothing but a failure of post-apartheid leadership who have done very little to reorientate, rehabilitate and effectively empower the people in a way that reconnects them with the reality of their history and culture as Africans and position them for the socioeconomic and political challenges of post-apartheid situations, situations that posits them in a world of fierce social, economic and political realities of our collective contemporary predicament.

Most South Africans have been made to think or believe they are not part of Africa. References to other African countries is often derogatory. In fact, South Africa's President Jacob Zuma sometime in October 2013, while defending his government's introduction of e-tolls on roads in the Gauteng province during the ANC Gauteng Province Manifesto Forum held at the famous University of Wittswaterstrand in Johannesburg, said "we can't think like Africans in Africa. It's not some national road in Malawi."

Though his spokesperson Mac Maharaj struggled to moderate that statement after some diplomatic skirmishes with the government of Malawi, it however captured the impression of most South Africans.

This is why, in the so-called xenophobic attacks, which first occurred in 2008 and left about 60 people dead, the targets are from other African countries, mostly Nigerians, Mozambicans, Somalians, and Congolese.

Most businesses in the informal sector are operated by immigrants from these countries, particularly Nigerians.

There are immigrants also from India, Pakistan and even Britain. In fact, British citizens don't require a visa to enter South Africa. These categories of immigrants are carefully exempted from the attacks. This gives clear indication that it is an extension of afrophobic beliefs of the leadership.

The country's political leadership seem to have ignored majority of citizens in economic empowerment; citizens still see imbalance in the socioeconomic life of the country. They are yet to see the dividends of the liberation struggle as the minority white population either as citizens or immigrants get the priority in blue-chip businesses, except in few cases where those who were in key liberation movement leadership positions during the apartheid era, like Cyril Ramaphosa, are involved in telecommunications, minning and service industry. The people see Cyril, the country's deputy president, as part of their problems. His alleged involvement in the Marikana massacre reminds the people of the emergence of a new bourgeoise class that have privatised the collective benefits of the liberation.

The frustration of the economic disempowerment of majority of the citizens gives them the impression that immigrants who control the informal sector of the economy are their obstacles. And its easier for them to get at these immigrants as they do business and live in areas easily accessible to the victims of economic exclusion.

To the ordinary South African, apartheid is yet to end. The system only assume a different shape and colouration.

Yes, a black man is in politcal leadership in an alliance with those who should have been leading the ordinary people of the country to final liberation.

With the ANC in power and in an alliance with the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), two main organisations, beside the ANC who fought apartheid. The SACP and COSATU were in the main centre of actions that blew off apartheid.

The alliance worked against apartheid, but since apartheid ended, this tripartite alliance has only worked against the South African people as socioeconomic and political policies of the government are mostly driven by interests other than those of the majority. Global neoliberal interests drive the way, policies and directions of the government, leaving the majority of citizens widely ostracised from benefits of the bloody struggles of more than a century.

South Africans fought against oppression and exploitation but lost power and leadership to compradors of contemporary global economic warfare, and its sweeter for capitalism when the poor take on themselves. The circumstance that lead any Nigerian to leave his/her country for another is the same circumstance that led neglected South Africans to attack immigrants. Lack of good governance is the father of all frustrations in citizens.

The only solution to the phobias, whether it is xenophobia or afrophobia, is for the South African people to re-discover and re-focus themselves. The alliance South Africans need, like in most countries, is an alliance of all oppressed people against the anti-people alliance of our various governments with institutions that create the wedge between our governments and our people.

South Africa, like Nigeria and most African countries, needs a second liberation against the second slavery that the alliance between our various governments and global anti-people neoliberal institutions represent. If the people live well, they won't care where the next person comes from.

[Denja Yaqub is assistant secretary of the trade union federation Nigeria Labour Congress in Abuja.]