The ugly truth about the new South Africa

The ugly truth about the new South Africa

The rainbow nation has become the global capital of xenophobic violence.

Moses Dube

Topics Politics World

It is remarkable that the return of a phenomenon we normally associate with 19th-century Eastern Europe – violent racist pogroms – warrants hardly a mention in the British media today. The media are quick to condemn so-called hate speech or anything that smacks of ‘Islamophobia’. But real xenophobia – in this case, the degraded and brutal violence meted out to immigrants in South Africa – hardly gets a mention.

Most people will not know that over the past few weeks, in two of the three metropolitan areas of Gauteng (Tshwane and Johannesburg), Africans from countries outside of South Africa have been violently assaulted. Their businesses and possessions have been looted. Many have been displaced from their homes. Foreign truck drivers have been attacked and their trucks set alight. This is part of a campaign by the All Truck Drivers Foundation to ‘get rid of foreign truck drivers’ and ensure that only South Africans are employed.

This follows similar major violent incidents in Durban in April, when foreign nationals were attacked and displaced in five locations around the city. According to Xenowatch at the University of the Witwatersrand’s African Centre for Migration and Society, 316 people have been killed as a result of xenophobic violence in South Africa over the past 13 years.

So why are the British media ignoring these pogroms? Well, because this is South Africa. This is Nelson Mandela’s revered land of reconciliation, moderation and peace. It is uncomfortable for the Western media and political elites to accept that the new South Africa has some very deep problems of division and violence. What is truly awkward for outside observers is that xenophobia is now a fundamental part of life in South Africa. In fact, it is part of the DNA of this rainbow nation that Western governments have given unequivocal support to for the past 25 years.

The explosion of violence is driven by a toxic mix of increasing inequality and unemployment – which currently stands at 40 per cent – and deteriorating trust in government, and especially the police. The health sector has almost collapsed, and in numerous parts of the country large-scale theft of many hundreds of billions of rand has seen the near collapse of the provision of basic local services. Decades of government-led corruption – remember that former president Jacob Zuma still faces 18 charges of corruption, including more than 700 counts of fraud and money-laundering – have hollowed out law-enforcement agencies. Crime, rape and murder have spiralled out of control. In 2017/18, 20,336 people were murdered – that equates to one murder every 30 minutes.

Unbeknownst to many people outside of South Africa, this volcanic anger has been building ever since the end of Apartheid. The failure of the ANC-led government has left the majority of black citizens in desperate straits. And now it is overflowing. The motivations of those involved in recent pogroms are clear, as an article in New Frame lays out. One woman interviewed in the article asked how she could ‘live in a shack for 14 years, but a Nigerian owns that building’, pointing to a shop window. Another man said joblessness was his motivation for joining in the violence. ‘You can’t feel like a visitor in your own country’, he said. ‘I am a visitor, I don’t work.’ The shop-looting that accompanied the shutdown offered him an opportunity to gather groceries he is otherwise unable to afford.

On one level, this behaviour is comprehensible. But the fact that it takes the form of attacks on black immigrants, mainly from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Somalia and Nigeria, is less so. Regardless, xenophobia does not arise in a vacuum. In South Africa it has been stoked by the government and political class who have been quick to scapegoat outsiders to deflect from their abject failure to deliver the basics of a decent life for their citizens.

Immigrants comprise about five per cent of the total population of 55.9million people in South Africa. This has not stopped government ministers and politicians from laying blame on immigrants for the systemic breakdown of basic services. When the current minister of home affairs, Aaron Motsoaledi, was minister for health, he repeatedly made grotesquely xenophobic statements in an attempt to blame the crisis in the health system on migrants. The former Gauteng MEC for Health, Qedani Mahlangu, once claimed, without a shred of evidence, that nine out of 10 patients in provincial health facilities were immigrants. The healthcare system is certainly dysfunctional. But that isn’t because of immigrants. Rather, the crisis in the healthcare sector is due to years of mismanagement, understaffing, poor planning and corruption. The same can be said for other areas of government.

Such debased political opportunism is not confined to the ruling ANC government, which is trying to shift the blame from its own shameful failures over the past 25 years. The entire political class indulges in the same cowardly xenophobic provocations. The opposition Democratic Alliance leader, Mmusi Maimane, has blamed immigrants for high crime rates. He argues that securing border posts would reduce crime. Congress of the People leader Mosiuoa Lekota accuses foreigners of stealing housing and job opportunities from South Africans. Xenophobia has become normalised. It is now a fundamental part of political discourse.

But there is another critical dimension that helps to explain why Nelson Mandela’s rainbow nation has become the global capital of xenophobic pogroms. That is, the South African identity that the ANC itself has forged since the overthrow of Apartheid. This is an identity based in an ugly, backward, victim-based nationalism, which often pits ‘South Africans’ against ‘Africans’. It is a perverse differentiation between insiders – those who suffered under Apartheid – and alien ‘outsiders’: foreigners who cannot possibly comprehend the exceptionalism of Apartheid.

The pitiful paradox of this modern South African identity is its dependence on – rather than its transcendence of – Apartheid. It is a victim-based identity that builds on the claim that South Africans are exceptional. They are so singular in their experience of Apartheid that it differentiates them from everyone else in the world, especially from other Africans, who tend to be lumped together as if Africa outside of South Africa was one undifferentiated country. Central to this identity is an exaggerated sense of entitlement, one that has fuelled the systemic corruption by ANC officials.

This identity has been forged consciously. After the ANC accepted the shoddy compromise of a negotiated end to Apartheid, a new identity had to be created that would be compatible with the continuation of the old socio-economic structures of Apartheid. The goal was an identity that might overcome South Africa’s internal racial and ethnic divisions, but which would also accept a culture of limits under the new realism that says there is no alternative to the market. The key component of building this victim identity was the setting up of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

The alleged role of the TRC was to uncover the truth behind certain Apartheid atrocities. It was held up internationally as a model for settling disputes and healing the wounds of the past. But its true goal was to create a narrative of a new nation. This would be a fresh start, a new rainbow nation in which racial and economic inequality might still be a serious problem, but where things could nonetheless be managed through a new identity of victim-centred belonging. It is an identity that has failed to create a sense of belonging that transcends the experience of Apartheid.

After a quarter of a century, many South Africans still view people who did not physically share in the pain of Apartheid as ‘aliens’. This is an incredibly divisive identity. The notion that an unemployed black South African has more in common with South African president Cyril Ramaphosa, one of the country’s richest men, than he has with an immigrant from Mozambique, Somalia or Zimbabwe is precisely the kind of disorientation this identity has produced. The political compass that made black solidarity such a potent force during the struggle against Apartheid has been transformed into a volatile, unstable, xenophobic desperation. Its consequences are devastating.

Recent events in South Africa demonstrate that xenophobia is not an accidental aberration – it is a fundamental part of life, built on a culture of victimhood and entitlement. Pogroms are likely to become more commonplace, and state violence could well rise too. The state is already clamping down on ‘alien troublemakers’. We have already seen how the rainbow-nation state is willing to sanction state murder against striking miners. In a land of perversities, the most perverse thing of all could yet be the ANC using violence against foreigners as a way of legitimising itself among South Africans.

One thing is certain in all this: the shameful Western media will remain silent.

Moses Dube is a South African writer.

Picture by: Getty.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.


cliff resnick

8th October 2019 at 9:17 pm

I’ve developed a rather radical social theory, people are the way they are because that’s how they are.

Major Bonkers

21st September 2019 at 8:04 pm

Gosh, it’s almost as if things were better under honky. Fancy that!

In another 20 years, perhaps they’ll be singing ‘God save the Queen’ outside the British consulate.

Pete Kemp

20th September 2019 at 7:37 am

Interesting read. My parents emigrated to SA in 1969 when I was 10. I lived there for 40 plus years and trust me Xenophobia was alive and well way back then. Can’t remember how many times I was told we were living off the fat of the land and that we should go back to where we came from. This came from white South Africans. Their hatred of the English shone through when it came to sporting occasions. As a 14 year old watching the British Lions playing in Port Elizabeth I was threatened by some burly Afrikaner with severe physical harm (I won’t use his exact words) because I was supporting MY team.

I never became an SA citizen, wasn’t my country so was not called up for National service. This fuelled another wave of blatant hatred towards me. Fortunately I am quite thick skinned, went on to run a successful training company for many years. It was during this time that I experienced Xenophobia from an African government employee while he was scrutinising my tender documents. On seeing that I was not an SA citizen he asked what I was doing there, took the forms and binned them in front of my eyes. I could relate many more experiences, none of them positive unfortunately. My move back home 3 years ago was long overdue. I’m able to sing God Save the Queen without fear of being lynched 🙂

Ruth Harte

20th September 2019 at 7:06 am

I thought this an excellent & very moving article.

‘How Labour turned London into a foreign city: Fewer than half the capital’s population are white British, gangsters from Somalia terrorise the suburbs and even the tramps are immigrants, reveals astonishing new book

Ruth Harte

20th September 2019 at 7:10 am

This was supposed to be a reply for Jim’s comment about % whites in London !🙈

Winston Stanley

22nd September 2019 at 8:42 pm

“How Labour turned London into a foreign city”

That is Tory propaganda from a Tory propaganda newspaper. Immigration is now higher under Tories than it ever was under Labour.

Net immigration to the UK between 2010, when Cameron was elected, and 2018 was 2,326,000. Actual immigration during that period, not substracting emigration from the UK, was 5,311,000. With a yearly average of around 590,111, the figure for the ten year period ending 2019 is likely to be around 5,901,111.

True, the TP committed itself to “bring down migration to the tens of thousands” in the 2010 TP election manifesto and the 2015 TP manifesto under Cameron, and the 2017 TP manifesto under T. May, but that was just to get votes at elections, especially with the rise of UKIP.

Although the TP could not control migration from within the EU before Brexit, it did absolutely nothing to control immigration from outside the EU, over which it had full control. Senior Tories were always against the policy to reduce immigration and the TP never had any intention to follow through. The TP sheerly lied to the demos to get votes and to win elections.

Boris has now made it clear that he is dumping the thrice manifesto commitment to reduce immigration to the 10s of thousands after Brexit.

The Daily Mail is basically lying about the role of Labour by making out that the Tories have not played the same role, and by extension it is lying about the intentions of the Tories about immigration. It is pure party propaganda. Surely ppl no longer fall for that after the last ten years?

Winston Stanley

19th September 2019 at 7:47 pm

The sanctions did massive damage to SA economy, unemployment rose from 9% in 1980 to 26% by 1998 and it never fell much from there. SA has also not recovered from the 2008 global financial crisis, GDP growth has steadily fallen from around 5% to 0.8% now and productivity growth remains completely collapsed at around zero over the last decade. 30% are now unemployed. Illegal immigrants in SA work for less and undercut local workers desperate for a job, thus the tensions. SA presumably needs international business investment but is it an attractive target compared to say India and China? SA had a massive brain drain, it lost up to 1.6 million skilled, professional and managerial workers and it is estimated that 10 other jobs were lost for each.

Were Western sanctions the best way to reform SA, given the damage that they did to the material and social development of the country? Did the outside force of sanctions and then rapid enforced transition leave SA materially impoverished and deeply racially divided and hostile, and undermine its material, social and moral future? Was the “right thing to do” according to the West, actually the right thing to do? It is purely academic now to ask what might have been done differently but it seems reasonable to question whether the Western-approved AA sanctions and transition models were an unmitigated triumph in their long-term results. The question of whether capitalism is working out for SA is a whole kettle of fish, presumably it has to go through that stage of development. How it is going to work out post-2008 remains to be seen.

It is tempting to question whether the West really cares about the social and moral condition of other countries, eg. beheadings and crucifixions in Saudi or the plight of Gaza, and whether the West had other, more self-interested motives in SA. Since the end of the era of overt Western colonialism and imperialism, the Western national capitalist states have relied on mass immigration into its metropoles (imperial home bases) to expand the workforces and the domestic markets. Previously the ruling classes of the national capitalist states promoted a racist ideology to justify imperialism and colonialism and the domination of other lands for their own material interests, eg. more workers, natural resources, markets. Since the fall of imperialism and colonialism, the ruling classes of the national capitalist states have promoted an anti-racist ideology to justify the incorporation of workers from other lands to expand their domestic workforces and markets, again purely for their own material interests, to expand national and international capital. In that context the AA SA affair looks much like a Western project to commit Western societies and citizens to the new ideological model that came to be congruent with Western material interests. SA is an icon of the Western material-ideological transition. On that reading SA functioned and continues to function as a sort of “morality play” to promote and to reinforce in the West the material-ideology that currently suits the interests of the ruling classes of the Western national capitalist states (and obviously also the EU).

It may be a case of that the “higher” (ideology, morality, even apparent altruism) has its origin and its meaning in the “lower”, in material and selfish interests. Transitions in the realm of ideas, and in social interactions, reflect transitions in the material world. SA is a morality play to facilitate that ideational and social transition to reflect the transition in the material needs of the West following the loss of empires and the end of colonialism. AA was purely an iconic stunt by the West and in the material interests of the West. Whether the sanctions and transition model was in the interests of the ppl of SA was always completely irrelevant to the West. The West wanted a quick, rapid ideational morality play for its own material interests to facilitate the material-social-ideological shift in Western capitalism, and SA and the future of its ppl be damned.

Marx and Engels: “In direct contrast to German philosophy which descends from heaven to earth, here we ascend from earth to heaven. That is to say, we do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh. We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material life-process, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises. Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence. They have no history, no development; but men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking. Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life. In the first method of approach the starting-point is consciousness taken as the living individual; in the second method, which conforms to real life, it is the real living individuals themselves, and consciousness is considered solely as their consciousness…

“It follows from this that a certain mode of production, or industrial stage, is always combined with a certain mode of co-operation, or social stage, and this mode of co-operation is itself a “productive force.” Further, that the multitude of productive forces accessible to men determines the nature of society, hence, that the “history of humanity” must always be studied and treated in relation to the history of industry and exchange… Thus it is quite obvious from the start that there exists a materialistic connection of men with one another, which is determined by their needs and their mode of production, and which is as old as men themselves. This connection is ever taking on new forms, and thus presents a “history” independently of the existence of any political or religious nonsense which in addition may hold men together.” (The German Ideology)

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