On xenophobic violence: Press Release by Pan African Network in Defense of Migrant Rights

10 -September -2019

The entire continent is watching in pain, confusion and anger as South Africa struggles to contain massive social implosion  and manifestations of profound  contradictions. The loss of all life and disunity among Afrikans is everything that progressive formations including the Pan African Network in Defense of  Migrant Rights (PANiDMR) stand against. The symptoms of these contradictions have most recently  leaked into  attacks among  the marginalised and  neglected underclasses, where precarity and desperation co-exist.  State responses include deploying ‘social cohesion’ programmes as a catch all attempt to mop up these violent social conditions.  

The recent attacks  on 13 Africans in South Africa form part of an undercurrent of historical fissures. The nature of  violent  interstate, attacks that have been witnessed in the past seven days pre-date the end of the colonial apartheid  dispensation. In the 1980s what is  now often described as Afrophobia or Xenophobia was mischaracterized  under a blanket of  political violence.

The historical DNA of South African political contestation is embedded in ways of addressing difference that  is situated in the theatre of vanquish and  party political extremism. The bloodshed across urban South Africa in the 1980s and 1990s pre-1994 was partly stoked by various political interests, played out on Black bodies. The necklacing in African communities was the most vivid and vicious instrument to enforce political discipline of real or imagined infractions and betrayals. It was also a marker of deep inter-community distrust primarily among political and ethnic communities. The specter of being labeled as  ‘other’ was sometimes  sufficient cause for comrades to sell each other’s lives in return for their own. The inherent trauma that communities are still carrying with them was largely airbrushed by the  ‘Rainbow’ narrative even though it is clear that centuries of dehumanizing behavior was not going to go away as  new flag was raised.

This occurred in the context of the South African state machinery that  systemically dehumanized and brutalized African people in this country. The colonial imagination legislated and constantly enforced the idea that African people are sub-human interlopers in a racialised and privileged ‘White’ world. This was prescribed through structural enablers like labour, education and land legislation all of which created an intergenerational cohort of African people who would always  be  a marginal , sub class of work horses. In the era of growing unemployment , this too has created a subaltern formation that are fully disposable and for whom the State has no tangible plans beyond ‘social cohesion’ to bring from the margins. 

There are further problems emerging from this. Firstly, South Africa has done very little to alter the social and economic  pathways made available to the African majority in this country. White priviledge through land, economic ownership patterns, social relations and life outcomes has been left virtually intact.  In tandem to this , multiple countries in the global South and across Africa were virtually disemboweled by structural adjustment and ongoing incursion of capital into State power. Instances of civil war and ongoing wars that some States wage against their nations – both often with the ‘ invisible hand’ of Western interests – have resulted in weakened States and limited economic opportunities. 

There are other issues that include the expectation by locals to  have first preference for jobs while many companies choose to employ vulnerable migrants for lower wages, creating working toxic and inevitable class resentment. In addition to this, porous borders with weak and often corrupted border controls, sloppy and complicit police are adding stress to a difficult situation.  Well documented reports of criminal rings run by a section of  African compatriots were a large cause of  the attacks in Tshwane (Pretoria) last week. In many areas including there, police have failed to investigate allegations or make arrests, which contributes to the ‘those people’ narrative rather than situating this within a failed and compromised criminal justice system.

Naturally, there will be movement in search of better lives and perhaps naturally, to  countries that appear to offer the most hope, possibility and for some refuge from political repression.

Tragically for all these periphalised people, the South African state has not deconstructed the machinery of ‘othering’  the most vulnerable and as the Marikana massacre showed, is well able to unleash brutal force against Black bodies, many of whom were migrant workers.  The exodus  of millions of people to South Africa from across the world illustrates a  shared aspiration that they have towards the victory over political apartheid that South Africa still represents. 

And yet co-ordinated and periodic combustions related to inadequate public service delivery, organised labour strikes, student uprisings, and other demonstrations of public anger are a huge part of the character of modern South African politics. A politics steeped in historical trauma, ongoing dispossession, a breakdown in state institutions and frenzied attempts by the government to ‘act normal’ for the benefit of international investors while the underclass of all nationalities battle for scarce resources in the most brutal ways. Local and migrant Africans across the African continent are exhausted by the wait for something more from our governments. 

Self-serving elites have driven many African compatriots to South Africa only to find that many South African political actors have fallen into a similar abyss of myopic disregard for the masses. The statements issued  by President Ramaphosa in recent days lacked empathy, class analysis and any semblance of a Pan African understanding of how deeply embedded our fates are tied together as African countries. This is an opportunity to raise a challenge to our African leaders to create nations that are nourishing and  accountable. Nations that appreciate the talents at their disposal, create environments where all Africans can thrive and contribute. The retaliatory attacks on South African businesses across the continent ultimately hurt the marginal and working classes yet again and though this may be a  temporary ‘blue eye’ for White owned corporations, it only fuels more resentments while eroding authentic African  economic and political agendas. 

 At the time of writing, 13 Africans are reported dead, 8 of whom are  thought to be South Africans. Most regrettably, attempts by formations such as PANiDMR and Trade Collective to obtain the names and countries of origin from relevant  authorities have so far yielded no results. Beyond dying a dehumanising death, our family members have died namelessly. So emblematic of the State’s careless, dispassionate relationship with the underclass. PANiDMR sends heartfelt condolences to the families, friends, communities of the Africans killed over the past week and all the years before. We pray that the death toll of 13 will not rise further and renew our commitment to building a Pan African vision that affirms and valorises African lives and Black lives in and out of the Diaspora.

(Photo Credit: News24 / Kola Sulaimon / AFP)

About Liepollo Lebohang Pheko

Lebohang Liepollo Pheko is the Senior Research Fellow at Trade Collective, in Johannesburg. She is a Political Economist, Columnist and Activist Scholar. She tweets at @Liepollo99