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Pogroms in South Africa

Pogroms in South Africa Sunday, 25 May 2008

Johannesburg, the biggest city in South Africa and the country’s financial capital, has been ripped apart by popular attacks on migrants. Since the attacks started in the Alexandra shack settlement two weeks ago more than 40 people have been killed. A week after the pogroms ripped up the social fabric in many of the city’s poorest communities the attacks began to spread to the rest of the country eventually affecting 7 of the country’s 9 provinces. As of today more than 40 people are reported to have been killed, more than 30 000 have been left homeless, and tens of thousands are fleeing the country. Although the initial ferocity of the attacks appears to have declined people are still leaving their homes and the country in numbers and there is no certainty that the attacks are over.

A number of South Africans have also been killed including people with a similar ethnic background to most Mozambicans, South Africans married to migrants and a man who had been employing migrant workers. Many families were broken up as migrants who had married South Africans were driven out of their homes and communities. In Johannesburg there were many reports of attackers singing Awulethu Umshini Wam’ (Bring Me My Machine Gun), the campaign song of Jacob Zuma’s attempt on the Presidency, and daubing the remains of torn down shacks with pro-Zuma graffiti. There are widespread fears that the anti-foreigner pogrom could develop into ethnic conflict. These fears are particularly acute in shack settlements, simultaneously the most precarious and cosmopolitan spaces in South African society.

The state made no serious attempts to stop the attacks when they were at their heights, often denied that they were in fact aimed at foreigners and, when it was willing to admit that there was a problem, ascribed the attacks to a mysterious conspiracy to destabilizing the country. It typically responds to progressive popular mobilisation in the same way.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was the only ANC leader who actually visited the scenes of the attacks and the refugees who had fled to police stations and churches in fear of their lives. Neither South African President Thabo Mbeki, or ANC President Jacob Zuma, made any attempt to visit the affected areas. In some areas there were widespread reports of police complicity with the attacks but in other areas the police did move to stop the attacks. There have been some reports that people who have fled to police stations are being or will be deported but the state has strongly denied this and given a clear commitment not to deport people who fled to police stations.

Most of the support for people displaced in the attacks has come from Christian churches, Islamic charity organisations and the Red Cross. While this has been widely welcomed there has been some concern about the willingness of civil society initiatives to embed themselves in police led responses. This is in part due to the longstanding antagonism by the police towards migrants that has often resulted in blatantly illegally actions and the production of a public discourse that conflates migrants and criminals. It is also due to the now quite severe police harassment of all forms of autonomous activism in poor communities, including entirely legal actions that are seen as critical of the ANC. The state does not appear to have any clear plan for the tens of thousands of people sheltering at police stations and in churches around the country. In Mozambique the government has declared a state of emergency in order to cope with tens of thousands of returning migrants.

From first reports it appears that in Johannesburg progressive social movements were unable to stop the attacks but they were able to lead the organisation of a successful march against xenophobia that was attended by 2 000 people today. In the cities of Durban, Pinetown and Pietermaritzburg the militant shack dwellers’ movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo, called on its members to defend and shelter migrants and was able to ensure that there were no attacks and no attempts to drive out migrants in the more than 30 settlements where the movement is strong. It was also able to respond to a telephoned request for help and to stop an attack in progress in a Durban settlement not affiliated to the movement and to deal very effectively with a move to expel migrants in a settlement in Pietermartizburg in which the movement has a strong branch but is not dominant. There have also been reports of a successful move by the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign to directly contest an in progress attack.

It has been clear for sometime that South Africa is in a state of ferment. Since 2005 widespread popular discontent has been manifesting in a series of popular protests across the country, most often taking the form of road blockades. They have generally been organised at very local levels and, while inspired by each other, have no formal capacity to undertake collective discussions. The state and the technocratic leftism that dominates the Universities and NGOs have united in declaring them ‘service delivery protests.’ However they have very often been challenges to the state’s ‘delivery model’ that are rooted in the progressive political culture of the late 1980s and have usually included a demand for popular rather than technocratic planning. While the state has been willing to accept a degree of criticism about ‘the pace of delivery’ it has been utterly unwilling to accept that ordinary people should be able to participate meaningfully in planning and undertaking development.

But popular rejection of the state’s ideas about responsible citizenship has not all been progressive. There have been sporadic attacks on migrants for years as well as attacks on gay people, in particular lesbians, and in some areas attacks on women wearing trousers or mini-skirts. However the devastating scale and ferocity of this pogrom was something entirely new. The explanations given in this weekend’s newspapers vary considerably.

The state, when not locked into the denialist mode that has characterised its response to all the major crises that the Mbeki government has had to confront including, most notoriously, the AIDS pandemic and the increasingly brutal regime in Zimbabwe, has resorted to conspiracy theory. Numerous officials have alleged evidence of an orchestrated campaign by right wing forces to destabilize the country. However no evidence has been presented in support of these claims and it has been clear for some time that the ANC tends to respond to any popular initiative, be it progressive or reactionary, in terms of conspiracy theory. A movement founded as an elite project demanding elite incorporation into colonial privilege, schooled in Stalinism for many years and more recently committed to formal neo-liberal managerialism is simply unable to comprehend popular political initiative.

Others have ascribed the blame to the poverty crisis, often pointing to the sudden rise in food prices that has lead to riots in many countries. There is no doubt that the sudden rise in food prices has pushed many people into a desperate situation but while this may well explain the anger it does not explain the direction in which that anger has been channelled.

The most common explanation for this is the economic and political crisis in Zimbabwe which has left millions at the edge of starvation and subject many to various forms of state terror. The refusal of the Mbeki government to recognise the crisis in Zimbabwe has meant that it does not grant refugee status to Zimbabweans and it is often argued that the increase in Zimbabweans seeking refuge in South Africa has pushed competition for housing, jobs and business opportunities to breaking point. Many have noted that the desperation of Zimbabwean migrants leads them to accept work at low rates of pay and to make it almost impossible for them to organise to challenge this resulting in a general suppression of wages for the most vulnerable workers.

Another very common explanation has been the failure of the state to deal with migration adequately. There is agreement across the political spectrum that the Department of Home Affairs, the government department that deals with application of residency and citizenship, is notoriously corrupt and incompetent and that government policy on migration is extraordinarily hostile to immigration. This line of argument quickly diverges into a right and left wing version. The former stresses the inability of the state to police its borders and the large numbers of undocumented migrants living in the country and calls for more effective policing of the current anti-migrant policies. The more progressive version points towards the overt hostility and widespread cruelty with which the state has responded to migration and argues that this has created a climate in which popular attacks on migrants became possible.

It is certainly the case that the police, in their public discourse and their practice, treat migrants and criminals as indistinguishable categories and that rank police corruption results in migrants routinely being shaken down for bribes in order to avoid deportation or having their papers simply torn up. Even top business officials who appear to be obviously foreign, such as people from China, report being routinely stopped on the streets by police officers demanding bribes on the pain of arrest. But police harassment extends well beyond such, presumably, private initiatives. Organised collective police raids on areas where migrants live are common and often involve open assault, theft, extortion and the tearing up of documents. This is not hidden. The police often invite the media to attend these raids which are regularly undertaken when public anxieties about crime reach a peak for some reason unrelated to the easy targets of these raids. It is a telling fact that two of the common police tactics for divining foreignness are an examination of the complexion (South Africans deemed to dark have often been arrested) and asking people if they know an archaic Zulu word for elbow. The mobs that undertook the attacks in recent days used precisely the same techniques as the police to decide who could stay and who must be raped, beaten, hounded out, burnt or murdered.

Jacob Zuma’s campaigns against rape and corruption charges as well as his campaign for the presidency of the ANC have, at times, taken a blatantly ethnic form - some of his supporters wear t-shirts reading ‘100% Zulu Boy’. This has led some to argued that Zuma’s willingness to introduce ethnic politics into the formerly resolutely nationalist (and therefore non-ethnic) ANC has unleashed the demon that burnt and hacked migrants out of shack settlements across Johannesburg.

Others have argued that the racist stereotypes of colonial and apartheid oppression have been projected onto more vulnerable groups rather than dispensed with. Certainly it is true that elites, white and black, routinely speak about both poor black South Africans and African migrants, in the precise language of the old racism that whites used to direct at all blacks across class. Some have pointed to this fact and the dubbed the pogroms Afrophobia and argued that this is a better term than xenophobia. But as much as a redirection of anti-African racism may explain some of the hatred it clearly does not explain all of it. People from China and Pakistan were also targeted.

There are at least two other explanations that have not been generally explored. One is the contestation over space. Urban land is being allocated according to the logic of the market which is, of course, resulting in the steady exclusion of the poor from the cities. This has been compounded by the fact that the South African state has, like the Brazilian dictatorship in the early 1970s, announced a desire to ‘eradicate’ shack settlements. It is pursing this goal with manic energy. While the state is building houses it is not building them at anything like the rate that would render shacks redundant. Moreover the houses that it is building are tiny, very poorly constructed and often in large and ugly developments far out of city centres and from work, schools and the other opportunities of urban life. People moved to new houses from shacks regularly abandon them to move back to the decreasing spaces held by the poor in cities. The government is seeking to reduce the difference between the vast numbers of people living in shacks and the number of houses that it is able to build by using every excuse to (often unlawfully) demolish shacks or to prevent the construction of new shacks or the extension of existing shacks. Amongst many other deleterious consequences this is resulting in an increasing in over crowding in individual shacks and on the bits of land still held by the poor, not to mention a general feeling of acute insecurity. It is not at all unusual for shack dwellers to speak of the government as ‘waging a war on the poor.’

And then there is the question of citizenship. In some ways citizenship matters the most to those who cannot afford to buy themselves into security and respectability. In even the most desperately poor shacks built in the worst position of the worst materials the resident’s Identity Documents are kept safe and scrupulously clean. Those documents are the route to everything that the state does and may yet provide. Everything hangs on them. When people loose all their possessions in the fires that plague the shack settlements the biggest crises is often the loss of documents. Indeed people often risk being burnt to retrieve them in fires. But citizenship is not only understood as access to the goods provided by the state. It is, very clearly, also understood as a right to be treated as a person – to be engaged respectfully on the issues that affect one and one’s community.

The mass democratic struggles of the 1980s forged a popular claim to substantive citizenship through insurgent praxis. The nationalism of the ANC under Mandela confirmed it in principle. It was a clear promise that everyone would be part of society, that everyone would matter and be able to participate in planning their own future.

However the ANC moved very quickly after its unbanning to demobilise autonomous popular organisations and to replace them with a top down party structure. This has often had clearly Stalinist inflections. But Stalinist political practices have melded very easily with the managerialism of neo-liberalism resulting in forms of local government that are simply despotic. If one rejects the rule of the technocrats one soon ends up in the hands of the police or party enforces. There are guns behind the laptops.

Middle class and elite South Africa inhabits a reasonably democratic society in which the morning newspaper is likely to run excoriating attacks on the ANC. And while critique may result in slander, or a disciplinary hearing if one works for the state, there is no prospect of violence and there is always the possibility of legal redress. But in poor communities dissent invariably results in swift confrontation with armed force, be it from the police or local party enforcers. People are hemmed in politically as much as they are hemmed in spatially.

Many of the thousands of protests since 2005 have put the demand for substantive citizenship at the forefront of their demands. Often the demand to be heard, the demand for popular planning has come before the demand for material goods. If there is one trope that has been most typical to these protests it is the cry “we are foreigners in our own land.” While some poor people’s initiative has responded to this exclusion with struggles that seek to subordinate the state to popular power others are responding with a politics that seeks to distinguish the real foreigner from the apparent foreigner and to drive her out. Driving out the real foreigner doesn’t only decrease competition for housing and jobs, it also draws a bloody line in the proverbial sand between citizens and non-citizens, between those who have legitimate claim on the state and those who don’t. It is another way for the excluded to demand that they be counted among the included. It is a way of saying ‘they, not us, are the ones who should not be counted’.

Thabo Mbeki’s Presidency is ruined. A man who was once surrounded by sycophants is now isolated and publicly scorned. Open disrespect and demands for his resignation are widespread. Mbeki, mindful of Frantz Fanon’s warning about post-colonial bourgeoisies incapable of undertaking independent innovation, built his Presidency on a commitment to developing an African elite that could undertake a global challenge to anti-African racism with world historical consequences. This was to be undertaken by demanding, as Afrikaner nationalism had done a generation earlier, that white business cede a portion of its assets to black business and that the state be used as a vehicle to develop black business. The poor were to be managed by an efficient state organised in the managerialist mode to undertake technocratic interventions that would provide enough grants and houses for people to be able to survive an economy organised around elite interests. Internationally a programme of Pan-Africanism and Third World Solidarity would give the local elite a platform to stake a claim to global influence and to reform neo-colonial domination of global institutions.

Mbeki has built a domestic African elite with considerable power and capacity for innovation. However the damage that his authoritarianism has done to major institutions like the public broadcaster and universities has seriously weakened the prospects for the ongoing production of an innovative elite. And, while he was never an Aristide or Morales, and was certainly never willing to engage in open defiance of the international order he did take some steps forward. Most famously he was the only head of state to attend and to honour the two hundredth anniversary of the Haitian Revolution. But his project has flounded absolutely on its inability to meet the needs of the poor. This failure has been due to the subordination of a developmental agenda to the interests of elite accumulation and an unwillingness to confront the reality that capital and the interests of the poor are in conflict.

The alternative proposed by the left in the ANC, in the form of Jacob Zuma, offers minimal prospects for optimism. Zuma and his backers are corrupt elites with a tremendous taste for ostentatious displays of power and no record of opposing Mbeki’s accommodation with capital or the violent attacks on the politics of the poor that have been increasing in the last few years. Zuma himself is a social conservative with extremely hostile views towards women and homosexuals who supports calls for a police force that should shoot to kill ‘criminals’ and is deeply indebted to some of the worst elements in the predatory elite. Certainly his personal manner renders him much more at home with ordinary people than Mbeki’s cold distance but as the history of fascism shows that’s hardly a sufficient condition for a progressive politics.

The quality of the politics in the progressive poor people’s movements independent of the ANC is vastly superior to anything within any of the factions of the ANC. But although the movements are steadily growing and connecting with each other even the biggest movements are only hegemonic in scattered neighbourhoods or on particular issues and repression is escalating rapidly. Moreover there are unlikely to be any quick fixes. The NGOs that have access to the material resources on which easy options for national networking is dependent, not to mention international solidarity, are often hostile to mass organisations rooted in popular democratic practices preferring tiny (and in extreme instances simply faked) pliant client organisations that can function to legitimate self-serving NGO claims to representivity. This means that the progressive movements of the poor are largely on their own. But they have shown what can be achieved. The challenge is to extend the reach of what they have achieved so that reactionary responses from both popular forces and the state can be effectively confronted.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008 Abahlali baseMjondolo Press Statement

Unyawo Alunampumulo

Abahlali baseMjondolo Statement on the Xenophobic Attacks in Johannesburg

There is only one human race.

Our struggle and every real struggle is to put the human being at the centre of society, starting with the worst off.

An action can be illegal. A person cannot be illegal. A person is a person where ever they may find themselves.

If you live in a settlement you are from that settlement and you are a neighbour and a comrade in that settlement.

We condemn the attacks, the beatings, rape and murder, in Johannesburg on people born in other countries. We will fight left and right to ensure that this does not happen here in KwaZulu-Natal.

We have been warning for years that the anger of the poor can go in many directions. That warning, like our warnings about the rats and the fires and the lack of toilets, the human dumping grounds called relocation sites, the new concentration camps called transit camps and corrupt, cruel, violent and racist police, has gone unheeded.

Let us be clear. Neither poverty nor oppression justify one poor person turning on another. A poor man who turns on his wife or a poor family that turn on their neighbours must be opposed, stopped and brought to justice. But the reason why this happens in Alex and not Sandton is because people in Alex are suffering and scared for the future of their lives. They are living under the kind of stress that can damage a person. The perpetrators of these attacks must be held responsible but the people who have crowded the poor onto tiny bits of land, threatened their hold on that land with evictions and forced removals, treated them all like criminals, exploited them, repressed their struggles, pushed up the price of food and built too few houses, that are too small and too far away and then corruptly sold them must also be held responsible.

There are other truths that also need to be faced up to.

We need to be clear that the Department of Home Affairs does not treat refugees or migrants as human beings. Our members who were born in other countries tell us terrible stories about very long queues that lead only to more queues and then to disrespect, cruelty and corruption. They tell us terrible stories about police who demand bribes, tear up their papers, steal their money and send them to Lindela – a place that is even worse than a transit camp. A place that is not fit for a human being. We know that you can even be sent to Lindela if you were born in South Africa but you look ‘too dark’ to the police or you come from Giyani and so you don’t know the word for elbow in isiZulu.

We need to be clear that in every relocation all the people without ID books are left homeless. This affects some people born in South Africa but it mostly affects people born in other countries.

We need to be clear that many politicians, and the police and the media, talk about ‘illegal immigrants’ as if they are all criminals. We know the damage that this does and the pain that this causes. We are also spoken about as if we are all criminals when in fact we suffer the most from crime because we have no gates or guards to protect our homes.

We need to be clear about the role of the South African government and South African companies in other countries. We need to be clear about NEPAD. We all know what Anglo-American is doing in the Congo and what our government is doing in Zimbabwe. They must also be held responsible.

We all know that South Africans were welcomed in Zimbabwe and in Zambia, even as far away as England, when they were fleeing the oppression of apartheid. In our own movement we have people who were in exile. We must welcome those who are fleeing oppression now. This obligation is doubled by the fact that our government and big companies here are supporting oppression in other countries.

People say that people born in other countries are selling mandrax. Oppose mandrax and its sellers but don’t lie to yourself and say that people born in South African do not also sell mandrax or that our police do not take money from mandrax sellers. Fight for a police service that serves the people. Don’t turn your suffering neighbours into enemies.

People say that people born in other countries are amagundane (rats, meaning scabs). Oppose amagundane but don’t lie to yourself and say that people born in South Africa are not also amagundane. People also say that people born in other countries are willing to work for very little money bringing everyone’s wages down. But we know that people are desperate and struggling to survive everywhere. Fight for strong unions that cover all sectors, even informal work. Don’t turn your suffering neighbours into enemies.

People say that people born in other countries don’t stand up to struggle and always run away from the police. Oppose cowardice but don’t lie to yourself and say that people born in South Africa are not also cowards. Don’t lie to yourself and pretend that it is the same for someone born here and someone not born here to stand up to the corrupt, violent and racist police. Fight for ID books for your neighbours so that we can all stand together for the rights of the poor. Don’t turn your suffering neighbours into enemies.

People say that people born in other countries are getting houses by corruption. Oppose corruption but don’t lie to yourself and say that people born in South Africa are not also buying houses from the councillors and officials in the housing department. Fight against corruption. Don’t turn your suffering neighbours into enemies.

People say that people born in other countries are more successful in love because they don’t have to send money home to rural areas. Oppose a poverty so bad that it even strangles love. Live for a life outside of money by fighting for an income for everyone. Don’t turn your suffering neighbours into enemies.

People say that there are too many sellers on the streets and that the ones from outside must go. We need to ask ourselves why only a few companies can own so many big shops, why the police harass and steal from street traders and why the traders are being driven out of the cities. The poor man cutting hair and the poor woman selling fruit are not our enemies. Don’t turn your suffering neighbours into enemies.

We all know that if this thing is not stopped a war against the Mozambicans will become a war against all the amaShangaan. A war against the Zimbabweans will become a war against the amaShona that will become a war against the amaVenda. Then people will be asking why the amaXhosa are in Durban, why the Chinese and Pakistanis are here. If this thing is not stopped what will happen to a place like Clare Estate where the people are amaXhosa, amaMpondo, amaZulu and abeSuthu; Indian and African; Muslim, Hindu and Christian; born in South Africa, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Malawai, Pakistan, Namibia, the Congo and India?

Yesterday we heard that this thing started in Warwick and in the City centre. We heard that traders had their goods stolen and that people were being checked for their complexion, a man from Ntuzuma was stopped and assaulted or being ‘too black’. Tensions are high in the City centre. Last night people were running in the streets in Umbilo looking for ‘amakwerkwere’. People in the tall flats were shouting down to them saying ‘There are Congolese here, come up!” This thing has started in Durban. We don’t know what will happen tonight.

We will do everything that we can to make sure that it goes no further and that it does not come to the settlements. We have already decided on the following actions:

1. We will resuscitate our relations with the street traders’ organisations and meet to discuss this thing with them and stay in day to day contact with them. 2. We have made contact with refugee organisations and will stay in day to day contact with them. We will invite them to all our meetings and events. 3. We have made contact with senior police officers who we can trust, who are not corrupt and who wish to serve the people. They have given us their cell numbers and have promised to work with us to stop this thing immediately if it starts in Durban. We will ask all our people to watch for this thing and if it happens we’ll be able to contact the police that we can trust immediately. They have promised to come straight away. 4. We will put this threat on the agenda of all of our meetings and events. 5. We will discuss this in every branch and in every settlement in our movement. 6. We will discuss this with our allied movements like the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign and the Landless People’s Movement so that we can develop a national strategy. 7. In the coming days our members are travelling to the Northern Cape, the North West, Johannesburg and Cape Town to meet shack dwellers struggling against forced removal, corruption and lack of services. In each of these meetings we will discuss this issue. 8. We are asking all radio stations to make space for us and others to discuss this issue. 9. In the past we have not put our members born in other countries to the front because we were scared that the police would send them to Lindela. From now on we will put our members born in other countries in the front, but not with their full names because we still cannot trust all the police. 10. If the need arises here we will ask all our members to defend and shelter their comrades from other countries.

We hear that the political analysts are saying that the poor must be educated about xenophobia. Always the solution is to ‘educate the poor’. When we get cholera we must be educated about washing our hands when in fact we need clear water. When we get burnt we must be educated about fire when in fact we need electricity. This is just a way of blaming the poor for our suffering. We want land and housing in the cities, we want to go to university, we want water and electricity – we don’t want to be educated to be good at surviving poverty on our own. The solution is not to educate the poor about xenophobia. The solution is to give the poor what they need to survive so that it becomes easier to be welcoming and generous. The solution is to stop the xenophobia at all levels of our society. Arrest the poor man who has become a murderer. But also arrest the corrupt policeman and the corrupt officials in Home Affairs. Close down Lindela and apologise for the suffering it has caused. Give papers to all the people sheltering in the police stations in Johannesburg.

It is time to ask serious questions about why it is that money and rich people can move freely around the world while everywhere the poor must confront razor wire, corrupt and violent police, queues and relocation or deportation. In South Africa some of us are moved out of the cities to rural human dumping grounds called relocation sites while others are moved all the way out of the country. Some of us are taken to transit camps and some of us are taken to Lindela. The destinations might be different but it is the same kind of oppression. Let us all educate ourselves on these questions so that we can all take action.

We want, with humility, to suggest that the people in Jo’burg move beyond making statements condemning these attacks. We suggest, with humility, that now that we are in this terrible crisis we need a living solidarity, a solidarity in action. It is time for each community and family to take in the refugees from this violence. They cannot be left in the police stations where they risk deportation. It is time for the church leaders and the political leaders and the trade union leaders to be with and live with the comrades born in other countries every day until this danger passes. Here in Durban our comrades stand with us when the Land Invasions Unit comes to evict us or the police come to beat us. Even the priests are beaten. Now we must all stand with our comrades when their neighbours come to attack them. If this happens in the settlements here in Durban this is what we must do and what we will do.

We make the following demands to the government of South Africa:

1. Close down Lindela today. Set the people free. 2. Announce, today, that there will be papers for every person sheltering in your police stations. 3. Ban the sale of land in the cities until all the people are housed. 4. Stop all evictions and forced removals immediately. 5. Do not build one more golf course estate until everyone has a house. 6. Support the people of Zimbabwe, not an oppressive government that destroys the homes of the poor and uses rape and torture to control opposition. 7. Arrest all corrupt people working in the police and Home Affairs. 8. Announce, today, a summit between all refugee organisations and the police and Home Affairs to plan how they can be changed radically so that they begin to serve all the people living in South Africa.

For further information or comment please contact:

S’bu Zikode: 0835470474 Zodwa Nsibande: 0828302707 Mnikelo Ndabankulu: 0797450653 Mashumi Figlan: 0795843995 Senzo (surname not given, he has no papers): 031 2691822