Why Is South Africa Being Torn Apart?

The low-income black township here in Durban, which suffered more than any other during apartheid, Cato Manor, was the scene of a test performed on a Mozambican a week ago Wednesday morning.

At 6:45 a.m., in the warmth of a rising subtropical winter sun, two unemployed men strolling on Belair Road approached the middle-aged immigrant. They accosted him and demanded, in the local indigenous language isiZulu, that he say the word meaning “elbow” (this they referred to with their hand).

The man answered “idolo,” which unfortunately means “knee.” The correct answer is “indololwane.” His punishment: being beat up severely, and then told to “go home.”

What was going through those two young thugs’ heads? Why did others like them kill more than 50 immigrants in various South African slums last week, forcing tens of thousands more to flee their homes?

Cato Manor has several features that incubate conflict of the type that Thando Manzi, a resident of the township, witnessed–and was powerless to prevent–on his way to high school last Wednesday. The same scene played out dozens, if not hundreds, of times here in Durban’s sprawling townships, where more than 1.5 million people suffer daily indignities.

Indeed, thousands of immigrants were asked such questions by assailants in recent weeks. Many millions heard of the elbow test and saw press coverage of immigrants being burned to death last week in Johannesburg’s eastern townships, which ironically house the reserve pools of labor closest to Africa’s busiest airport, O.R. Tambo International, the gateway to and from the continent.

Thousands of Zimbabweans and Mozambicans living in Johannesburg and Durban returned across the borders, but most went nearby to police stations, community centers and churches. The notoriously corrupt Cato Manor police station now has several hundred people sheltering in the immediate vicinity, and a large tent was erected for shelter.

A 15-minute drive south of Cato Manor is Chatsworth, whose best-known community activist is Orlean Naidoo. She joined us at central Durban’s main place of safety, Emmanuel Cathedral, last Thursday night. The Catholic Church had taken in 150 terrified Zimbabweans, and that night, Naidoo helped rescue another 100 from Chatsworth’s Bottlebrush shack settlement. By Sunday, that number of refugees at Emmanuel had doubled again.

Ashwin Desai documented Chatsworth’s progressive struggles dating back more than a decade (in his 2002 book, We Are the Poors). Sadly, last week, a majority of residents voted in a municipal by-election for the welfarist-nationalist Minority Front, with its single-minded emphasis on Indian identity.

And in Bottlebrush, low-income Africans were apparently incited–and immigrants terrorized–by an anonymous pamphlet telling foreigners to leave.

Naidoo notes the rise of racial and class tensions here. “Bottlebrush settlement has never been properly organized,” she says. “It is not an easy thing to do, when people are subject to arrest at any time due to lack of formal documents.”

In every locale, surface stresses that invite bitter residents to cheer on beatings and ethnic cleansing have deep fault lines. Cato Manor violence appears endemic for several reasons that Thando Manzi hears every day in ordinary conversation, to the point of stereotyping.

To illustrate, a taxi war is now underway, as one owners’ association whose market has stagnated attempts to invade Cato Manor turf. Taxi lords from nearby Chesterville–a township two kilometers west–apparently instructed their drivers to begin expanding services into the Cato Manor Taxi Association’s routes a few weeks ago.

The Manzi household hears gunshots most evenings, and it is sometimes impossible to move around the township due to flying bullets. One taxi lord has been killed and quite a few innocent passengers and bystanders– including a schoolchild–were wounded.

Indeed, long-suffering residents know Cato Manor–named after the city’s first white settler mayor–as highly contested terrain following British settlement in 1843. A century later, Indians and Africans regained occupation rights, but the apartheid regime soon practiced a sophisticated divide-and-conquer that heightened both ethnic and class cleavages.

By 1949, Cato Manor’s unequal internal power relations, evident in petty retail trade and landlordism, generated a backlash by Africans against Indians that left 137 residents dead over two days, with thousands more injured.

Recovering from this catastrophe, however, the African National Congress (ANC) began serious organizing and set the stage for women’s uprisings against both the state and African men who patronized the local beer hall (where profits financed local apartheid), instead of consuming the women’s homebrew.

Combinations of local grievances plus anti-racist macropolitics meant that Cato Manor gender relations were as advanced as anywhere in the country. But by 1964, the apartheid regime overwhelmed social resistance, embarking on mass forced removals, leaving the land just below the University of KwaZulu-Natal vacant for a quarter century.

But like so much of our “planet of slums,” as Mike Davis describes these sites, a new generation of shack settlements then emerged in the interstices of working-class Indian and African communities. The post-apartheid government’s construction of tiny housing units, half the size of apartheid “matchboxes,” did not help, as too many quickly went onto the market and became unaffordable to Cato Manor’s lowest-income residents, though immigrants have bought them and are settling in.

The ethnicized political economy of Cato Manor capitalism creates many such tensions. Speaking at a labor-community-refugee forum on Sunday, Timothy Rukombo, a leader of exiled Zimbabweans in Durban, described how microeconomic friction is displaced into hate-filled nationalism: “If you want to go home [to Zimbabwe], you compare prices, and you see the large bus is a little cheaper than the minibus kombitaxi. Then when you go to the bus, the taxi driver shouts loudly that you are ‘makwerekwere,’” a derogatory term for immigrant just as insulting as “kaffir.”

Rukombo continues, “And when we are beaten, and we call the police, they never come.”

In fact, when police do come–as to Johannesburg’s Central Methodist Church on January 30, where 1500 Zimbabweans had taken refuge–their agenda is often pure brutality. Host bishop Paul Verryn was beaten that evening, and almost all the Zimbabweans were arrested. But no charges stuck.

Thando Manzi hears these sorts of grievances continually. At a time of roaring food price inflation–as high as 80 percent for basics this year–he identifies structural reasons for the neighbors’ xenophobia:

–Lack of jobs (formal sector employment dropped by 1 million after 1994) and declining wage levels as a result of immigrant willingness to work for low pay on a casualized basis;

–Immigrant tenacity in finding informal economic opportunities, even when these are illegal, such as street-side trading of fruits, vegetables, cigarettes, toys and other small commodities;

–Housing pressure which leads many immigrants to overcrowd inner-city flats, especially in Durban and Johannesburg, hence driving up rentals of a dwelling unit beyond the ability of locals to afford;

–Surname identity theft, which can cost an immigrant 3,000 rands by way of a bribe for an ID document and driver’s license (including fake marriages to South Africans who only learn about them much later); and

–Increases in local crime blamed on immigrants.

Behind some of this tension is the recent expansion of the hated migrant labor system. We thought in 1994 that the ANC government would slowly but surely rid the economy of migrancy, and turn single-sex dormitory hostels into decent family homes. But hostels remain, and in Johannesburg, the ghastly buildings full of unemployed men were the source of many attacks.

Even if racially defined geographical areas have disappeared from apartheid-era Swiss-cheese maps, the economic logic of drawing inexpensive labor from distant sites is even more extreme (China has also mastered the trick), now that it no longer is stigmatized by apartheid connotations.

Instead of hailing from KwaZulu or Venda or Bophuthatswana or Transkei, the most desperate migrant workers in South Africa’s major cities are from Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia–countries partially deindustrialized by Johannesburg capital’s expansion up-continent.

In a brutally frank admission of self-interest regarding these workers, First National Bank chief economist Cees Bruggemann intoned to Business Report last week: “They keep the cost of labor down… Their income gets spent here because they do not send the money back to their countries.”

If many immigrants don’t send back remittances (because their wages are wickedly low and the cost of living here has soared), that, in turn, reminds us of how apartheid drew cheap labor from bantustans: for many years, women were coerced into supplying unpaid services–child-rearing, health care and elder care for retirees–so as to reproduce fit male workers for the mines, factories and plantations.

Apartheid-era super-profits for capital were the result. Now, with more porous borders and the deep economic crisis Zimbabweans face (in part because President Thabo Mbeki still nurtures the Mugabe dictatorship), South African corporate earnings are roaring. After falling due to overproduction and class struggle during the 1970s-80s, profit rates here rose from 1994-2001 to ninth-highest in the world, according to a Bank of England study, while the wage share fell from 5 percent over the same period.

So notwithstanding South Africa’s national unemployment rate of 40 percent, a xenophobia-generated bottleneck in the supply of migrant labor could become a problem for capital, such as occurred at Primrose Gold Mine near Johannesburg. The mine’s workforce consists nearly entirely of Mozambicans, who stayed away much of last week due to fear, thus shutting the shafts.

On the big plantations, northeast of Johannesburg, men like Paul van der Walt of the Transvaal (sic) Agricultural Union remark upon the danger: “It is not far-fetched that even farmers employing workers lawfully from neighboring states could experience at first hand that xenophobia is not restricted to metropolitan areas.”

So what next? If you work for the state to impose neoliberalism on capital’s behalf, as does central banker Tito Mboweni, you stick with sado-monetarist policies, “come hell or high water”, as he vowed last week, and you maintain fiscal austerity, as finance minister Trevor Manuel also promised.

If you are a ruling party politician, either ignore the problem or speak platitudes–like Thabo Mbeki, who didn’t even bother visiting the conflict sites–or send in the army (a dangerous new development), or distract attention as much as possible through “Third Force” allegations.

To explain xenophobia, Minister of National Intelligence Ronnie Kasrils harked back to an earlier threat: “We see, on the surface, that there is a duplication of what happened in the early ’90s. We know that there were political elements behind that. Are those same trigger elements in place now? We’d be naive to just write that off.”

And if you are an internationalist activist, like the late Soweto resident Lindiwe Mazibuko or Orlean Naidoo of Chatsworth, you address the roots of the problem by fighting for access to water and decent public services for all residents regardless of national origin.

With four other residents, Mazibuko won an historic court case against the Johannesburg Water Company on April 30, doubling her free water supply and banning prepayment meters (though the city will appeal). Tragically, she died of cancer last week, but many more activists are inspired by her example.

And if you are a brave immigrant, we must be grateful that you reinvigorate our fights for socio-economic justice, against the upsurge of racist xenophobia. In solidarity, several thousand marched in Johannesburg on Saturday.

Forty-five years ago, on May 25, 1963, the Organization of African Unity (now African Union) was founded by nationalist elites to support liberation from colonialism.

It is hard to celebrate Africa Day given that, in the meantime, neoliberalism and paranoid nationalism imposed from above have made mockery of Africa’s ubuntu philosophy (we are who we are through others). From below, the thugs who beat up that Mozambican have merely joined a rapidly growing movement in the opposite direction: to barbarism.

Patrick Bond has written several books about African history and politics. Looting Africa: The Economics of Exploitation details how exploitative debt has helped keep sub-Saharan Africa mired in poverty. Fanon’s Warning shows how the New Partnership for Africa's Development counterposed sustainable growth to Africa's rapid integration into the world economy. Ashwin Desai’s We Are the Poors: Community Struggles in Post-Apartheid South Africa focuses on the Chatsworth community movement against cut-offs of water and electricity. Thanks to Socialist Worker. Read other articles by Thandokuhle Manzi, or visit Thandokuhle Manzi's website.