In South Africa and Around the World, We Have to Resist the Scapegoating of Immigrants

In South Africa, the political class is scapegoating immigrants to distract from their failure to root out the country’s massive inequality. But just like everywhere else, immigrants aren’t the problem — economic elites and their political handmaidens are.

A woman walks in a dusty street in the Diepsloot township outside Johannesburg on April 16, 2014. (Mujahid Safodien / AFP via Getty Images)

In late January 2020, a South African police officer was shot in Diepsloot, a densely populated township in the north of Johannesburg. Fifty-four-year-old detective Oupa Matjie was tracking down suspects in a case when he was killed by what media reported as an “undocumented immigrant.” Some residents of the squatter community then took to the streets, barricading roads with rocks and burnt tires, describing the week’s tragedy as a “wake-up call to fight crime,” and that foreigners “behave or leave the country.”

Diepsloot, which means “deep ditch” in Afrikaans, mirrors the social and political dynamics of the country as a whole. Although it borders the wealthy suburbs of Dainfern and Steyn City outside Johannesburg, Diepsloot is excluded from its neighbors’ prosperity. Since its advent, it’s been widely regarded as a melting pot of people with different ethnolinguistic backgrounds and nationalities. But over the past ten years, immigrants have been increasingly blamed for crime and social disorder, becoming the targets of violence.

The events last month provided the South African government the opportunity to defend immigrant rights and denounce xenophobia. Instead, Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi was quick to dismiss what little kernel of regard for the plight of immigrants is left in our popular consciousness, glibly stating that “we must be very careful to label people xenophobic when they have got concerns.”

This aligns with statements made by Gwede Mantashe, who doubles as chairperson of the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), and minister of mineral resources, who after the violent flare-ups last year said that “I think it is a lazy analysis when you just limit it to xenophobia — without looking at the context and the scramble for resources.” There is a narrow truth to these utterances, namely that the issue of xenophobia ought to be approached carefully, and with due nuance to the factors giving rise to its prevalence. But South Africa’s recent history of xenophobic violence, met not with condemnation but empty bromides from politicians who profess affected sympathy toward the conditions of South Africa’s poorest, is meant not to clarify anything. Rather, it is to obfuscate their own collective role in reproducing the economic conditions for which they now use foreign nationals as scapegoats.

In Diepsloot, the circumstances of its residents are dire. Originally established as a transit camp in 1995 after a nearby informal settlement was destroyed, the sprawling township has become a permanent home for three hundred thousand people. As with many South African communities on the margins, the township routinely attracts bad press in mainstream media for being a hotbed of crime and unrest. The government has long been the first target of the public’s frustrations, given its persistent inability to provide fundamental services such as housing, sanitation, and effective policing. It is this same government that now suddenly develops the capacity for swift action, promising to rapidly deploy immigration officials to verify migrant documentation on the streets. This move would be unprecedented for the township.

Since the discovery of minerals in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the region’s economic structure was fundamentally transformed, as the then–British administration dispossessed South Africans of their land and imposed colonial taxation, making near obsolete the independent subsistence farming that was then the lifeblood of rural communities. What follows is a well-known brutal and painful history — what is thought of as “South Africa’s history,” one telling the story of the “South African people.”

But South Africa itself was entirely constituted through international political and economic relations at the nexus of imperialism and capitalism, and it is within this entanglement that many black men and women, by force or compulsion, flocked to find work in or close to South African mines. From the 1860s, they steadily came from Mozambique, Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, and Angola. Before that, it was slaves arriving from the Indian subcontinent, and before that, no South Africa to speak of but only disparate and loosely organized settlements of Bantu- or Khoisan-speaking groups. There are no truly indigenous South Africans; there conceptually cannot be any. What we now call the nation-state of South Africa is a modern invention that has always been a land of foreigners.

It is this shared history of domination and exploitation that the ruling ANC now seems to be forgetting. Many point out the hypocrisy of it having once relied on the aid of other independent African states during Apartheid, yet now failing to act decisively to protect the human rights of immigrants despite sometimes reiterating its commitment to “pan-Africanist values.” Yet there has always been a gap between the ANC’s rhetoric and the content of its immigration policies, which reveal a long-standing conservative orientation. The existing trajectory indicates only more constriction, securitization, and deterrence. For example, new amendments to the Refugees Act which came into effect at the beginning of 2020 provides that refugee status can be withdrawn if one engages in political activities or campaigns — the very basis of civic engagement in a democracy.

The Democratic Alliance has been even more adamant in its anti-immigrant stance. During last year’s election campaign, its posters brandished the words “Secure our Borders,” believing that “uncontrolled immigration violates the rights of ordinary South Africans who have to compete for scarce resources.” The edifice of anti-immigrant beliefs in South Africa has been built using this idea that immigrants steal jobs, yet there is no reliable evidence to support these claims; if anything, immigrants are likely to create jobs where they settle. Still, this doesn’t matter, since the character of anti-immigrant sentiment are precisely hasty generalizations without evidence. As the sociologist Kitty Calavita explains it, “If immigrants serve as scapegoats for social crises, it stands to reason that the specific content of anti-immigrant nativism will shift to encompass the prevailing malaise.” In South Africa, this is the worsening despair in the face of entrenched joblessness, with unemployment rates continuing to skyrocket.

The truth is, then, that the foundational feature of South Africa’s economy is its structural unemployment. In an economy where the organizing principle is the profit motive and the golden rule accumulation, once these ends are met, anyone inessential to that process becomes part of, in the words of Karl Marx, a “relatively redundant working population, i.e. a population which is superfluous to capital’s average requirements for its own valorization and is therefore a surplus population.” Even if South Africa deported all immigrants, documented or not, it’s unlikely that South Africa’s unemployment figures would change. As Carilee Osborne puts it, the “processes of both deindustrialization and financialization have curtailed South Africa’s ability to expand employment, grow wages, and lift people out of poverty.” South Africans are thus misled into believing that unemployment is natural and it’s inevitable that competition for the few good jobs available should arise. In this setup, immigrants become perceived as a threat.

Rising xenophobia, criminality, and violence are not only attributable to our economic malaise, but the moral decay and social disintegration that flows from it, fulfilling Marx’s “doctrine of increasing misery.” The unabating crisis triggered by the 2008 financial crisis has created a world of unending economic distress and anxiety, weakening social bonds and fragmenting communities. It is no surprise then that in this neoliberal order characterized by individualism, social competitiveness, and the triumph of the consumer over the citizen that people turn to some pseudo-concrete grand subjects to form the basis of an imagined community, such as “the nation,” and really anything that draws lines between an “us” and “them.”

This is why the Economic Freedom Fighters’ pronouncements on race and belonging, in spite of their spoken commitment to Pan-Africanism, nevertheless contributes to the discursive stage in which xenophobic violence takes place, entrenching the notion of there being essential differences between groups of people — if there are such differences between blacks and whites, and even blacks and browns, why not between blacks and other blacks? The antidote to divisions based on identity is not a retreat into more distinctions, but a politics of solidarity that organizes people around a shared social or political goal. The fundamental question one should ask in this instance, writes British author Kenan Malik, is not “who are we” but rather, “in what kind of society do I want to live?”

Talking about the conditions of people living in Diepsloot, the South African radio show host Bongani Bingwa likened the township to the Gaza Strip and Israel, as a sort of open-air prison with restless, immobile residents living in close proximity to fabulously wealthy and resourced suburbs. The South African–based Cameroonian Achille Mbembe described the Gaza Strip in a recent interview as representing a new kind of social control “in which people deemed surplus, unwanted, or illegal are governed through abdication of any responsibility for their lives and welfare,” and “great swathes of humanity [are] judged worthless and superfluous.”

The Assembly of the Unemployed is a burgeoning social movement that seeks to give voice to those deemed surplus in South Africa’s population. Pushing an expanded concept of the working class, it consists of Abahlali baseMjondolo, the Amadiba Crisis Committee, Amandla Botshabelo Unemployed Movement, Progressive Youth Movement, South African Green Revolutionary Council, and the Unemployed People’s Movement. Last week, along with South Africa’s second-largest union federation the South African Federation of Trade Unions and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, it launched “The Cry of the Xcluded,” a mass campaign against austerity and unemployment, and advocating the expansion of social provision. This nascent coalition presents a unique opportunity to show, once and for all, that immigrants are and always have been part of the excluded.