Xenophobia in South Africa

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There has been a wave of xenophobic violence in South Africa where individuals are being blamed rather that the systematic structure.  Photo Credit :”Getting Out Of Gangs”  UK DFID

There has been a resurgence of xenophobic – or rather afrophobic – attacks in South Africa. This has led to a loss of property and lives with five people being killed. Black immigrants are being blamed for high unemployment rates, lack of resources and essentially most of the county’s economic woes. In a classic case of misplaced aggression, South Africa’s Black poor angrily place blame on Black immigrants whilst the multi-national corporations continue to slowly drain wealth from their nation.

South Africans are steering their aggression toward Black immigrants from Malawi, Zambia, Nigeria, and other African countries. These immigrant groups are blamed for taking their jobs and using up resources designated for them. Their participation in the workforce and small business as outsiders makes them easy targets. They are also wrongly thought to be affecting the economy through their assumed heavy involvement in black market activities such as the illegal trade in drugs, arms, human organs, and counterfeit goods. However, there is a need to shift the focus away from targeting groups of individuals to targeting the system adopted by the government which creates these structural constraints.

At the root of the problem is the new world order which privileges individualism, multi-lateral corporations and profits over people through its neo-liberal agenda. Twenty years after apartheid, the new leaders of South Africa continue to reproduce the same structures of oppression which they once struggled against through their continual commitment to this global system that was designed to benefit the interest’s multilateral corporations and a few elites.

Neoliberalism became an increasingly prominent as a form of governance worldwide at the second half of the twentieth century due to its promotion by Regan and Thatcher. Essentially, it is the blind encouragement of a “free market” system in which any type of governmental interference in people’s lives or business is vehemently discouraged. Its antithesis would be Keynesian capitalist economics which encourages the government to provide have a more hands-on approach to the economy –  implementing  reasonable protective measures for local businesses, setting minimum wages, working with trade unions and generally, making sure there are social safety nets so people don’t fall through the cracks (ie think Sweden)

At the international-level, neo-liberalism is characterized by the promotion of free trade in goods and services, free circulation of capital, and freedom of investments. At the national level it is characterized by the privatization of goods and services, the replacement of subsistence economics with market oriented international trade, the separation of society and economics. The idea is that wealth is supposed to trickle down from the wealthy to the poor at both the national and international level. This capitalist system has been a dismal failure in delivering its promises worldwide.

Due to “free market” fundamentalism, all around the world, neo-liberal capitalist policies have led to unequal and uneven development which benefits a few.

Who benefits from Neo-Liberalism?

Neoliberal ideology has caused the increases in unemployment, low wages, and poverty that we are seeing in South Africa today because it encourages profits over people. Its relentless pursuit for profit means that the needs of a few are being met. It is fair to say then that multi-lateral organizations and the elite benefit the most from this system.

Through this system, competition is an essential driving force for growth and progress. The belief is that the common goods lies in promoting the interest of the businesses and the elite who own them. Decisions made are based on a model that only considers maximizing profits.

This has hurt small and medium local enterprises who are often pushed out of the market or imbibed by multi-national corporations. Local businesses are not empowered to create wealth either. Their interests are not protected because “free trade” also means abolishing  government subsidies and tariffs which would otherwise protect them. Furthermore, in order to meet the demands of big businesses and the elite, it is characterized by sustained attacks on unions, corporatization and privatization of state services, and the removal of state social safety nets.

The neo-liberal belief is that the common good of society lies in promoting the interest of the businesses and not individuals thereby leaving people unprotected. They are left to take care of their own destinies; services such as health, welfare, and education become the responsibilities of the individual. Therefore, ideas about “public goods” and “community” become disregarded as unnecessary components of a system where government has too much control over people and profits.

Xenophobia & Neo-Liberalism: Blaming Individuals for Structural Problems

Since neo-liberalism has a strong emphasis on individualism and self-interest, it is not surprising then that the blame of South Africa’s economic woes become increasingly blamed on individuals rather than the structural constraints created by neo-liberalism. The aggression of Black South Africans towards Black immigrants is thereby grossly misdirected and is symptomatic of neo-liberal ideology.

Although system was not structured to benefit the South Africa’s poor or individuals in the first place, the superficial attractiveness of the promises of individual freedom, prosperity, and growth remains attractive to the public who thinks wanton ‘free trade’ is beneficial for them. It also makes it challenging for the public to realize that the structure of the system, and not groups of individuals are to blame. Such unabated individualism prevents the poor from recognizing their common interests. It prevents the poor from recognizing that there is enough to go around in the country, only that the wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few elites who exploit the system and the global corporations who underpay them. This creates obstacles to organizing and confronting their real enemies, the state and its neo-liberal policies.

South Africa’s are turn away from the role of the community and their turn towards a focus solely on individuals is itself a symptom of neo-liberal led globalization. It is not wrong to say that the migration of Africans from their own countries is due to the same forces. The uneven and unequal development in African nations is a product of neo-liberal capitalist interventionist policies which create similar structural constraints across the continent. Globalization and neo-liberalism both  push individuals in other parts of Africa out of their own countries towards migration to South Africa.  Therefore the poor migrants and South African poor have more in common then they think in terms of their economic condition. Additionally, globalization relies on multinational corporations being able to source cheap labor and these migrant laborers fulfill this need. They are a necessary to component in sustaining this system.

Towards A New Pan-African Agenda

This new world order that South Africa was reintegrated in to was structured in a way that determined to continue to the old oppressions of its apartheid past. Until South Africans recognize the true source of their oppression is this structure, the inequalities in South Africa will persist. They will continue to place blame for the economic woes on individuals who have also been victimized in their own right by this system. What ultimately should have been a ‘neoliberal phobia’ will continue to manifest as afrophobia.

Rather than blaming African migrants for their woes, there needs to be a united political vision in South Africa. It needs to be grounded by a continental pan-African agenda that includes an understanding of how neo-liberalism affects them. The Latin American and Caribbean nations, who experience the same oppression are already well versed and have made this discussions about neo-liberalism and global inequalities more main stream. There is a need for South Africa to conceive their country – in fact, the entire continent – as one that is suffering from the same injustices caused by neo-liberalism. This will help the marginalized organize against the neo-liberal structures that oppress them and against the the state who is a guardian of the unchecked neo-liberal policies.

Naturally, this is an agenda that the South African government is unlikely to champion. Blaming the economic structure to ward off attacks on foreigners will ultimately implicate the government itself as guardians and beneficiaries of the neo-liberal system. We need to reject neo-liberal capitalism to move forward to reclaim a economic system that allows for free trade  but that also ensures that the needs of people are being met.

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