Workers must unite against xenophobia
The shocking outbreak of xenophobic violence and the looting of foreign-owned shops in Gauteng is deplorable, and of particular concern to workers and the poor – the people who most need to be united against a common enemy and who will always pay the heaviest price when workers turn against one another.
Such violence and division fly in the face of the workers’ historic slogan: “United we stand; divided we fall.”
Far from solving their problems, this worsens their woes by opening the way for even more exploitation by employers who like nothing better than a divided and weakened working class. It is not a new problem. Modern nation states were formed with the emergence of capitalism around 200 years ago, when the new ruling class needed an instrument to police the workers whom they were exploiting.
This included using border controls to dictate where workers could and could not live, and deliberately creating national divisions in order to set workers at one another’s throats, rather than united against their common enemy – the capitalist exploiters.
As early as 1870 Karl Marx wrote about the “forcible emigration” of Irish workers to England, which “thus forces down wages and lowers the material and moral position of the English working class”.
“And, most important of all! Every industrial and commercial centre in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps – English proletarians and Irish proletarians.
“The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life.
“In relation to the Irish worker, he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself.”
Marx also recognised the same problem in the US, where the most recent immigrants, and particularly the black former slaves, were being used as scapegoats to stir up divisions within the working class, which is just as true and relevant in Donald Trump’s America today, 147 years later.
In South Africa it is particularly disturbing that much of the xenophobic anger is directed at workers from countries that displayed international solidarity by imposing sanctions against the apartheid regime.
While unequivocally condemning xenophobic violence, it is essential to locate and explain the underlying reasons for it.
Anger swells because of the poverty that afflicts workers, the unemployed and owners of small businesses, especially in times of recession, but this is then misdirected against those immigrants in their immediate neighbourhoods who are wrongly seen to be getting jobs which should be theirs.
This feeds the notion that the fault lies with the immigrants, rather than their exploiters.
So, the ultimate responsibility for this xenophobic violence and the looting must be laid at the door of the capitalist system and the employers who benefit from a divided working class and who cynically exploit immigrant workers, particularly those who have no documentation and are thus vulnerable to deportation, by paying poverty wages and imposing harsh working conditions.
This inevitably reduces jobs for local workers and cuts wage levels for all workers in those sectors.
Small businesses are targeted because although some are believed to be overcharging their customers, this has nothing to do with what part of the world they have come from. They, just like their South African counterparts, are struggling to survive.
Workers’ understandable anger about crime is also misdirected. South Africans are just as likely to be responsible for crime and there can be no justification for blaming it on immigrants.
The trade union movement must remember its internationalist roots, summed up by the famous slogans, “The working class has no country” and “Workers of the world unite!”
So the ultimate responsibility for this xenophobic violence and the looting must be laid at the door of the capitalist system