Were the Rosettenville attacks xenophobic?
Were the Rosettenville attacks xenophobic, or a legitimate response to frustrations about the failure of the police to deal with criminals and drugs in proletarian communities?
The incidents happened soon after a ‘concerned residents’ association in Mamelodi called a march explicitly blaming immigrants for unemployment. The Mamelodi march was not large, but it is disturbing because it is the first time any group outside of government has mobilized openly and specifically against immigrants rather than clandestinely taking advantage of general meetings or protests. It showed that xenophobic sentiments are becoming more respectable and the people who hold these ideas are becoming more confident.
What is not new is that xenophobic mobilisation followed the example set by the police and the politicians. This time, the trigger was Johannesburg’s DA mayor, Herman Mashaba, who went around Johannesburg with Metro Police asking vendors for their papers as a publicity stunt for his drive to ‘clean up the city’.
Then he was copied by Malusi Gigaba, the minister of Home Affairs, who hinted that Mashaba had incited vigilantism in Rosettenville – then went on a walkabout in ‘problem spots’ Hillbrow and Yeoville and dispatched police to check for ‘valid immigration paperwork’. This cemented the idea that the legal/illegal divide is an issue of immigration, strengthening the link between immigrants and crime and social decay, while conveniently ignoring that many immigrants remain undocumented because of delays and corruption in his department.
Mashaba’s promise seems attractive because no-one living in Johannesburg can ignore the city’s problems. It is actually working class and poor people who bear the brunt of the social decay – robberies, rape and murders, drug addiction, overcrowded living areas – whereas richer people, despite their constant fear of crime, can still find refuge behind their suburban walls, private security companies.
As before, both Mashaba and Gigaba distanced themselves from the wave they facilitated, while opportunistically riding it to legitimize official xenophobia and anti-poor clean ups, presented as reasonable alternatives to the lawless communities.
This has led some on the left to argue that we should not so easily dismiss communities’ real frustrations by labelling them xenophobic.
The causes of the mobilization, they caution, are ‘more complex’ than ‘simple xenophobia’, and in the case of Rosettenville, some said, the motivation was not hatred of immigrants but the only way to deal with a ring of Nigerian drug lords who had bought off the police. These arguments don’t hold up well to scrutiny but they contain two grains of truth.
First, it is true that politicians demonise proletarian communities when condemning xenophobia, because they will not admit their own role in creating it. This goes beyond checking papers. Neither Mashaba nor Gigaba will point out that the waiting list for RDP houses is getting longer instead of shorter because social spending has been limited by years of cutting corporate tax, allowing the export of profits.
Mashaba, a substantial businessman in a business-friendly party, is not going to point out that Shoprite and the malls are killing all but the most self-sacrificial small business in the townships. We can’t expect Gigaba to mull over whether criminals’ alleged ‘culture of impunity’ has anything to do with the president laughing off calls for him account for Nkandla and Marikana.
Gigaba and Mashaba might point out that terrible wars, civil conflicts and dictatorships have forced people to leave home seeking peace and safety, but they aren’t in a hurry to link these to the way big companies like Coke, Shell and Anglo American have spearheaded essentially corrupt relations with governments, manipulating politics and buying politicians legally and illegally to facilitate their operations.
The second grain of truth is that xenophobia in the working class is always rooted in real frustrations and desperation caused by a daily experience of hardship, insecurity, and racism. It always feeds off very real feelings of being marginalized and ignored. And it is true that as long as these problems persist, there is always a danger that xenophobic racism will find a foothold in our communities.
But recognising the frustrations underlying xenophobia does not make it any less xenophobic. Xenophobia is wrongly blaming immigrants for the social decay in working class communities.
Xenophobia is dangerous not only for immigrants but also for local working class people, because when we vent our frustrations on immigrants in our communities we are leaving concealed the responsibility of powerful people outside our communities for our hardship. We end up fighting each other for a dusty corner to sell ten rands’ sweets but leave untouched the carve up of our continent by people such as Rhodes and the grand historic theft of land and labour power that is today congealed in the stock exchange and which continues as we speak.
But we can’t expect people to suffer in silence until after the revolution. What about the contention that Rosettenville was anti-crime, not anti-immigrant, and the dominant gang just happened to be Nigerian?
Socialists have nothing against people shutting down a gang that’s terrorizing their area as a short-term emergency measure, although we would advocate for community justice to take a fundamentally different approach to the punitive approach of bourgeoisie ‘justice’. But we have to be honest that this particular action, intentionally or not, opened the door to xenophobia.
First, while taking people’s experiences with drugs and crime seriously, we also have to take into account the existing prejudices about Nigerians. Of course some of the people attacked surely were dealers, but we also know firsthand how racist stereotypes work: those white people who irrationally fear black youth can always produce ‘evidence’ for their paranoia because, although we know most black youth are not tsotsis, many tsotsis are black youth.
Once SAPS raids on Hillbrow had established a connection in the South African imagination between Nigerians and crime, it is difficult to take the idea out of our heads – to the point that, when we cannot bear the soul-destroying news that our precious children are getting addicted (because of a hopeless boring future and a hopeless boring present) it becomes easier for us to believe instead that a Nigerian dealer spiked their sweets. Let’s be clear here that the only substantiated story of sweet vendors selling drugs to schoolkids involved six South Africans at a school in East London.
It’s true that capitalism creates racial and gendered niches in the legal and illegal labour market, through prejudices or practical vulnerabilities or simple accidents of networks. The majority of cleaners are women, because this is believed to be women’s work; many Somalis set up shops here because the paperwork is easier than getting a work permit and there are already networks for buying in bulk. But these niches then become a basis – the ‘evidence’ – for racist or sexist prejudice.
Most Nigerians who live here are not drug dealers. This should be obvious. They are hairdressers, academics, engineers, landlords, doctors, seamstresses, plumbers. But the established prejudice makes Nigerians in those occupations seem to be exceptions. We can be very sure that Nigerian seamstresses, plumbers, and hairdressers are as keen as anyone else to secure a safe environment for their children. Why were none of them in the crowd?
Second, even if the Nigerians who were attacked really were all dealers and pimps, why only these dealers? Nigerians did not invent drugs or prostitution. Long before any other African was allowed to cross the borders except as a contracted mineworker we knew the stereotype of the coloured drug dealer getting kids hooked on Welconol (pinks). Nyaope messes up addicts faster than anything else we know, and that is an entirely South African invention, locally made and distributed by locals.
If the point was to reduce the damaging effects of drugs on the community, then why the Nigerian-owned nightclub but not the SABMiller beer truck? I’m not advocating attacking shebeens, but incident for incident, alcohol is far more disruptive in proletarian communities than any illegal drug.
The answer is simply that the Nigerian dealers are more visible and more vulnerable simply because of their immigrant status. Local dealers blend in. An attack on a beer truck would attract hordes of police. The policeman who was happy to collect bribes from dealers has no good reason to risk his life protecting them from an angry crowd when there are plenty of other dealers and ordinary law-abiding immigrants to pay a bribe instead.
Finally, is Rosettenville now a safer place for anyone’s children? The South African-owned nightclub upstairs from the looted Nigerian-owned one is probably richer this week, but the attacks may have opened the door for different criminals to fight over turf.
About a week after the action, one woman told me ‘a coloured man’ stormed into the house behind which she stayed, shot a Nigerian dealer in the leg, and took his car. Her five year old is traumatized and she had to move in the middle of the night. Immigrants certainly will feel less safe, and the possibility of neighbourly solidarity in the face of crime has been knocked.
There is no reason to expect less domestic abuse last weekend in Rosettenvile with all that adrenaline pumped up and no less alcohol than before. And while we were fighting amongst ourselves for scraps, we probably missed Maria Ramos quietly admitting that ABSA had indeed looted the reserve bank, without saying a word about paying back the money.
The fact is that drug dealers, crime, and sex work are symptoms of the social decay in our society, not the causes. Science has shown again and again that only stressed animals become addicted to drugs. Drugs don’t cause addiction. Living in an oppressive, exploitative society does.
We can kick any number of small time tsotsis to death and another will step into his shoes, until we tackle the inequality at the heart of capitalism. The immediate practical solution is a united fight for better facilities such as libraries, youth clubs, higher wages and unemployment benefits, to be funded by increasing corporate tax, and – as shocking as it may sound – to insist on legalising sex work and all drugs. That would remove the criminal element from these activities and make it easier for addicts to get help and for sex workers to defend themselves.
The wrong picture that leads to xenophobia doesn’t arise from some inherent proletarian brain deficit. It relies on narrow horizons. We can see and reach the local gangster, but the CEO who is actually taking much more than a fair share is invisible in Sandton. It is for this very reason that we need to be extremely hard on any hint of xenophobia when people in our communities begin to respond to the daily horrors and frustrations of proletarian life.