File picture: SUNDAY TIMES
File picture: SUNDAY TIMES

What is it with the governing ANC and its repeated denials of obvious xenophobia?

I know of no critic who has directly accused the ANC or its government of being xenophobic as a party, though it has failed to act decisively when leading figures, such as King Goodwill Zwelithini and individual ANC leaders, have made utterances that could be interpreted as xenophobic.

Similarly, media coverage of the issue does not generally point fingers directly at government. So why are the government and party leaders so defensive when the question of xenophobia is raised?

By denying that the problem exists the ANC fails repeatedly to acknowledge and respond to the serious underlying socioeconomic crisis in our society, which gives rise to xenophobia among black people in particular, especially those who are most economically vulnerable.

More importantly, by denying its existence the ANC abdicates responsibility for finding solutions.

The causes of xenophobia worldwide are socioeconomic in nature, the result of fierce competition for dwindling resources in a distinctly neoliberal world economy. It is by no means a uniquely SA problem; xenophobia has been on the rise globally for the past decade in particular as the global capitalist crisis deepened. In fact, it is at its most venomous when it merges with racism in Europe and elsewhere.

Even so, it is not only absurd but totally irresponsible for the ANC to deny the existence of xenophobia in our society given that civil society identified it as a problem long ago, particularly in the aftermath of the xenophobic attacks of 2008. That is more than a decade ago, but what did the ANC learn from those terrible and bloody events? Sadly, it appears the answer is very little.


The governing party simply does not understand what xenophobia really means in the SA context, where we have had an enormous influx of people from elsewhere in Southern Africa and further afield since the early 1990s. This led to fierce competition with black South Africans for limited resources that dwindled further due in part to neoliberal budgetary constraints.

Xenophobia in SA is not about abstractions such as a fear of strangers and other such evasive phenotypical matters. It is deeply rooted in a capitalist system that is in mortal crisis, and the neoliberal policy choices the ANC made after 1994.

The reaction of Gauteng premier David Makhura after the recent violent confrontation between police and foreign-owned small traders in the Johannesburg CBD should give ANC leaders pause for thought.

The party needs to tread carefully over what is rapidly becoming a minefield of potential xenophobic explosions as the economic crisis deepens and competition for resources becomes ever more fierce.

No attempt by President Cyril Ramaphosa to get church and other leaders to make moral appeals for an end to attacks against foreigners is going to help solve what are ultimately deeply complex socioeconomic problems. Without that realisation and the attendant resolve to address xenophobia from that angle, nothing the ANC says or does is going to help.

So seriously deficient and warped is the ANC’s response to xenophobia that international relations and co-operation minister Naledi Pandor argued fervently that the media were distorting the narrative about xenophobia. How rich coming from a representative of a party whose trenchant denial that xenophobia exists has become the norm over more than a decade. It is, in fact, the ANC, not the media, that must seriously and urgently review its approach to and definition of xenophobia.

What is urgently required is a class approach to xenophobia. This is conspicuously absent not only in ANC propaganda on the matter but most articles and columns I have read on the topic. If we were to do so we would come to quite different conclusions, on the definition of xenophobia, its roots and solutions to the scourge.

The most unfortunate reality of xenophobia is the violence, death and destruction that is meted out by one section of the black working class upon another. Whereas they should be united in their struggle against neoliberalism and view their conflicts from that perspective, the poorest of poor black people from both SA and other African countries are instead killing each other in the worst conceivable form of internecine, fratricidal and destructive violence.

This has become one of the greatest tragedies of postapartheid SA under ANC governance.

• Ebrahim Harvey is a former Cosatu trade unionist, political writer and author