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EFF leader Julius Malema visited restaurants in Mall of Africa to check if the retio between South Africans and foreign nationals is balanced. File photo: SUNDAY TIMES/THAPELO MOREBUDI
EFF leader Julius Malema visited restaurants in Mall of Africa to check if the retio between South Africans and foreign nationals is balanced. File photo: SUNDAY TIMES/THAPELO MOREBUDI

As the unemployment rate nears 50%, political parties across the spectrum have started to scapegoat foreign nationals for the crisis. It is a dangerous tactic that deflects attention from the real causes of joblessness. The impulse to identify, blame and victimise an “out” group for social ills is as old as the hills, and one with a familiar history in SA.

However, the real political focus should be on deregulating the labour market and putting in place policies conducive to economic growth and private-sector-led job creation. In the absence of such moves the country is likely to spiral into a morass of xenophobic resentment and violence, and plumb even greater depths of poverty and inequality.

The EFF’s visit to several restaurants to check the “employment ratio” between SA citizens and foreign nationals is only the most recent and high-profile manifestation of a disturbing, populist trend. Action SA’s leader Herman Mashaba has been railing against foreign nationals for years. In 2019 he accused migrants from other African countries of being disproportionately responsible for crime in Johannesburg, a claim unstitched by criminologists.

In particular, foreign traders and small business operators seem to get Mashaba’s dander up. They bring us “Ebolas (sic) in the name of small business”, he once tweeted. On another occasion Mashaba lamented that “foreigners run spazas … because our government allows it”, and observed with remarkable mendacity that “No South African will ever run a small business in any other country.” The Patriotic Alliance has also tried to shut down foreign-owned shops in Eldorado Park, while mobs of locals chased foreign nationals out of Soweto and other townships in a “clean-up” campaign dubbed Operation Dudula.

The ANC has been threatening to introduce quotas for foreign workers in predominantly low-skilled sectors for years, as the cabinet finalises a national labour migration policy. Meanwhile the IFP has submitted a private member’s bill in parliament to regulate the employment of foreign nationals in all sectors. Even avowedly centrist parties are jumping on the xenophobic bandwagon.

All of this is reminiscent of SA in the 1930s. Then, in the wake of the Wall Street Crash and Great Depression, the  so-called “poor white problem” among Afrikaners dominated political discourse. Almost simultaneously a devastating drought wreaked havoc on the national economy, much like the Covid-19 pandemic would 90 years later.

Poverty was the “furnace that fired extremism”, Prof Milton Shain noted in his history of anti-Semitism in SA during the 1930s and 1940s . As “hapless victims” of decades of structural change, alienated, unskilled and marginalised “poor whites” became an easy target for ethnic mobilisation. They constituted a political time bomb waiting to explode, and the “demagogic, simplistic and vulgar message” of Jew-hatred lit the fuse. Anti-Semitism rapidly spread from the margins of far-right politics to the centre.

Jews were cast as alien and unassimilable, a threat to Afrikaner spiritual unity and the welfare of the polity. In Parliament, the Quota Act aimed to halt eastern European Jewish immigration to SA, while the Aliens Act in effect precluded the immigration of Jews altogether. Attention then shifted to implementing quotas on Jews in the workplace. On the campaign trail ahead of the 1938 general election the leader of the Purified National Party, DF Malan, praised Mussolini and Hitler and ranted against the “over-representation” of Jews in the trades and legal profession. 

Here we are in 2022. Owing to almost three decades of ANC corruption, state capture and policy incoherence, the economy is on the skids. Many of our politicians (in fact, our entire ethic of politics) are venal and violent. More people are unemployed than at any point since 1994. The social fabric is rapidly fraying. The nation is a tinderbox. Once more, politicians have surveyed the landscape for a scapegoat, and alighted upon foreign nationals as a suitable target. This will, inevitably, have deadly consequences.

The idea that EFF leader Julius Malema has the authority to impose his will on any employer — armed, like an apartheid-era labour inspector, with a clipboard and a kit to conduct a kind of pencil-test — is both laughable and sinister. But the EFF’s invasion of private work premises, when it has no right or legal standing to do so, has a broader history. The party’s self-styled “labour desk” has assumed the mantle of a trade union. This outfit has taken it upon itself to interfere in workplace disputes and matters directly involving the relationship between employers and employees.

The EFF’s labour desk issues ultimatums to employers and threatens the security of their establishments if the party’s demands are not met. This is nothing more than a form of workplace terrorism. It is also illegal. In June 2021, in Gordon Road Spar v The EFF and Others (J605/21), the Labour Court interdicted the EFF from interfering with the employer’s business and instigating violence at the workplace.

Such behaviour from the EFF’s leader and SS shock troops is to be expected, because they belong to a neo-fascist organisation masquerading as a revolutionary, socialist movement. However, if we are to prevent foreign nationals from being scapegoated for SA’s unemployment crisis we also need to keep a close eye on what the parties of the putative centre are saying — and doing.

• Cardo is an MP and DA shadow employment & labour minister.

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