By Imraan Buccus
The intersection between business and politics in the form of outright gangsterism was not restricted to Zuma and the Guptas. As so often happens the rot at the top of society has swiftly cascaded down. In Durban, the notorious Delangokubona Business Forum is a particularly disturbing example of this phenomenon.
It is not an isolated instance. The professional assassins in the taxi industry also carry out political hits across KwaZulu-Natal in another chilling example of how gangsterism extends between business and politics. The Northern Region Business Association, which has threatened migrants running businesses in Durban is another version of this phenomenon.
There can be no compromise with threats of xenophobic violence, whether implicit or explicit. Xenophobia is the central logic of fascism. It is always a displacement of social stresses onto a vulnerable scapegoat in the interest of elites. The most famous instance of fascism is, of course, Anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany. But the current regimes in Burma and Israel are often described as contemporary forms of fascism. Donald Trump, and the movement directed by Steve Bannon that bought him to power, are often described as neo-fascist.
Fascism usually emerges in times of great social stress, especially mass unemployment. Under these conditions social relations become unsustainable and pressure for change boils over. If there is a well organized left wing movement it can mobilize a popular constituency to force progressive change. Elites, and capital, can be forced to make democratic concessions to build a more inclusive economy.
However if the left is week elites can ally themselves with the lower classes, including unemployed men, to scapegoat vulnerable minorities for the social crisis. This is what happened with Brexit, the election of Trump and the anti-Muslim politics in Burma. When scapegoating descends into a state sanction for popular violence prejudice can morph into fascism.
In South Africa the xenophobic violence that tore through the countries in 2008 didn’t result in arrests despite numerous murders. This indicates some degree of state sanction for popular violence and, therefore a real risk of fascism.
Ten years later xenophobic sentiment continues to be stirred by local business and political elites, some operating in the intersection between legitimate activity and gangsterism. The ‘woke’ platitude that we are dealing with ‘Afrophobia’ and not xenophobia is problematic. After all many of the people at risk of xenophobic attacks are from countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh, as well as Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and other African countries.
Xenophobia is a global phenomenon directly related to the crisis of neo-liberalism that has seen wealth accumulated by the few and the steady impoverishment of the majority. It is also the poor among the targeted group that are most at risk. In the US it will be a poor Mexican crossing the border on foot, and not a millionaire flying in to JFK, who will be at risk of violence. South Africa is no different.
Academic Loren Landau has made a crucial point, which has been made by progressive grassroots organisations for years, which is that in South Africa xenophobia is often accompanied by ethnic scapegoating and exclusion. People are often told to ‘go back’ to their countries or provinces of origin by local business and political elites. During the Zuma years it was not unusual for senior figures in the ruling party to collapse into this kind of language.
Ramaphosa has not tried to develop an ethnic basis for his political authority. Although he is, in economic terms, a neoliberal. In political terms his inclusive political vision is a welcome exception to a global turn towards forms of chauvinism, associated with leaders like Trump and Netanyahu.
However chauvinism, and even neo-fascism, continue to fester at local level. In view of the extreme nature of the unemployment crisis in South Africa, there is a real risk that a popular right wing, or even fascist, movement could be built against Ramaphosa, and the Constitutional order.
What we need to avoid a return to regressive politics is a credible left that can challenge neoliberalism from a progressive position. In practical terms this means that all forms of xenophobia must be vigorously challenged and, crucially, at the same time, social antagonism must be directed towards capital, and not migrants. The spaza shop owner from Somalia or Bangladesh must be offered solidarity. However the domination of the food system by capital, in the form of companies like Shoprite, must be challenged.
Popular anger needs to be rallied behind a demand to break up the corporate monopolies that are steadily moving from the suburbs and into the townships. This demand could also be linked to demands for rural land reform with a view to democratizing the food system from production to retail.
Just as in the US the real alternative to Trump was Sanders, and not Clinton, and in the UK the real alternative to Brexit is Corbyn, we need a left populism to take on the right wing, and often gangsterised populism that festers in our communities. Ramaphosa is a major advance over Zuma but neoliberalism cannot be the base for a long term progressive alternative to chauvinism and neo-fascism.
The only possible base for a genuinely left project in South Africa is an alliance between trade unions and social movements. Building this alliance, that can link the factory floor and the community, is the critical task for the left. The sectarianism, sometimes taking lunatic forms, that has so crippled the left in South Africa over the last twenty years needs to be put aside.
In the meantime all right thinking people need to oppose the xenophobic tendencies of the Northern Region Business Association.
Imraan Buccus is Al Qalam editor , research fellow in the School of Social Sciences at UKZN and academic director of a university study abroad program on political transformation.