Expansionism and xenophobia: the new South African consensus

After Zuma criticised other African nations rehashing neocolonial stereotypes about corruption and ‘failed states’, he now signs deals with his African neighbours from the Southern Africa Development Community to absorb jobless South African graduates. Only a few months ago, he and many other national leaders have openly stated that African migrants are not welcome in South Africa – an intention clearly supported by military operations to deport ‘illegal’ migrants in the midst of xenophobic attacks.

It is unlikely that Zuma and his allies have changed their minds. They quite possibly feel that South African graduates are entitled to work in other African countries, while the opposite is put into question. Of course the droves of white South Africans who have moved in the last decades to other African countries for business – from mining to construction, from supermarkets to junk food chains – have already asserted their ‘privilege’. They actively participate in the building of enclave economies where technical and managerial cadres pay themselves exorbitant salaries while exploiting workers, who are paid at much lower level than their South African counterparts. Meanwhile, just as South African apartheid regime used to do with his dependent countries (Swaziland, Lesotho, Botswana), the growth of South African business is usually at the expense of local companies, put out of business by cut-throat competition and left alone by neoliberal government policies ‘opening up’ national economies to foreign investment. Needless to say, South Africa is in good company, with Western and Asian investors participating in the same destructive game.

Despite the intense racial conflict at home, the expansionist South African project into the continent marks an interesting kind of ‘multi-racial’ nationalist consensus at the top. At the expense of the rest of Africa, which is exploited as a growing market for South African business and skilled labour force, while foreign Africans have become dispensable labour within South Africa. And at the expense of the vast majority of South Africans, who see no benefit from the supernormal profits made abroad by a small class of capitalists and managers. When disenfranchised workers feeling the hit of the structural decline at home challenge the system – see Marikana – their massacre is covered up as ‘accidental’. Even the xenophobic crowds encouraged by the justificationist rhetoric of some government leaders are quickly disciplined through military force, after they carry out their ‘dirty’ deeds.

Make no mistake: pinning this solely on Zuma and the ANC would be unfair, and politically naive. There is a clear, if tacit, consensus across the national mainstream: the DA, the main opposition party – and its most powerful supporters, the white elites controlling top business – are in full agreement with the ANC leadership on the basic tenets of the expansionist post-apartheid state. Whenever serious threats to state rule and big capital interests arise, order should be restored. At all costs, as Marikana and the migrants’ pogroms painfully remind us.


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