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Tracing the roots of attacks on poor African migrants

African labourers were easily dispensable, and by and large their families became an extension of their labour, although not compensated, says the writer.

African labourers were easily dispensable, and by and large their families became an extension of their labour, although not compensated, says the writer.

Published Jul 1, 2022


Yonela Mlambo

Cape Town - The aberration and othering of fellow Africans in the South African migration and immigration discourse is the manifestation of the state (un)-holy trinity; market libidinal desire of Africa’s cheap labour, state docility to the market desires, and populist migration and immigration public discourse.

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All three factors combine and intersect in an undistinguishable factor that fuels violent attacks on migrants that has been conceptualised to be xenophobic and Afrophobic attacks.

Since the discovery of mineral resources in South Africa in the 1800s, the market colluded with the then “state” to source cheap African labour throughout the country and from the southern African region for circular migration work in the mining industry.

The then “state” was complicit with the mining industry sourcing migrant labourers. The silence was informed by the then “state’s” unquenchable lust for taxation, thus it became silent on the issue of the legality and illegality of migrant workers.

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In the mining industry compounds and hostels, African labourers were subjected to tremendous inhuman and infantising treatment by the white self-declared semi-gods’ bosses, and were paid slave wages.

African labourers were easily dispensable, and by and large their families became an extension of their labour, although not compensated.

Literature is abundant on the dispensability of African labourers by the market, and in particular the mining industry.

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The Marikana massacre that the nationalist elite-led government conveniently refer to as tragedy is a stark reminder of the continuation of easy dispensability of African labourers in the mining industry.

At first and at last instance, modern state survival is buttressed in taxation.

The phenomenon of modern state survival buttressed in taxation therefore nudged the state to be complicit with the market, ignoring adherence to labour laws.

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For instance, Zimbabwe migrant workers on farms can work for the whole month without being paid.

When it is time to be compensated, the white farm owners have on occasion called the police to deport them for not having legal documents to be in the country. Unfortunately, the police do not probe the duration of these migrant workers’ presence on the farms, but rather deport them.

The docile deportation of Zimbabwean migrants is informed by the public outcry that migrant workers are taking “our jobs”, which leads to the violent and barbaric attacks on migrant workers.

The market benefits tremendously from this violence, thus it orchestrates it through employing migrant workers with either the possibility of paying them slave wages, or not paying them at all.

The market then has the audacity to take a victim posture, decrying the political environment as unstable for investment, after orchestrating the violence.

The state, because of its primary dependence on taxation for survival, quickly becomes hostile to the migrant workers and formulates a scapegoat public discourse buttressed in aberration and othering of fellow African migrants. The state, aided by the “I am revolutionist” nincompoop loafers begins to preach a deceptive gospel that migrants deplete public resources.

This ignites intense dislike of the poor African migrants, leading to what has been conceptualised as xenophobic and Afrophobic attacks.

UCT’s appointment of a Humanities, Social Science and Arts Executive Dean seems to be a deviant case. It is unlikely to hear from the “taking of our jobs” lexicon of the elite class. It is further important to mention that xenophobic and Afrophobic attacks do not adequately capture the complexity of attacks on African migrants.

Not all African migrants are attacked, but rather poor migrants are attacked. Rich and wealthy African migrants have not experienced violent attacks from fellow South Africans, although the immigration regime frustrates them and seems to be legislated to frustrate African migrants.

Mlambo is a master of philosophy candidate at UCT

Cape Times