OPINION: Will anti-immigration populism be the death of South Africa's democracy?

Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba.
Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba.
Gallo Images

One wonders what advantage leaders derive from invoking issues of identity and nationality in dealing with criminal elements, except to incite xenophobic and Afrophobic sentiments from innocent citizens, writes Zenzo Moyo.

The past few years have witnessed a decline in democracy as we know it, with the election into power of neoliberal, inward looking political demagogues like Donald Trump in the United States, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Narendra Modi in India, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and recently, Boris Johnson in the United Kingdom. The above are polarising figures who are united in their narrow-nationalism postures seeking to promote a crude version of nationalistic conservatism, not-so-subtle racism and pro-market populist policies.

In addition to these populist leaders are many insurgent opposition parties in Europe (like UKIP in the UK; Alternative for Germany and National Front in France) that have supported each other in their populist anti-establishment, anti-immigration positions, crystallising the birth of the "local", while characterising immigrants as an embodiment of all social maladies. This does not inspire hope about the future of democracy. 

But what makes these former models of democracy slide towards fascism? Above all, can Africa, and South Africa in particular avoid this decline in global humanism, which seems to be defined by anti-immigration and super neoliberal policies?  

An upcoming talk by Giorgio Romano Schutte, a Brazilian intellectual, will give some insight into this. Professor Schutte has been invited by the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA) to give insight into the global decline in humanism and leftist politics, drawing on the Latin American experience.

ANALYSIS: The foreign invasion? How the anti-immigrant backlash makes us all unsafe

Interrogation of what happened before and after the clashes of August 1 leaves one wondering if the country's political elite has not fallen into the "anti-humanism" trap which has defined demagogic global trends outlined above.

After the clashes, social media went into overdrive, with many accusing the police of being cowards running away from illegal immigrants. Others, including political leaders called for foreign nationals in South Africa to be put in their "place". A week after the clashes, operation #OkaeMolao was conducted by security agencies, and over 500 immigrants were arrested, partly as criminal suspects, but also to verify their status in South Africa.

There is no doubt that there are many foreign nationals in South Africa who are deeply involved in criminality. However, aside from being an illegal immigrant, there are no other criminal acts that are exclusively a preserve of either immigrants or citizens. Thus, it becomes wrong to conflate migration, identity and criminality as if one is a precondition for the other. Those who commit crime should be treated the same, regardless of the person's identity. Surely the rights of suspects should be observed in a non-discriminatory manner.

This is why the tactical withdrawal by the police on that fateful day should be applauded rather than denigrated. Without withdrawing, many people would have perished on that day, and a multi-pronged diplomatic crisis would have been ignited, had it not been for that brilliant and decisive leadership by whoever was in charge of the police.

A day after these clashes, Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba tweeted, "I am deeply hurt and devastated to wake up this morning to learn that not a single criminal is arrested after a blatant disregard of our country's laws… [emphasis added]".  The mayor went on to accuse the Department of Home Affairs for being "complicit" in this criminality because of its failure to police South Africa's porous borders.

This kind of speak is now consistent with Mashaba. In February 2019, for example, he attempted to divert attention away from demonstrations against poor service delivery in Alexandra by accusing Home Affairs and foreigners of making it difficult for the city to provide proper service to citizens: "Please assist us to get @HomeAffairsSA to deal with undocumented foreigner nationals in Alexander (sic). Uncontrolled number of people in Alex is a challenge way beyond the @CityofJoburgZA competency", he wrote. Body mapping, and the characterisation of foreigners as bodies of crime distracts from the deleterious tendencies of neoliberal planning, for which the DA is synonymous with. 

One wonders what advantage leaders derive from invoking issues of identity and nationality in dealing with criminal elements, except that such invocations, more than anything else, will incite xenophobic and Afrophobic sentiments from innocent citizens, whose logical reaction to such views cannot be assumed.

To define the ghastly criminal acts of August 1 within a failed immigration framework is to miss the fundamental genesis of the very criminal behaviour that such views seek to eliminate. It also circumvents the need to address foundational questions necessary to avoid a repeat of the violence such as: What is the City's role in regulating informal trading? How can the City address the spatial dynamics of informal businesses that have fostered different forms of exclusion on race, gender and class?  

Abusing people's fears for selfish ends

With the bolstering of neoliberal policies in South Africa, levels of unemployment have drastically risen, informalisation of livelihoods has continued to increase, and competition for political power at all cost has taken over. As aptly expressed by Arjun Appadurai, today's connection between leaders and followers has become accidental, mainly informed by overlaps between leaders' ambitions and strategies, and followers' fears, wounds and anger. The mayor's tweets as quoted above are not very far from abusing people's genuine fears and wounds for selfish ends.

The objective of the police raid which led to the violence must be questioned if one is to shun the pitfalls of accepting too quickly the basic arguments given by the political elite. The goal of the raid, we are told, was to confiscate counterfeit goods being sold by the informal traders. Occasional confiscation of goods is but a minute fraction of the story in the value chain. There is massive corruption involved – from the point of where these goods are received at ports of entry, their transportation inland into Johannesburg, to the security forces who often forewarn when raids take place. This cannot be ignored.

But again, corruption is just but one aspect of a complex issue. There are also consumers of these products, who often are very poor households, with low or no income. It may be morally wrong for them to consume counterfeit goods, but what alternatives are they offered? The fight against poverty cannot be a secondary outcome of a "stable" economy that emerges only after one rids it of counterfeit goods. Since regulation and survival must happen simultaneously, the poor must be given alternatives, or the potentiality of sliding back to the status quo becomes a given. 

The attempt by political leaders to "foreignise" criminality in South Africa is likely to undo the gains of the political culture which defined the liberation struggle, and shaped post-apartheid democracy.  Simplifying a very complex problem of criminality – narrowing it down to the ineptitude of the Department of Home Affairs – all for the purpose of consolidating political power, possibly with an eye on the ultimate position in the land, is a threat to democracy. It is worth remembering that Bolsonaro and Johnson, with their prejudiced dispositions, rose from councillorship positions to occupy the highest offices in their respective countries.

The forthcoming Mapungubwe Annual Lecture will provide a platform to identify patterns of populism and unreason in South African politics. Prof Schutte's insights into Brazil's 2018 electoral outcomes will provide valuable lessons for South Africa before voters embrace fascism as a "progressive" alternative, in the process peripheralising the source of the socio-economic crises the country is facing.

- Zenzo Moyo, PhD, is a researcher at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA). The Mapungubwe Annual Lecture 2019 by Professor Giorgio Romano Schutte on "The Age of Unreason and Ignominy" will be on the September 4, 2019, at the University of Johannesburg. More information here.

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