Xenophobia is a global crisis, but in South Africa, it takes a particularly violent form. The day-to-day accumulation of insults and harassment from within the state and society periodically mutates into open-streetMore
At the end of apartheid in 1994, only 36 percent of households in South Africa were electrified, with almost all white households having electric power and most Black households having no access to electricity. Ten years later, more than 80 percent of households were electrified. This was an important achievement, albeit one that mostly left out the residents of the rapidly growing shantytowns across the country.
But this progress came to a halt in 2007 when South Africa first began to endure “load shedding,” which is the cutting of power supply to different areas on a rotational basis. Load shedding, implemented when the state-owned electricity company Eskom is unable to provide power to the whole country and the electricity grid needs to be kept stable, seems to have reached a new nadir in recent days with most areas going without power for up to 12 hours a day. There have been warnings that total blackouts may be necessary.
Eskom has been unable to provide a stable supply of electricity for 15 years due to a lack of investment in keeping infrastructure up to date and its poor maintenance, a period of plunder under the kleptocratic regime of former President Jacob Zuma, and a longstanding state austerity program that has resulted in general disinvestment from state-owned companies.
The energy crisis has been very damaging to an economy already reeling from socially devastating deindustrialization, state austerity, and the increasing hold of political mafias over economic life. It has been estimated that load shedding has led to the economy losing R500 billion (just over $28 billion) since 2018, working out to about R1 billion per stage, per day.
South Africa has much higher rates of electricity connections compared to the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, where about 90 percent of the children who are able to afford a primary school education attend schools that do not have electricity. But with load shedding causing power to be off for much of the day many people in South Africa can often face similar conditions to those living in the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. Given that South Africa is currently the most unequal country in the world, the deepening energy crisis further widens the gulf between the rich and the poor, with the latter being overwhelmingly Black and comprising a largely female population.
According to the latest reports, more than 30.4 million people in South Africa live below the poverty line, out of a current population of 60.6 million. About 50 percent of the population lives on R1,335 a month, or approximately $75 a month. The basic cost of electricity for a low-income household is approximately between R1,100 and R1,500, which is already higher than what half the population subsists on. Along with widespread food insecurity, it is likely that the same population of more than 30 million South Africans also concurrently experience “energy poverty,” a term used to describe a situation in which electricity, gas, and other sources of energy bills make up a larger percentage of the household expenditure, making it difficult for South Africans to cover other costs such as food, rent, and clothing. Also, the reduced use of energy in households and workplaces has a negative impact on their physical and mental health. In shack settlements, the lack of electricity has long meant that people cook using candles and gas to light up their homes while living in cramped conditions resulting in regular fires, which are often devastating. With frequent load shedding, fires are now likely to become more common in other types of housing also.
Moreover, South Africa had the eighth highest murder rate in the world in 2020, and the fourth highest rate of gender-based violence in the world, according to 2016 figures. The increased hours of load shedding and the radical decrease of access to electrification will make this pervasive violence worse. A 2017 study carried out in Brazil on the socioeconomic impact of electrification found that it results in a significant decrease in gender-based violence due to better lighting in public spaces.
The burden of social reproduction has always largely fallen on the shoulders of women. Access to electricity can reduce this. An important 2021 study titled “Powering Households and Empowering Women” found that by freeing up women’s time poverty is reduced by creating opportunities for women and girls to develop livelihoods, enter the labor force, or focus on school. It can also reduce exposure to harmful indoor air pollutants, improve maternal health, and reduce gender-based violence.
Demand for the resolution of the electricity crisis has been one of the few issues that have helped bring the poor, the working class, and the middle class together. But, so far, the demands for the resolution of the crisis are not well organized and have been met with little more than platitudes by the ruling elites, including South African President Cyril Ramaphosa.
The African National Congress’s (ANC) commitment to neoliberal austerity has meant that there is insufficient investment in the state electricity company. Their only proposal is to move from state-owned coal-fired power stations, which are highly polluting, to privately owned renewable forms of energy. Currently, one of the best-placed people to benefit from this is the president’s billionaire brother-in-law, Patrice Motsepe, given his investments in renewable energy.
Trade unions in South Africa have insisted that while a move to renewables is welcomed, undertaking it via privatization will raise the costs of electric power for the poor and the working class and result in a bias toward serving the needs of the capitalists and the rich. They have proposed that renewables should be socially owned and managed.
The proposals from the unions have been ignored, austerity continues, and there has been minimal movement toward private electricity production. The situation is one of stasis.
Experts believe that very high rates of economically and socially damaging load shedding are likely to continue for at least the next three to four years. Many analysts have argued that this is likely to hit the ruling ANC very hard in the next presidential election, scheduled for 2024. A crisis in terms of electric power could lead to a loss of political power. With right-wing and xenophobic parties rapidly advancing, this is not cause for easy optimism.
South Africa will not move into the light until the social value of access to electricity is affirmed. The proposal by the trade unions for a shift to socially owned and managed renewable energy is the best option on the table. We need a solution that is for the majority and not the few.
This article was produced by Globetrotter.
Xenophobia is a global crisis, but in South Africa, it takes a particularly violent form. The day-to-day accumulation of insults and harassment from within the state and society periodically mutates into open-street violence in which people are beaten, hacked and burned to death. If there is a useful point of global comparison, it may be with the communal riots that rip Indian cities apart from time to time.
Women hold signs during a civil society groups march against the recent rise of xenophobic attacks in South Africa in2019, in Johannesburg’s Central Business District.
The state has tended to stand down while a neighbourhood is roiled with xenophobic violence. When it does move in, after the destruction, removal of people from their homes and killing have stopped, it usually arrives to arrest migrants rather than the perpetrators of the attacks. It is overwhelmingly impoverished and working-class African and Asian migrants who must face this pincer movement from the mob and the police.
The severity of the situation in South Africa first came to global attention in May 2008 when xenophobic violence, sometimes intersecting with the ethnic sentiment, took 62 lives. At the time, the country was ruled by Thabo Mbeki, a man with deep and genuine Pan-African commitments. But by the end of 2007, Jacob Zuma’s path to the presidency was clear, and the ethnic chauvinism he had introduced into the public sphere was rampant. The limited social support offered by the state was increasingly understood to be tied to identities such as ethnicity, nationality and claims to be part of long-established communities.
By the time that Zuma took the presidency in May 2009, it was common for party officials in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal to tell impoverished people that they had not received houses, or other entitlements, because of an “influx” of “foreigners” or people “from other provinces”—a euphemism for ethnic identity. There were cases where people, seeking the approval of political authority, began to “clean” their communities themselves.
Now, almost 15 years since the 2008 attacks, the situation is much worse. Most South Africans have lived in a state of permanent crisis since the colonial capture of land, cattle, and autonomy. But for most young people, that permanent crisis no longer takes the form of the ruthless exploitation of labour under racial capitalism. Last year, youth unemployment hit 77.4 percent, the highest out of all G20 countries. As Achille Mbembe, the Cameroonian philosopher who writes from Johannesburg, argued in 2011, the intersection of race and capitalism has rendered people as “waste.”
The pain of young lives lived in permanent suspension is often turned inward. There is a massive heroin epidemic, depression and anxiety are pervasive, and rates of violence, much of it gendered, are terrifying.
In this crisis of sustained social abandonment, there are attempts, sometimes extraordinarily courageous, to build forms of politics around the affirmation of human dignity. They have often met serious repression, including assassination. But unsurprisingly, there are also attempts to build forms of popular politics around xenophobia, some of them with fascistic elements. Young people, mostly men, are summoned to the authority of a demagogic leader, given a rudimentary uniform in the form of a T-shirt and the opportunity to exercise some power in the name of “cleaning” society. Perversity is dressed up as virtue.
At the same time, all the major political parties, including the ruling African National Congress (ANC), have moved sharply to the right and have become increasingly xenophobic. In government, the ANC has always run a highly exclusionary migration regime and is now moving to end the permits, established more than 10 years ago, that gave around 178,000 Zimbabweans the right to live, work and study in South Africa.
Its rhetoric has also moved sharply to the right. The party’s spokesperson, Pule Mabe, recently declared “open season on all illegal foreign nationals,” adding, “we can no longer guarantee their safety.” The party’s policy conference in early August proposed “a well-coordinated strategy for tracking down illegal foreigners.” That strategy explicitly included the recommendation that “ANC branches must take the lead in this regard.”
Many analysts take the view that the ANC, which has already lost control of many of South Africa’s major cities, will not be able to win the next national election in 2024. As the party faces the prospect of losing power for the first time since the end of apartheid, the temptation to scapegoat migrants for its failures is escalating. Alarmingly, the new parties taking the political space opened by the rapid decline in support for the ANC are more or less uniformly forms of authoritarian populism centrally organized around xenophobia.
Former business mogul turned politician Herman Mashaba’s ActionSA party, which is making rapid electoral advances, mixes hardcore neoliberalism with xenophobia. In 2018, Mashaba staged a “citizen’s arrest” of a migrant and then tweeted, “We are [not] going to sit back and allow people like you to bring us Ebolas in the name of small business. Health of our people first. Our health facilities are already stretched to the limit.” This conflation of a vulnerable minority with disease evokes the horrors of historical forms of fascist mobilization.
Public speech from the state, government and most political parties routinely conflates documented and undocumented migrants as “illegal foreigners,” “illegal foreigners” with criminals, and, in recent days, following a horrific gang rape on the outskirts of a decaying mining town, rapists. When the police come under pressure to respond to concern about criminality, they frequently arrest migrants, often including people with papers rather than perpetrators of actual crimes.
The mass-based organizations of the left, with political identities rooted, to a significant extent, in the factory, the mine or the land occupation have often opposed the turn to xenophobia, and it is common for migrants to hold positions of leadership in these kinds of organizations. But while they can provide nodes of refuge, they lack the power to effectively oppose the rapidly worsening situation at the national level.
With no national force with the vision and power to offer an emancipatory alternative to the poisonous politics, sometimes with fascist elements, that turns neighbours against each other, the country is on a knife edge.
This article was produced by Globetrotter.