Xenophobia in South Africa has a history. It does not spring spontaneously from poverty but targets it and captures it. In Grahamstown, this history is as old as the town itself. By PADDY O’ HALLORAN.
Almost three weeks have passed since the start of xenophobic looting in Grahamstown that left 500 “foreign” shop owners and family members—most of them South African citizens—with nothing, and more than half of them displaced from their homes. Although looting sputtered out a week ago, and shops in and near the centre of town have opened again, most of the affected people remain displaced, and most shops remain shut. There is no viable plan for the people”s reintegration into the community.
Grahamstown is in deep political crisis. The community members who have worked against xenophobia, as well as the affected people, are sure of one thing: Makana Municipality and the local police have failed them, and, in some cases, actively contributed to the crisis. However, neither the events of the last two weeks nor the authorities” role in them are unfamiliar in the town”s history.
Grahamstown was founded as a military headquarters in 1812 during a vicious war waged by the British against the Xhosa, and it grew as a settler town from 1820. The voluntary arrival, and forced relocation of Africans to the immediate Grahamstown area during the 1830s and 1840s, spurred the colonial government”s decision to set up the first official African “locations” in Grahamstown. These were days when Africans were counted as “foreigners” in the Cape Colony. Through the latter half of the nineteenth century, fear and suspicion of Africans arriving in Grahamstown from further east on the advancing colonial frontier, inflected the particular racism of the town and region. In this xenophobic view, in which to be African was to live perpetually on the edge of criminality, to be “more African”, from the rural frontier, was even worse.
In the first years of the twentieth century, white Grahamstown identified “unemployed” people and “squatters” as the primary problems in town. These classifications denoted both “African” and “illegal”, since employment and a permit were requirements for Africans residing in both the government locations, and the newer municipal locations at the time. The Grahamstown Journal reported in 1908 that police were “carrying on a regular crusade against squatters and vagrants in the city locations”. Fifteen “illegal inhabitants” were arrested in a raid by mounted police in 1911, which led to protest action, and petitions that were ignored by the municipality.
Control of Grahamstown’s African residents was tightened in this period, while the problems they faced mounted. Legislation imposing curfews on Africans, providing for tyrannical lease agreements, limiting livestock, and advocating (as ever) the criminalisation of beer-brewing coincided with chronic water shortages, poor and insufficient housing, and deteriorating roads. In 1913, a petition was signed by 88 women because of the poor treatment of residents by a municipal official. The petition was rejected by the municipality on three grounds: it was delivered by women, three of them had signed the names for the others, and some of them had been convicted of illegally brewing beer. The last, beer brewing, was strongly linked to racist and xenophobic perceptions of “African-ness”.
Beer brewing was also a livelihood for many of Grahamstown’s African residents, mainly women. Municipal Beer Halls were built in Grahamstown in the 1930s, and home-brewing was once again defined as criminal. The ostensible objective was to use the revenue created by the Beer Halls to fund the management of the locations, a strategy that had been employed in Durban. In reality, the Municipal Beer Halls were a business, and the women who brewed at home were competitors. In the 1950s – during apartheid, when Africans were not counted as South African citizens – Grahamstown residents, mainly women, protested against the Beer Halls because they were corrupt, and offered no benefits to the residents. Nevertheless, Grahamstown’s Municipal Beer Halls endured until the 1980s, when they were burnt down.
None of this will be strange news in South Africa in 2015.
In April 2015, xenophobic attacks in Durban targeted foreign-born Africans, particularly Congolese people, as well as people from the Eastern Cape living in informal settlements. To be poor and African – the “more African”, the worse – were the criteria for victimisation. When members of Abahlali baseMjondolo organised a (legal) anti-xenophobia march, it was violently prevented by police. Abahlali identified the police, the ruling party, and local taxi drivers as supporters and instigators of xenophobic violence in Durban.
Shortly afterwards, beginning in July, Operation Fiela deployed South African Police Service (SAPS) and army units to combat crime by rounding up “foreigners” and other “illegal inhabitants”, including people who are part of land occupations around the country. Poor people, Africans from other countries, and Africans living in informal settlements are targeted. The same understanding that the authorities employed over a century ago in Grahamstown, which views “illegal inhabitants” (foreigners) and “unemployed people” as problems, is at work today. It legitimates, as it did in colonial Grahamstown, various forms of prejudicial politics and violence.
As in Durban, local politicians and businesses are implicated in Grahamstown”s xenophobic politics. Municipal councillors openly expressed xenophobic views in the first days of the looting, and Grahamstown”s taxi associations actively instigated and supported the looting by bearing xenophobic slogans and transporting looters for free, according to community members.
The police also have a central role. Inexplicably, SAPS have claimed that their “restoration of order” and “support” of the “foreigners” after the week of looting was a success for Operation Fiela. In contrast to this narrative, Grahamstown shop owners affected by the looting as well as members of the Unemployed People”s Movement (UPM), have recounted police behaviours that ranged from indifference, to laughing at people whose shops were being looted, to facilitation of and participation in the looting.
On 30 October, echoing protests of the past, women whose livelihoods have been destroyed by the recent looting, marched to Grahamstown’s City Hall. In addition to opposing xenophobia, their demands included provision of proper housing for all, addressing crime in the township, and the provision of water and other services – all nearly permanent causes for protest in Grahamstown for over a century and a half. The mayor refused to descend from the building to accept their memorandum or to speak with them. In the days before the march, as the municipality and police manoeuvred to prevent any public protest by the women, the mayor had told these women that she had “forgotten” about them.
Arguments have been made lately that xenophobia is a symptom of poverty. Racist explanations have invoked the rancid rhetoric of black people as innately, and irrationally violent. Historically, however, xenophobic politics have been strongly linked to colonial racism and to the manufacture of inequality still experienced in South Africa today. It has been a politics of oppression and control of poor people and “foreigners” – those who are deemed not to belong, who have most often been identified as Africans. The state, in its many forms from the colonial period through apartheid and into the post-1994 era, has actively participated in defining “foreignness” in ways that exclude poor, black people. Monopolies and business interests—beer, taxis, shops—have had a role in deciding who and what is “foreign”, in exclusion and inciting violence. In recent years, poor people have been mobilised against other poor people and Africans against other Africans in this project of exclusion, control, and oppression.
Still, despite the ways that inequality affects them, poor people fight can against exclusionary politics. Abahlali baseMjondolo in Durban is a highly visible example. In Grahamstown, UPM have been at the forefront of contesting xenophobia and working to assist the affected people. Meanwhile, police hunt for “illegal inhabitants” in a manner a century and more old, and the municipality “forgets” the women and leaves in limbo the displaced men whose livelihoods have been destroyed. In such ways, xenophobia is legitimated. Xenophobia in South Africa has a history. It does not spring spontaneously from poverty but targets it and captures it. In Grahamstown, this history is as old as the town itself. DM
Photo: Armed police stand guard while foreign shop owners try to salvage what is left after looters went on the rampage in Grahamstown. 21 October 2015. (Picture: DAVID MACGREGOR/ Daily Dispatch)