South Africans continually frame xenophobic attacks and school protests as a result of chronic unemployment and/or manipulation of the general public by the political and economic elites.
Indeed a recent publication on a news site suggested that the recent spate of attacks against migrant truck drivers was due to the mobilisation of xenophobic tactics by political elites and the soaring levels of unemployment in the country.
While socio-economic conditions contribute to an extent to social disruption, the hostility and bitterness levelled against foreigners in the country is too deeply entrenched and shared by South Africans in different cleavages including class, race, ethnicity and gender to stem from economic deprivation.
These attacks are a performative display of South African citizenship that is rooted in a narrow division of society between those who belong and those who do not.
The opportunism of uMkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans Association (MKVA), which is using the instance to push a narrative of citizenship embedded in ethnic sentiment, exacerbates the issue. The All Truck Drivers Foundation (ATDF) and the MKVA are steering violence against foreign truck drivers to send a message to the government: that it is inadequate and has failed in enacting the socio-economic rights people were promised after the dispensation.
They also want to send a message to black African migrants that they are unwelcome in the post-apartheid state because they are too dark, they speak a different language or “act” differently. As such, they are not entitled to any rights or protections by the state. All of these messages are dressed in the language of national liberation, “putting South Africans First” to reinforce ethnicised and unconstitutional citizenship.
The ATDF and the MKVA use the performance of petrol-bombing and levelling violence against trucks that are supposedly driven by foreign workers to outline a new vision for South Africa’s political community. The two organisations eschew voicing discontent through voting or non-violent protest, in favour of violent mobilisation reviving strategies and discourses used in the late 1980s to make apartheid-South Africa “ungovernable.”
The approach helps frame the government as unjust and the ATDF and MKVA as the people’s torchbearers. They will do what the government cannot do: control “porous borders”, fight for the right of South Africans to have access to jobs in the country and establish a sovereign state dedicated to the welfare of its citizens.
By channelling their discontent in this way, they calibrate anti-migrant mobilisation with the anti-apartheid struggle and equating themselves as victims at the hands of the government. However, while they co-opt the language of national liberation, freedom and prosperity for South Africans seem far from their objective. They co-opt the language of national liberation to steer ethnicised citizenship.
The MKVA is no stranger to positioning itself as a militia that is ready for deployment against internal and external political opponents. Mainly, it has been vocal about its willingness to mobilise and resort to violence on behalf of former president Jacob Zuma. With its involvement in these attacks, it is trying to project itself as a hero to the general South African public; a hero willing to mobilise to ensure that South Africans have access to jobs.
However, it is not a national hero – its members are ethnically delimited agents of a faction working on behalf of Zuma. It is using attacks against foreign workers (not just truck drivers) to demonstrate its discontent and undermine the Ramaphosa faction, and also to reinforce an ethnicised South African citizenship.
For example, in Durban, the attacks by the MKVA also took on an ethnic sentiment where Zibuse Cele posited that the association wanted people who would trade pieces of Zulu heritage. Recently, the association sought the advice of King Zwelithini to mitigate the issue of immigrant workers in KwaZulu-Natal, and unemployment, because the government was inadequate.
This represents an attempt to construct boundaries of inclusion and exclusion around the symbols associated with the Zulu tribe, giving the constitution of citizenship an ethnic tinge that implicitly equates South African citizenship with being Zulu.
As such, the constitution of citizenship by the MKVA is particular, as it encompasses ethno-nationalist sentiment. As South African scholars, we are too eager to resort to materialist theories in an attempt to explain social phenomena, neglecting many socio-political dimensions at play.
The neglect and favouring of materialist theories to explain social phenomena in South Africa only seeks to obscure hidden differences and fails to contextualise the post-apartheid landscape properly. We remain unwilling to speak about ethnic discrimination even though we mumble about it daily at home, or have even been subjected to it by the people around us.
As a Zulu woman from the Free State, people (friends, acquaintances) have admonished me for speaking isiZulu and told me to use my “language with my people”, far too many times. It’s time we start talking about ethnicity and thinking about the ways it impacts on our understanding of South African citizenship, and how we relate to our African compatriots.
Overall, the targeting of migrant truck drivers in recent weeks is more than about frustrations with unemployment. It is a way in which the boundaries of the South African political community and citizenship are continuously imagined and re-imagined by the ATDF and MKVA – it is a performance of South African citizenship underlined by political opportunism, factional politics and ethnic division. DM
Sibongile Zulu is a DPhil candidate in International Development at the University of Oxford.
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