For the last ten days the word has been violence spurred by xenophobia. Nothing can justify the levels it has reached, but it certainly begs explanation, understanding and rational, long-term, solutions. A common definition of ‘xenophobia’ will hold it as “a strong feeling of dislike or fear of people from other countries.” Is this really what explains the appalling scenes from Johannesburg’s shacklands being shown in the media all over the world? I do not believe that South Africans in general fundamentally ‘dislike’ people from other countries, but there is certainly some degree of ‘fear’ behind the shameful attacks against foreigners of the last few days. So, perhaps ‘xenophobia’ only explains part of the issue - more precisely, the part arising from fear. But fear of what exactly?
I think it is safe to posit that it might be fear of being engulfed, overtaken, swamped by massive inflows of economic migrants from all over the continent. Fear of losing out on a totally uncontrolled competition for access to all of their already meagre sources of survival: jobs (or just the increasingly fewer employment opportunities available), housing (or just the decreasing space for their own shacks or more solid and larger houses for their families), marketplace (or just their shrinking share of the local informal markets), food (just bound to become even more expensive and of limited availability as the current food crisis spreads around the globe), health (compounded by the AIDS pandemic in the region) and education (whatever little of it they may access in a financially restricted educational system).
In short, fear of losing out on an open competition for scarce resources and extremely limited opportunities. Hardly anything new elsewhere in the world or in South Africa itself. In effect, Black South Africans have seen the chances of improvement in their living standards undercut by labour competition from the region and the wider continent for more than a century, particularly in the backbone of the country’s economy: the mining industry.
A brief look at the economic history of the Johannesburg region (also known as the ‘Witwatersrand’, or simply the ‘Rand’) tells us that monopsonic control (i.e. control of the labour market by a single employer that sets all rules and wages) of recruiting for the mining industry was vital for the ‘Randlords’. The mining industry was faced with diminishing returns and rising costs of operation, which could not be passed on to the consumer due to the fixed price of gold. Therefore, it vitally depended on the institutionalisation of oscillant migrant labour: only an infinitely elastic supply of labour at rates lower than its marginal product could guarantee profitability.
Monopsonistic organisation of employers, especially in its ability to generate economies of scale by reducing the costs of recruiting, transportation and accommodation of migrants from outside South Africa, prevented competition for labour from pushing wages up. This required an immobilised, disorganised and dependent labour force, the maintenance of which was guaranteed by an array of segregationist policies restricting access of Africans to skilled jobs and their permanent urbanisation, thus hindering their ability to acquire and develop bargaining skills.
In 1893, the South African Chamber of Mines established a ‘Native Labour Department’ with the explicit objective of taking “active steps for the gradual reduction of native wages to a reasonable level.” This was followed, in 1896, by the creation of the ‘Rand Native Labour Association’ which, a year later, claimed to have promoted an increase in employment by over 500% above its level in 1890 “without any appreciable rise in wages.” By the end of the century, the organisation of recruiting had managed to increase the level of African employment by 600% at a wage rate below what it had been at the beginning of the mining industry.
Yet, in spite of that achievement, competition for regional labour still prevailed in the industry and, in 1900, employers created the ‘Witwatersrand Native Labour Association’ (WNLA), which was the only body allowed to recruit in Mozambique, the main source of labour supply. The WNLA was to structurally define the regional labour market, for the rest of the last century to this day, as one of dependency for migrant workers and permanent low wages for Black South Africans – certainly lower than what they could have been if not for the institutionalised influxes of foreign migrant labour.
It is against this historical background that the growing tensions, conflicts and, ultimately, extreme violence of the last few days ought to be analysed. Of course, since the end of Apartheid, a mere 14 years ago, substantial changes have occurred in the nature of institutional relations within South Africa and between the countries in the region and in the structure of the regional labour market, translating into a relatively stronger bargaining power for the South African labour force. Along the last century, there was also a significant diversification of the South African economy away from the mining industry.
However, and in spite of the prevailing status of South Africa as the regional powerhouse, poverty and social exclusion levels in the country have not decreased sufficiently as to offset the potentially distortionary effects on the local economy of a permanent influx of economic migrants from all over the continent, as far afield as Nigeria and, for the best part of the last decade, particularly from Zimbabwe. Although official figures show only around 120,000 people applying for asylum in South Africa in the last decade, at least another million Africans - and some estimates say two million - have moved there (figures from 2005). And this time without any regulator, such as the WNLA, to somehow control it. To quote Mamphela Ramphele, Co- Chair of the Global Commission on International Migration, “South Africa is finding it difficult to absorb the flows of immigrants, which have increased faster than the South African economy. We are like a little Europe, without her resources.”
This is a reality that the South African government, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the African Union (AU) have to tackle with unwavering determination. In particular, SADC and the AU have, more than ever before, the duty, under their existing general legal and institutional frameworks and specific sectoral protocols, to regulate economic migration fluxes within the continent in such a way as to guarantee that both migrants and host country residents have their economic, social and human rights protected.
Moreover, all countries in the continent (and here I am particularly thinking about my own country of origin, Angola, which has also been attracting significant levels of migrants from all over the continent and the rest of the world since the end of the war) must understand the current events as a desperate cry from the poor and socially excluded for their governments to put their houses in order, i.e. to improve their economic and governance performances, and in particular their income redistribution policies and social support systems, in order to, if not totally stem, at least make the current levels and specific directions of intra-continental migration controllable overall. Only such an integrated approach to the problem can turn migration into a productive, culturally and humanly enriching experience to the benefit of the entire continent.
Finally, to all brothers and sisters, victims and perpetrators of the unspeakable acts of violence of the last few days in Johannesburg, I would like to dedicate this song, Chileshe, about which Bra Masekela said: "We first recorded this song in 1968 on the 'Promise of A Future' album. People from Jo’burg always thought of themselves as being much more advanced, civilised and hipper than anybody that did not grow up there, especially people from the outlying provinces like Northern Transvaal, Kwa-Zulu Natal, Mozambique, Zambia, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Malawi, Swaziland. I was also thinking about how the whites used to ill-treat us and call us 'Kaffirs' and all kinds of dirty names. The song is a call to those who are denigrated and vilified by these attitudes to stand up proudly and not allow themselves to be called derogatory names like 'Mighirighamba', 'Makirimane', 'Makwankwies', 'Makhafula', etc. With the influx today of peoples from all over the African diaspora into South Africa, the level of xenophobia has risen to disgusting heights. Most paradoxically, the song is even more popular amongst black South Africans today and is deeply loved by the new immigrants which helped the 'Black To The Future' album to platinum heights."
*The title refers to this poem by Gil Scott-Heron
 Figures from Wilson F., Labour in the South African Gold Mines 1911-1969, (Cambridge UP, 1972)
Other references: Katzenellenbogen S., South Africa and Southern Mozambique: Labour, Railways and Trade in the Making of a Relationship, (Manchester, Manchester UP, 1982); Milazi D., The Politics and Economics of Lbour Migration in Southern Africa (1984); Crush J., Jeeves A. & Yudelman D., South Africa’s Labor Empire – A History of Black Migrancy to the Gold Mines, (Oxford, Westview Press, 1991)
Article also published at Africanpath