The violence against foreign nationals that recently swept across South Africa once again highlights core questions of identity, nation and what it means to be African. I have followed the news and read several commentaries. Achille Mbembe and Trevor Ncube have been among the brave non-South African voices that made a contribution based on their experiences of the different manifestations of xenophobia — or Afrophobia, as they would like to call it.

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These and others have been very helpful to those of us tracking issues from afar, but I feel that there is still something that is not being discussed. The dominant arguments on the matter don’t challenge us to collectively face this problem. They they do not necessarily hear the concerns of other.

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I think the South African brothers and sisters who took to the streets and engaged in violence against foreign nationals have some form of grievance. There is a need for a genuine audience to listen and take up their issues.

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My starting point is that the acts of violence are committed in the name of jobs and economic wellbeing. Foreign nationals are seen as getting too much of the national cake, at the expense of South Africans. We need to look at patterns of production and accumulation and see how foreign nationals have historically contributed to the South Africa economy — if they did.

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Historically, South Africa has benefited from migrant labour, especially on the farms and mines. Labour-recruiting stations for South African mines were established across the sub-region. Migrant labour was mostly underpaid; it was not accorded the rights and privileges that the unions demand today.

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The official process of recruiting foreign nationals to serve the needs of mines and farms may no longer exist, but it continues by informal means and continues to serve the goal of capital — profit maximisation. Today we have the massive exploitation of labour, with disastrous consequences, as seen at Marikana.

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Any attempt to look at acts of violence against foreign nationals living in townships as separate from struggles for better pay and better jobs is misguided. There is a close relationship, but there is a gap in articulation, mostly because of the way the working poor are organised or disorganised. It is the logic of capital accumulation that should be under scrutiny.

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Why do businesses prefer to employ foreigners? Not because they work better — that is just patronising. It’s because they are not unionised, and can easily be underpaid because they have no recourse.

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When South Africa attained freedom in 1994, expectations were high that with the end of colonisation and apartheid the sub-region was now ready for integration. Indeed, by then, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) had become a model of integration for other sub-regions, such as the East African and the West African blocs. Instead, efforts towards economic integration in Southern Africa slowed down.

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South Africa has played a major role in the sub-region, but its focus has mostly been on ensuring stability by facilitating dialogues, quelling coups and peacekeeping. Pretoria’s budget for diplomacy across sub-Saharan Africa is probably the biggest of any country on the continent. But South Africa has not focused on social and regional integration, which was originally the hope of the frontline states; rather, South Africa has sought to ensure stability to allow business to operate with no disruptions.

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South Africa is a sub-imperial force and an important intermediary for international capital. It has long worked by that logic, ensuring that the sub-region has peace and stability, intervening where its economic interests are under threat, as in Lesotho. It has not taken advantage of its advanced economy to pursue a model of regional integration that would ensure wider, equitable growth. Instead, working closely with the representatives of capital, it has pursued and defended its own economic interests.

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One of Jacob Zuma’s first trips into Africa as president of South Africa was to Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is telling that he was accompanied by businessmen with interests in mining and agriculture. Since the late 1990s, South Africa has financed shopping malls housing mostly South African retail shops and supermarkets, which have become a permanent landmark not only in Southern Africa but all the way to Accra, Ghana.

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In the extractive sector, mining houses owned by or aligned to South African have pursued a similar model, extracting primary commodities but with limited reinvestment in downstream and sidestream value chains. In some cases, companies use mostly South African labour on six-week rotations. In brief, South African companies have pursued a model of foreign direct investment in the rest of Africa, without reforming the model or attending to the concerns of their fellow Africans.

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Many African countries are currently experiencing very limited prospects of growth in national savings. This is because, despite widespread GDP growth, the share resources going to locals is insignificant, thanks to investors like South African companies who are quick to repatriate their profits.

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Ncube laments the fact that South Africa did not play a decisive role in constraining Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. I see it another way: that was probably never South Africa’s objective. Instead, they had huge economic interests to protect. One of the immediate outcomes of the South African-negotiated Government of National Unity was the awarding of a contract to resurface Zimbabwe’s major highway from Plumtree to Mutare via Bulawayo and Harare. The contract was awarded, without going to tender, on a build, operate and transfer basis, to South Africans — despite the fact that there had been a consortium of local businesses asking government for a similar deal.

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I am sure there are many other cases across the continent. I would like to submit to South Africa’s president that the answer to his question is that these are chickens merely coming back home to roost. If the economies near South Africa’s are not growing, labour will continue to flock to Egoli.

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To be fair, South Africa is not entirely responsible for the mess we are in. The governance records of many African countries leave a lot to be desired. But that does not affect my main argument about the role of South Africa on the continent and in particular Southern Africa. I have said that South Africa is a sub-imperial power, meaning that it does not have the capacity of an imperial power like the United States, for instance, but is in a position to act as an intermediary for imperial powers.

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South Africa is a member of the Brics group not just because it is an economic powerhouse but because it has the capacity, to quote South African Airways, to “take Africa to the world and the world to Africa”. It provides an excellent launching pad for many would-be investors into Africa, taking advantage of South Africa’s influential position in both SADC and also at the African Union to ensure a conducive business environment. South Africa has chosen to subordinate itself to the dictates of international capital and to preserve the status quo beyond its borders on behalf of business, rather than being the champion of the developing region.

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So what is to be done? The first imperative is to create jobs — honestly, this is a no-brainer. The doomsday prophecies of the collapse of the rand will always be there, but without the ANC taking a lead on being a developmental state it can only work on the margins, tinkering with welfare reforms, which in themselves may inhibit economic growth. Beyond that, I will not get into the murky waters of national economic policies.

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Currently the SADC is engaged in an attempt to roll out an industrialisation strategy. Although it has not yet been expressed officially, everyone knows that its success or failure will rest with South Africa. Is South Africa interested in a programme to assist member countries to industrialise, which may reduce their dependence on goods imported from South Africa? We will see.

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The creation and roll-out of an industrialisation strategy that benefits from agriculture and mining could create millions of job across the sub-region, lessening the lure of crossing the Limpopo in search of greener pastures. South Africa’s goal should be to help African countries grow their productive capacities — in other words, create incentives for people to stay in their countries.

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Xenphobic violence can’t be treated as an isolated event or as South Africa’s unique problem. It is systemic and regional in nature; those calling for a conference or summit on issue are absolutely right. South Africa’s current diplomatic efforts (sending ministers to different African capitals) is commendable, but it’s short-term. In the absence of a coherent South African and regional strategy, this is like patching together a badly damaged road — just wait for the next rains and see what happens.

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Next time, it may not just be the seven lives we have counted in this round.

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