“I am not xenophobic … but …” – Nomvula Mokonyane (Minister of Water and Sanitation)

Xenophobia and populism: The ANC, EFF and United Front’s complex chase for SA’s mass base

DAILY MAVERICK

RANJENI MUNUSAMY 30 JAN 2015 02:17 (SOUTH AFRICA)

There is a lot of populist speak in the air these days. From issues of land and mining, to electricity and bridging the inequality gap, the major political organisations are trying to tap into popular sentiment. The Freedom Charter, in its 60th year, is back en vogue. There is no doubt that the radical speak of the Economic Freedom Fighters is forcing the African National Congress to adjust their own parlance to keep up and look as if radical economic transformation was their idea first. The United Front is a new player in the political milieu and is launching a ground level campaign to capture mass support. In the mix of issues is how they are dealing with the xenophobia phenomenon in the very constituencies they are all competing for. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

The ANC’s national executive committee (NEC) lekgotla earlier this week was not the place for new ideas. ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe said the meeting was mostly to assess the implementation of policies and programmes. “The NEC lekgotla was an opportunity for the ANC government to account to the ANC and the alliance broadly on the progress in delivering on the commitments made to our people during the 2014 general election,” Mantashe said at a media briefing on Wednesday.

And yet the lekgotla made some rather far-reaching decisions of land. “(The) lekgotla has resolved that there should be a ceiling on land ownership of a maximum 12,000 hectares or two farms for both natural and all forms of legal persons. Land ownership by foreign nationals will also be prohibited. They will however be able to access land through leaseholds. There will be compulsory declaration of land holdings by the propertied class,” Mantashe said.

Land reform has been lagging for years and the ANC has been saying for some time that the willing buyer-willing seller programme of land redistribution was unsuccessful. The proposals on land ownership however are new and possibly come as a result of pressure on the ANC to step up due to the Economic Freedom Fighters’ (EFF) concentrated focus on land issues. At its people’s assembly in December, the EFF resolved to embark on a campaign of land occupation to give land to the landless. The ANC, which says its programme of action this year will lean heavily on the Freedom Charter to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the document, needed to show it is also making radical moves on land.

The ballgame has clearly changed in the last 12 months. It is no longer the ANC setting the agenda and responding to issues as it sees it. The ruling party realises it is dealing with growing discontent on the ground, particularly in the poorest communities, and that it now has a new able competitor that is maximising and mobilising on that very discontent.

Last year, the ANC announced that “radical economic transformation”, the centrepiece of EFF policy, would define government’s programme of action. It did not. The budget constraints did not allow for it. There was also the tiny problem of the ANC being unable to define in real terms what exactly radical economic transformation is.

This year, it is all about the Freedom Charter. It was the cornerstone of the ANC’s anniversary statement and will apparently also define government work. The Freedom Charter has been the primary reference document for the EFF as well as metalworkers’ union Numsa as it charts a new political course. Numsa facilitated the formation of the new United Front, a collection of left-leaning organisations, all disenchanted with the ANC.

On Thursday the United Front announced the outcomes of its national working committee (NWC) meeting that covered a range of issues, from the electricity crisis to police brutality to the crippling of institutions in the criminal justice system. The United Front says it is undertaking a “bottom-up” mobilisation campaign to drum up support in communities ahead of its formal launch at the end of June.

“For many communities, the Front is proving to be a viable instrument of struggle… The NWC committed itself to firmly implant the building of the Front in ongoing struggles and campaigns,” United Front co-convenor Kwezilomso Mbandazayo said. She said the support the United Front had been getting from throughout the country was “exceptionally promising” and illustrated the “pressing need for a movement such as ours, given the endemic crisis in the country.”

United Front NWC member Dinga Sikwebu said more than five political parties have approached the United Front, wanting to join it. “They have been knocking on the door,” he said.

The United Front is now planning mass action campaign around key national days and major events. They will present an “alternate” state of the nation address “a day before President (Jacob) Zuma gives his misdiagnosis”. They have called a national day of action when finance minister Nhlanhla Nene presents the budget to counter the ANC’s “neo-liberal logic”. There will be a sustained campaign at local, provincial and national level to ensure the budget process is “democratised”.

On 21 March, Human Rights Day, the United Front is also planning mass action in defence of human rights, freedom of express and against police brutality. They will also focus on the outcomes of the Marikana Commission of Inquiry. On Freedom Day, 27 April, the United Front wants to hold community mass assemblies in townships, informal settlements, villages and small towns for people to speak out. Freedom Day should no longer be “appropriated by political elites mouthing off meaningless platitudes that demobilise and undermine the mass of the people,” the United Front NWC said.

It is also tapping into the sore spots in society, such as the electricity crisis. “The repeated claim by President Jacob Zuma that the reason for load-shedding is the generosity of the ANC government in providing electricity connections to poor black people after Apartheid ended, defies logic. The new consumers – 50% of all households – use less than 2% of all electricity as power has become extremely expensive in the last eight years and because of the inadequacy of the 50KW of free basic electricity.”

The United Front wants an emergency civil society conference on the electricity crisis and a judicial commission of inquiry to investigate contracts and tenders the Eskom management has entered into, senior management packages and remuneration and the delays in the construction of the Medupi and Kusile power plants.

But it is on the issue of xenophobia that the United Front is really taking the gap. The ANC and government have refused to categorise the attacks and looting of shops owned by foreign nationals in Soweto and other areas in Gauteng last week as a resurgence of xenophobia. United Front NWC member Ronnie Kasrils says after the 2008 xenophobic attacks that left 62 people dead, government established think tanks and conducted research on the phenomenon. He said none of the recommendations were implemented and if government had to recognise the recent attacks as xenophobia, it would be an admission of failure.

“By admitting to xenophobia, it would be admitting to continent and the world that we have in our society… this plague,” Kasrils said.

But there appears to be more to the ANC’s reaction to the attacks and looting than what meets the eye. At the ANC’s media briefing on Wednesday, Mantashe would not make an outright condemnation of the attacks. He also made a strange argument about the sequence of events, saying people were wrong to claim that looting of a foreign owned shop caused the Somali shopkeeper to shoot a 14-year-old boy, which then sparked the wave of looting. He said it was a “burglary not looting” that provoked the incident – as if this is a lesser or more justifiable crime.

Small business minister Lindiwe Zulu also sparked controversy by saying foreign business owners should share their trade secrets with local business people in order that they co-exist peacefully. She has since explained that this would contribute to integrating communities better.

Now it has emerged that water and sanitation minister Nomvula Mokonyane earlier this month expressed concern about the proliferation of foreign-owned businesses in townships. Mokonyane wrote on her Facebook wall on 2 January: “Almost every second outlet (spaza) or even former general dealer shops are run by people of Somali or Pakistan origin in a yard that we know who the original owners were… I am not xenophobic fellow comrades and friends but this is a recipe for disaster which I will raise with the authorities relevant. I also intend to get to hear as to how my local council is enforcing business and by laws in Kagiso.”

“This phenomenon needs a coherent formal attention. Our townships cannot be a site of subtle takeover and build up for other situations we have seen in other countries. I am ready to state my view formally in defence of our communities,” Mokonyane wrote.

The chief of staff in her office Collin Pitso said yesterday that the minister’s comments had no bearing on the recent spate of attacks. According to Sapa, Pitso said the looting of foreign-owned businesses was “unfortunate and can never be condoned”.

But there is yet to be an outright condemnation from the ANC against the xenophobia in townships and informal settlements. The cynical view, perhaps, is that foreign nationals have no power at the ballot box whereas those involved in the looting do. It would be appalling if this were in fact the motivation behind the ANC’s posture.

While the EFF condemned the Soweto attacks, they also did not use the word “xenophobia” in their media statement.

“We understand that it is painful for our people to see non-South Africans thrive in their own communities while they themselves live in sub-standard conditions. But let us be cognisant of the reality that the fault lies not with our African brothers and sisters, but with the neo-liberal and imperialist policies of the corrupt government of the ANC which continues to enrich themselves and their white monopoly capital cohorts,” the EFF said.

The United Front is not a political party competing at the polls and therefore can afford to be forthright.

“The United Front is outraged by the recent outbreak of violence in Soweto and elsewhere, especially against other Africans. We must act now before it spreads further. These explosions of xenophobia are not new and will overwhelm us if we do not act decisively.”

The United Front, together with community organisations, is holding a public meeting against xenophobia in Chiawelo, Soweto on Saturday. They are also calling for sustained education and action against xenophobia, as well as a “redirection of people’s anger and frustrations” against the “state of affairs perpetuated by political and economic elites”.

There is no doubt a new show is in town and the new players are cause for concern for the ANC. While the EFF is taking on the ANC in Parliament, on public platforms and via the media, the United Front is on a ground level offensive. While the poor, unemployed and working class masses have been largely neglected for many years, their attention is now much in demand. The tragedy, of course, is that after being the recipients of poor delivery and inattention, the poor could now be played for fools with militant rhetoric and hot air.

But the game is on for this very large, very disenchanted constituency; it is increasingly clear that this game has few rules and that the increased number of players will inevitably bring a new level of complexity. How the players will behave and whether their gambles will pay off remain to be seen, but there is no denying how high the stakes are. DM

Photo: Former intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils is seen at a news conference held by the United Front’s national working committee (NWC) in Johannesburg on Thursday, 29 January 2015. In the background is fellow NWC member Dinga Sikwebu. The United Front will hold an alternative state of the nation address ahead of President Jacob Zuma’s formal one next month. The organisation claimed that government’s programme of action and the budget would be about austerity. The United Front was formed by the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) following its decision in 2013 to stop supporting the African National Congress. Picture: Werner Beukes/Sapa

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