Monday, May 26, 2008

Migrant Labour and Xenophobia in South Africa

Xenophobia tears apart South Africa's working class:

Behind some of this tension is the recent expansion of the hated migrant labour system. We thought in 1994 that the ANC government would slowly but surely rid the economy of migrancy, and turn single-sex dormitory hostels into decent family homes. But hostels remain, and in Johannesburg, the ghastly buildings full of unemployed men were the source of many attacks.

Even if racially-defined geographical areas have disappeared from apartheid-era Swiss-cheese maps, the economic logic of drawing inexpensive labour from distant sites is even more extreme (China has also mastered the trick), now that it no longer is stigmatised by apartheid connotations.

Instead of hailing from KwaZulu or Venda or Bophuthatswana or Transkei, the most desperate migrant workers in SA's major cities are from Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia – countries partially deindustrialised by Johannesburg capital's expansion up-continent.

In a brutally frank admission of self-interest regarding these workers, First National Bank chief economist Cees Bruggemann intoned to Business Report last week: ``They keep the cost of labour down... Their income gets spent here because they do not send the money back to their countries.''

If many immigrants don't send back remittances (because their wages are wickedly low and the cost of living here has soared), that in turn reminds us of how apartheid drew cheap labour from Bantustans: for many years women were coerced into supplying unpaid services -- child-rearing, healthcare and eldercare for retirees -- so as to reproduce fit male workers for the mines, factories and plantations.

Apartheid-era superprofits for capital were the result. Now, with more porous borders and the deep economic crisis Zimbabweans face (in part because South African President Thabo Mbeki still nurtures the Mugabe dictatorship), South African corporate earnings are roaring. After falling due to overproduction and class struggle during the 1970s-80s, profit rates here rose from 1994-2001 to 9th highest in the world, according to a Bank of England study, while the wage share fell from 5% over the same period.

So notwithstanding South Africa's national unemployment rate of 40%, a xenophobia-generated bottleneck in the supply of migrant labour could become a problem for capital, such as occured at Primrose Gold Mine near Johannesburg. The mine's workforce consists nearly entirely of Mozambicans, who much of last week stayed away due to fear, thus shutting the shafts.