Revolution#135, July 13, 2008

Immigration and Capitalist Dynamics

Immigration and immigrant labor in South Africa has a long history and one that is deeply rooted in the workings of imperialism in South Africa and Southern Africa in general. The Berlin Conference (1884-1885), where the European imperialist powers divided up Africa along arbitrarily drawn borderlines, created a situation where cross-border cultural, family, and tribal ties were commonplace. Since then there have been more Tswanas in South Africa than in Botswana, more Swazis than in Swaziland, and more Basothos than in Lesotho.

The discovery of diamonds in the 1860s and gold in 1886 gave birth to the migrant contract labor system which in turn helped spark massive population migrations into South Africa. The countries surrounding South Africa became labor reserves, feeding desperately poor and cheap labor to be superexploited in the mines surrounding Johannesburg and Kimberly. In turn, the economies of many of these same countries became dependent on this migrant contract labor system for foreign exchange and their own economic survival.

All of this has been brought to new heights of savage exploitation and oppression as imperialism continues to dominate and devastate all of Africa in different ways. The workings of imperialism throughout Africa today—from utter neglect to ruthless exploitation and even corporate sponsored “native” armies waging terrible civil wars over resources and wealth—has dramatically increased the migrant refugee population. People desperately trying to escape genocidal wars in the Congo or Sudan join people fleeing the drought and starvation of other parts of Africa. And they join Zimbabweans fleeing the repression of the Mugabe government and a completely collapsed economy. They all head to South Africa, which has the biggest economy on the continent and a political reputation for being more open to accepting refugees and immigrants.

There are anywhere from three to five million immigrants in South Africa today—many if not most are undocumented and considered to be “illegal.” The vast majority of undocumented immigrants are from Zimbabwe—estimates range from just over one million to three million—and much of the Zimbabwean economy depends on the money and commodities it receives from this migrant labor. The overall immigrant population in South Africa is growing at an incredible rate. While the native South African population growth is estimated at 2.4%, the foreign born growth rate has been as high as 19% in the past 12 months.

Similar to the situation facing undocumented immigrants inside the U.S., the South African economy needs the profit it reaps from these immigrants. As part of creating a situation where immigrants are forced to live in the shadows, terrorized and willing to work for whatever wage offered, the South African regime has unleashed a campaign of raids, arrests, and deportations of “illegals.” According to the International Organization for Migration, the South African government deported 102,413 undocumented immigrants to Zimbabwe between January and June of 2007 alone, a monthly average of 17,000 people. Living in this kind of terror, the undocumented immigrants are preyed on by the mines, factories, and farms of South Africa. In fact, this rapid growth in undocumented immigrants has corresponded to a shrinking of the “legal” contract laborers brought into the mines from other countries.

As native South Africans and immigrants are forced to compete with each other to survive, tension is created and in this context it doesn’t take much to set off a terrible situation when two very desperate groups of people are set off against each another. Each one blames the other for their suffering. And the lack of a revolutionary leadership ensures that each group will remain blind to its real interests and be played by the imperialist system. This is what is so horribly on display now with the anti-immigrant riots.

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