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Unemployment brings with it the stench of xenophobia

By Terry Bell, in Business Report
9 June 2000

The turbulence of unemployment is stirring the social waters, causing a poisonous scum of xenophobia to rise to the surface. It threatens to suffocate the still delicate shoots of human rights which have begun to consign the rubbish of apartheid to the deeper recesses of our section of the global pond.

Not that those behind the turbulence are the ideologically motivated racists of the recent past. They are very much a post-apartheid phenomenon: high-profile - and apparently growing - organisations professing to speak for the legions of the country`s unemployed and not attached to the labour movement. Their stirring, directed at the foreigners, the makwere-kwere, is giving renewed life to the very same filth which choked and distorted life in South Africa for so many years.

But it seems likely that most followers of these movements take up the attitudes and actions they do out of ignorance and irrational fear of what they do not know or understand. This is personified and dehumanised in the term, makwere-kwere.

But such ignorance and fear also benefit those who are opposed to trade unions and to the gains made by the labour movement over years of struggle. Movements based on this foundation also undermine economically and socially the very groups they profess to represent.

"A second tier labour market already exists and this is going to pull everybody down," said Chez Milani, general secretary of Fedusa. "We need to be able to raise everybody`s standards."

Cosatu spokesman Siphiwe Mgcina agreed. "We do not believe that half a loaf is better than none," he said. "We need sustainable, regulated job creation."

The status and often quite comfortable lifestyles of several self-styled advocates of the most deprived sector of the population were also noted by a number of trade unions, several of whom have links with organisations of the unemployed. In Mpumalanga, for example, the Cosatu federation was instrumental in uniting several unemployed groups.

Unlike organisations such as the Malamulela Social Movement for the Unemployment (MSMU) and the apparently more militant and certainly more xenophobic Unemployed Movement (Umsa), these groups lack the resources and capacity to adopt a high media profile. In a few cases they have some access to shared - and usually inadequate - facilities in trade union offices.

They certainly lack the mobilising ability of Umsa, which staged a march in Pretoria yesterday to protest to the labour ministry about the closure of satellite labour department offices.

It was a protest which could have been supported by the trade union movement, since it amounts to the removal of a service relied on by working people. But the demonstration also carried with it dreadful memories of an earlier Umsa march.

In September 1998 Umsa supporters, returning to Johannesburg from a protest in Pretoria, threw to their deaths from a speeding train two Senegalese and a Mozambican who were the targets of "anti-foreigner" feeling. The act was not condoned by Umsa, but the movement`s leadership has continued to target "foreigners" as being primarily responsible for job losses and poverty in South Africa.

"One hundred percent that is so," said Godfrey Dibiela, the president of Umsa. "They will work for wages that are lower than we can live on because we pay for services."

The MSMU does not lay such stress on the foreigner element. Under the banners of self-sufficiency and initiative, this registered non-profit organisation, which publishes its fund raising number on its letterhead, advertises its services to employers to provide "a compliant, flexible labour force".

At the same time, the MSMU maintains that it is not acting as a labour broker and undermining trade union organisation. According to president Thabang Mokotong, the MSMU is working to establish "a second tier market". This would be a market which would employ previously unemployed people in "those businesses which are not unionised".

The MSMU dismisses out of hand surveys by various academic organisations and by the International Labour Organisation which reveal that South Africa`s labour laws are not the cause of job losses and of the present constriction in the labour market. The organisation says it trusts "our own surveys".

However, these seem based largely on the hopeful interpretation of expressed employer prejudice. "We ask employers and they say that if the laws were different they would employ more people," noted an official MSMU statement which echoes the call of some employers for effective deregulation of the labour market.

"It`s dangerous nonsense," said Mahlomola Skhosana, the deputy general secretary of Nactu.

"And it would be very interesting to know who pays for the offices, secretaries and cellphones of these organisations."

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