Dissecting and contextualising Xenophobic violence in South Africa

By Brindley J Fortuin

Published 3 months ago in Africa and Opinion

southafrica afrophobia xenophobia

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Quartz Africa

South Africa is inherently a xenophobic (read afrophobic) country. When the regime of Apartheid was replaced by an African National Congress (ANC) led government we saw a nationalist project implemented. Above all, I think this nationalist project was aimed at introducing those classified as  ‘non-whites’, Africans or blacks into the mainstream society. Black people could no longer be the scapegoat nor the political minority. But in a country, fresh in democracy, where governance is ruled by majoritarian politics a new minority had to reproduce. It is time above all that the South African government realizes that it aided the production of a new scapegoat and minority: African Foreign Nationals.
 
I remember observations I made years ago as a teenager when I saw the visuals of xenophobic violence on SABC 2’s seven o’clock news bulletin. Reports on the outbreak of xenophobic violence were, interestingly, discussed in my home, school and broader community. This was interesting particularly because home was situated on the periphery of Cape Town and rarely had a voice in national politics. Afterall, during Apartheid the role of townships and ghetto settlements physically removed black people from the central city and thereby structurally excluded their access to the state and political expression. One sentiment of legitimization for senseless violence directed at human beings under xenophobic circumstances was that “These foreigners just steal our jobs and sell drugs”. I have noticed that this sentiment is most popular on the ground - sometimes far away from the watchful eyes of the media that are preoccupied with the government’s response to the xenophobic violence. The destructive power of these (ultra) nationalist sentiments that are essentially anti-immigrant is the universality of its applicability. Across the world we see the same justification for violent policing of borders and anti-immigrant violence and in these instances the United States of America has much in common with the Republic of South Africa. While this is essential, I want to impart the importance of recognizing the sentiments that every-day South Africans hold, after-all it is them that torch and kill our fellow Africans. Understanding this is crucial because this is not only the sentiment of the people but also that of the government. African foreign nationals became the scapegoat for economic hardship and lacking transnational drugs legislation and measurements. Simultaneously, this very sentiment became political legitimization for a lack of proactive, effective and structural leadership by the South African government.
 
The question burning in my mind is well, who do we blame? Not blame, who should be held accountable? I would like to start with the South African government. They have failed in their attempt at a rejuvenating nationalism to build a healthy South African society that is inclusive. Of course, this sort of project is not the sole responsibility of the government but seeing as the South African state prides itself on state-led development, the sword of accountability falls upon their shoulders first. This is evident with the condemnation by some South Africans and other organizations of the president’s message of ‘condemnation’. National ministerial summits, dialogues, and extensive consultative processes remain arrogantly ignorant of a key component: These processes or quasi-attempts at addressing xenophobic violence are void of the ordinary South African. These processes happen in national processes of which the majority of black people and perpetrators of xenophobic violence simply do not have access to. A top-down approach, only, is therefore not effective at addressing immediate concerns of xenophobic violence which I believe is the protection of the lives of African foreign nationals in this country. The South African government simply does not realize how historical and complex xenophobic violence is and thus their responses are reactionary by nature. Proactive engagement with xenophobia in South Africa would require political acknowledgement and coordinated actionable interventions that could be implemented socially. National government continues to deny the xenophobic violence, yet conveniently acknowledges it when violence reaches international attention. 
 
The first step towards political proactiveness is acknowledging that South Africa’s nationalism post-1994 has cast African migrants as an unwelcome minority. The emphasis on nationalism is important because it extends the recognition beyond party politics into the realm of nation-building itself. If South Africa can interrogate how its nationhood is premised on the indigenous, productive ‘us’ vs the corrupt, violent ‘them’, then it helps envision a South Africa where the nation could possibly be less violent towards other Africans. Yet, the nation is not just an abstract phenomenon that is driven by politics, it is comprised of people. Since this violence is perpetrated by citizens of South Africa and not a coordinated state-sanctioned military response, signals the presence of xenophobia in everyday social life. Violent attacks happen in streets, shops, homes and neighbourhoods. Community Based Organisations (CBOs) thus have the potential to facilitate projects and processes that aim to educate and dissuade violence with the tangible support of local government. Ward councillors and municipal officers have access to state resources ranging from community halls,  educational resources and funding to support programmes of social education and integration. This partnership of civil society actors could harness a more proactive and engaging response to xenophobia before it escalates to xenophobic violence. Religious organisations such as churches still have powerful influence in charting social discourse and values within South Africa. Many of these organisations have been active in providing spaces of learning and acceptance within societies. Including religious organisations and other institutions such as schools allows for a more localised process of social change. Naturally, just like with all processes of social change there will be resistance, but having that dialogue and programmes initiated by communities itself helps root out everyday expressions of xenophobia. Concurrently, the national government, criticised at the beginning of this paragraph, will have a mandate to build a national discourse that disarms ill informed conceptions of foreign African nationals and chart political and legislative pathways to resisting preventing violence. 
 
Anti-immigration sentiments which paints foreign African nationals as druglords manifests in many localised forms of violent xenophobic attacks. The recent incident in Pretoria where a taxi-driver was killed is in its nature, tragic as the taxi-driver is heralded as a hero. It is reported that he was doing his part in fighting an alarmingly growing drug problem in South Africa. A growing drug problem often attributed to foreign African nationals within South Africa. This is commendable and yet we are forced to politicize his death and consequent events after all this is what we do best in South Africa, we utilize death as a catalyst for discussion, outrage, and reform. The national outrage at the horrific loss of Uyinene Mrwetyana’s life is proof of a collective outrage towards violence but many of anti-violence interventions are continuously reactionary instead of proactive interventions. Yet, I am hopeful. The discussion is happening, the outrage is fuelling and demanding serious accountability in both our everyday lives and in the political sphere. Religious organizations are rethinking their silence on this epidemic of violence and I get WhatsApp texts from members of my friends and family who I assumed were indifferent to these outbreaks of violence. Something is stirring in our consciousness and our pressure is visible and felt. The recent manifestation of xenophobic violence is thus not isolated, it is very much historical and a continuous lived reality. The introduction of drugs into the narrative is one that provides an opportunity to delve into the complexity of xenophobic violence. It is inhumane that African foreign nationals must exist in fear. It is equally heartbreaking to witness the destruction of drugs sows. This recent expression of xenophobic violence sheds light on how lacklustre responses to transnational drug crimes and the illegal drug economy in South Africa has the potential to destabilize even the national security of our country. Is our government present or is the internal state war (between the executive, judiciary and chapter nine institutions) weakening state capacity to, well, govern?
 
I ask myself what can I do? After all, I do not make policy, neither can I magically inject respect and human compassion in the minds of South Africans. My reality is that I do not quite know what to do. However, I know that this episode of xenophobic violence needs historical and structural contextualization. It needs a serious and strategic response by the South African government. It is seriously highlighting the frustration and violent voices of South Africans. Under no circumstances can xenophobia be seen as rational, I do not even want to create that impression or entertain that idea. In the end, we South Africans cannot convince ourselves that African foreign nationals steal jobs and are responsible for our challenge with drugs. Those who are convinced by these stereotypes would soon realise that unemployment is structural and historical and that drug distribution forms part of a global drug trade stretching within and outside of Africa. It is begging us to review how we see and treat African foreign nationals in this country especially since their movement (I intentionally ignore the term migration) to South Africa is seen as more detestably than movement from Americans and Europeans to this country. After all, Americans and Europeans bring money and resources and African foreign nationals steal and sell drugs, right Mr President? Right, South Africa?

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