Xenophobic demons linger in SA

It is now five years since much of South Africa was shocked by the xenophobic violence that began in Alexandra township, then spread to other areas in Gauteng and the Western Cape. After the first domestic military intervention since 1994, the violence subsided. More than 60 people were dead, hundreds of thousands displaced and tens of thousands had to shelter in hastily erected camps through the winter.

This violence revealed two demons that still threaten South African society. The first is embodied in migrants themselves. Thanks to decades of negative discourse and practice, people out of place – migrants – remain an object of suspicion. We often see them as threats: to safety, employment and progressive transformation. In the imagination of many, they loom as thieves and criminals set to rob the country and its citizens of their most valuable assets. At best, they are seen as victims of capitalist exploitation or hapless governments on the continent.

There are historical reasons for this demonisation, but we need not search hard to locate a fundamental unease with human mobility – not just immigration but also domestic migration – in post-apartheid urban development plans, security programmes and, ironically, strategies for promoting social cohesion.

The second demon is a society, or parts of it, willing to turn violently on those living peacefully within it. The violence of May 2008 was hand to hand, neighbour against neighbour. Those killed were not killed at a distance but hacked with machetes, burned in their homes or bludgeoned with wooden giraffes and auto parts.

Criminality was by definition part of the game but these were not attacks made under cover. The perpetrators boasted openly to the global media about their actions – and their intention to do more. This demon remained confined to particular areas but, if not controlled, it threatens to take up residence elsewhere.

Five years on, have we tamed these demons? The answer depends on who and how you ask the question. To be sure, there has not been another violent outbreak to match the 2008 attacks, though we came close after the World Cup.

Overcoming xenophobia
Xenophobia has largely been displaced, in public and political discourse, by the broader discussions on social cohesion. This suggests we have overcome xenophobia and some officials have said as much. And, when we look at diverse communities around the country, there is indeed room for optimism.

In Bushbuckridge, parts of Soweto and the townships near Mafeking, foreigners have lived peacefully with South Africans for decades. In most of the country, citizens of varied races, language groups and religions live side by side in a way that is remarkable. There may be discrimination and suspicion, but people have found a way to make it work.

This may not mean the demons are tamed. When the mayor of Newcastle is called a "Gupta" and told to "go home", we should be worried.

In 2012, in a kind of inclusive chauvinism, rioters in Rustenburg threatened "Indian" South African shopkeepers with violence and taunts, calling them makwerekwere, a term previously reserved for foreigners of African origin. Around the country, people of Asian and Indian descent, including those who have lived here for generations, confront such sentiments – as do foreigners from across the continent and beyond.

These are not empty threats. In 2011, at least 120 foreign nationals were killed. Some were undoubtedly victims of ordinary crime but the deaths of the five who were burnt alive point to something more sinister. During 2012, at least 140 foreign nationals were killed, many of them grotesquely and intimately, and 250 seriously injured. In 2013, at least three major incidents are being reported each week, most rooted in business competition; almost all are shrouded in the language of hatred and discrimination.

Moreover, violence once confined largely to Gauteng and the Western Cape has spread to all the nine provinces. What was once a distinctly urban phenomenon is now also visible in small towns and on farms. These numbers would be much higher were we able to track hate crimes against ethnic minorities (let alone gay and lesbian people or other demonised groups).

Perhaps this is not surprising: most of the 2008 perpetrators remain on the street, some in houses they summarily "attached", others in positions of authority or in businesses gained through violent appropriation. In an era of mass unemployment and inequality, violence pays.

Business ownership
Perhaps most worrying is that the cries that helped to mobilise the 2008 melee have not been universally countered or condemned by those entrusted with promoting our inclusive Constitution.

Rather, in its peace and stability discussion document and its proposals for immigration reform and its evolving approach to small business, the ruling ANC has incorporated the gangsters' calls to severely restrict immigration and foreign business ownership.

The demon of intolerance and exclusion has not been tamed; it has been given a fancier set of clothes.

Beyond immigration, how far have we come in addressing questions of intolerance and violence? A look back at 2008 reminds us that a third of those killed were South Africans (the rest were foreign nationals).

But national discussions about social cohesion and discrimination almost entirely exclude questions of ethnicity and immigration. Race and class matter but relying on them alone blinds us.

We should look beyond the established categories of apartheid and post-apartheid politics so that we can disaggregate the people who populate our country's town and cities and the processes that unite and divide them.

Difficult to dislodge
We must recognise that conflicting systems of rights and regulation exist in the country. Only some of these are shaped by the Constitution: these may be inclusive but others are not. Operating beyond the law, these orders typically rely on violence for their preservation. They are often woven into our social fabric and remarkably difficult to dislodge.

Looking back, we repeatedly hear how the horrific 2012 events at Marikana fundamentally challenged the legitimacy of governing structures – police, politicians, unions – giving us cause to rethink the nature of politics and the society we are building. The 2008 xenophobic attacks have done no such thing.

It is time to ask ourselves uncomfortable questions. At stake are the ethics of living with diversity, the nature of social membership, the value of rights and law, and the means of building unity in a country still characterised by division, inequality and fragmented institutions.

In doing so, we must applaud ordinary South Africans and other residents who contest discourses of exclusion while forging vernacular meanings and modalities of community. Perhaps our political leaders will develop the courage to learn from them.

Loren B Landau is the director of the African Centre for Migration and Society at the University of the Witwatersrand

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Loren B
Guest Author
Landau 1
Guest Author

Related stories


Subscribers only

Q&A Sessions: George Euvrard, the brains behind our cryptic crossword

George Euvrard spoke to Athandiwe Saba about his passion for education, clues on how to solve his crosswords and the importance of celebrating South Africa.

Poachers in prisons tell their stories

Interviews with offenders provide insight into the structure of illegal wildlife trade networks

More top stories

Covid claims Zimbabwe’s foreign minister amid surge in cases

Sibusiso Moyo, the third Zimbabwean minister to die from the virus, was a potential successor to the president

No one should be as rich as Elon Musk

The reactions to Elon Musk’s billionaire status are evidence that far too many South Africans have not fully grasped the destructive consequences of inequality. Entrepreneur...

Department of basic education edges closer to releasing matric results

The basic education department has said that it is almost done with the marking process and that the capturing of marks is in progress.

The rare fairytale of Percy Tau

Through much hard work and a bit of good fortune, the South African attacker has converted a potential horror story into magic

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…