Mob violence sets SA xenophobia apart

The responses to the January 2015 looting of foreign-owned shops in Soweto and in April in Durban’s central business district and elsewhere reveal more about the South African national consciousness than the events themselves. The ritual condemnations, the initial denial of xenophobia while labelling it criminality, blaming victims and the convoluted excuses of perpetrators are almost worse than the official silence and long-standing passivity about well-known xenophobic attitudes. When the president insists that “South Africans in general are not xenophobic”, he ignores all surveys (such as Afrobarometer’s) showing that a vast majority distrusts (black) foreigners, wishes to restrict their residence rights and prohibits the eventual acquisition of citizenship.

On these scores South African attitudes are not unique. Anti-immigrant hostility inflicts most European societies. Perhaps suspicion of strangers is even universal: preferential kin selection as an evolutionary advantage, as sociobiologists assert. What is uniquely South African is the ferocious mob violence against fellow Africans. Why?

The structural violence of apartheid laws has continued in the post-apartheid era for many reasons: the breakdown of family cohesion in poor areas so that brutalised youngsters are not shamed, loss of moral legitimacy by government institutions, particularly a dysfunctional justice system, the glorification of violence in the armed struggle against apartheid and, above all, marginalised slum-dwellers learning that they only receive attention when they act destructively. Despite a rule-bound Constitution for conflict resolution, 43% of those canvassed in a representative survey in the Western Cape agreed with the suggestion that “it is sometimes necessary to use violence in support for a just cause”.

Only after two weeks of denial did the government acknowledge the emergency in response to business repercussions in the rest of Africa and the deteriorating image of the country abroad. In 2014, at the US-Africa Leaders Summit, former South African ambassador to the US Ebrahim Rasool declared South Africa “a moral superpower”, able to teach the world the way Nelson Mandela managed conflict resolution. In this view, liberated citizens cannot be xenophobic if the image of a glorified rainbow nation is to be salvaged.

Belated recognition
Admitting racism toward fellow Africans would deprive the ruling party of the moral high ground. The belated recognition of xenophobia, the unanimous condemnations of violence and noble solidarity marches have reinvigorated civil society organisations, but will not change attitudes on their own. That South African political exiles were welcomed in African countries in the past hardly affects a generation with a limited historical consciousness.


Most media explanations of these hate crimes are far too rational to grasp underlying psychological causes. The very presence of thriving Somali shops insults unsuccessful, impoverished township dwellers. They endure daily exposure as failures. Envy breeds resentment. Perceived humiliation fuels scapegoating. Low self-esteem searches for enhanced identity. Powerless people empower themselves by attacking those below them.

As the ruling elite enriches itself by looting the state, the forgotten slum-dwellers claim their share by collecting the crumbs from the vulnerable amakwerekwere (foreigners). The derogatory label this time included not only other Africans, mainly Somalis, but Pakistani and Bangladeshi informal traders as well.

Sensitive scholars such as Francis Nyamnjoh have already hinted that the “bizarre nativity game of exclusionary violence” could easily expand from “outsiders within” to longtime insiders, such as Indian South Africans, coloureds and whites. Retribalisation has been relatively successfully contained by the ANC and its ally, the South African Communist Party, in public discourse, but it nevertheless simmers under the surface.

The more meagre the pie in an economic downturn, the more a negative solidarity of ethnic nepotism comes to the fore. During apartheid, anybody in tribal clothing was ridiculed by the progressive movement, but nowadays influential traditional leaders in leopard skins can incite xenophobia without officially being called to order.

Hunger and poverty do not drive frenzied youngsters to rob stores or stab their owners. Drug addiction does. Most looters own cellphones; stealing vouchers for airtime is a priority.

Breakdown of the family
The breakdown of family cohesion in mostly fatherless township households has eliminated shame and neutralised moral inhibitions. Overburdened mothers, often without maintenance payments by the absentee fathers, are unable as sole breadwinners to provide the emotional intimacy and security needed by youngsters. Gangs function as family substitutes and identity enhancers. Underqualified township teachers have utterly failed to instill in pupils the political literacy that would help them comprehend global migration.

South Africans of all hues cultivate the exceptionalism of being in Africa but not of Africa. Newcomers from the alien, dark continent are not to be trusted. Well-qualified foreign science and mathematics teachers could function as role models, besides raising standards, but the teachers’ union does not welcome cosmopolitan non-nationals into its ranks, let alone being lectured on political education.

Competition for jobs by unemployed youth amounts to a cliché. Looting schoolchildren are not yet in the job market. Neither does alleged inequality between foreigners and locals explain the antagonism. Somali tenants mostly start from scratch with loans from relatives; they frequently employ locals, extend credit to customers and pay their rent on time. They work longer, harder and sell cheaper, because of the small profit margin and an ethos of “collective entrepreneurship”.

Self-hate by locals fuels envy of successful foreigners. In economic terms, societies around the world have benefitted from the skills and hard work of newcomers. Yet such reasoning does not persuade losers in the competition for scarce resources, which is perceived as a zero-sum game.

Why can’t locals emulate the foreigners and learn from them? Why can’t they also buy wholesale and introduce smaller mark-ups? “We don’t trust each other,” answered many local respondents in our research. In an atomised space of marginalised people, mutual trust of responsible citizens amounts to a delusion. The very notion of community is problematic. At the most, an exclusionary solidarity exempts local shops from being looted, but not equally poor blacks from outside being attacked.

Heribert Adam and Kogila Moodley are sociologists at Simon Fraser University and the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. They were resident fellows of the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced study, and the results of their project were published as Imagined Liberation: Xenophobia, Citizenship and Identity in South Africa, Germany and Canada (Sun Press).

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