Cases of Covid-19 have surged in the Eastern Cape.
Where does South Africa’s Afrophobic violence come from? The standard responses to this question suggest that poverty and joblessness are primary causes. But this view underestimates the legacies of migrant labour and the influence of persistent double-rootedness on the politics of our cities.
South Africa is 60% urbanised and this will rise to more than 70% by 2030. The image produced is of a one-way flow of people from the rural areas to the cities, but this is a skewed picture because it ignores continuing intra-regional migration and urbanisation.
Those living in deeper rural areas in the former homelands move closer to small towns and local service centres, aggregating on the edges of these urban areas. The urban sprawl around Butterworth, Mthatha and Sterkspruit in the former Transkei testifies to how significant these processes have become. The popularity of short-range migration, especially for women with children, is related to the fact that black South Africans still want to remain connected to their rural homesteads, despite widespread and increasing urbanisation.
For those who move to the large cities, the rural heartlands remain social and cultural anchors for family stability, personal identity and social reproduction. These are places where members of urbanising families expect to retire and die, and where they hope their children will go to come of age, get married and, eventually, return to live.
The practice of remaining connected to the “old nation”, the ancestral landscapes of home and older family identities and cultural values, remains significant today precisely because the current generation is caught up in the swirling tide of uncertain urbanisation and social dislocation. In fact, as the post-apartheid democratic order falters and the promise of a “better” life slips away into disillusionment and anger, nostalgia builds and images of rural restoration resurface.
In the former homelands, one hears more and more people say that things were “better” under the puppet leaders installed under apartheid: Lucas Mangope, Kaiser Matanzima and Lennox Sebe. These former homeland leaders are remembered now because they did something “at home”, in places that matter to people, and did not cast their subjects out to endure the soulless modernity and de-cultured urbanity that came to stalk the land.
The hopeful idea is that the new nation, zwelitsha in Xhosa, seems to have lost purchase because too many have lost contact with the old nation. This seems inexcusable for a country that is so embedded in the cultural and social practices of oscillating migration. Of course, the constant shifting between town and country was necessitated and enforced through colonialism and apartheid, but it also became desired as part of the home-making culture of the country itself, in which white people went to coastal caravan parks and beach houses to restore their souls, while Africans returned to their rural homesteads to cleanse their bodies and souls of the corrosive influences of racism, whiteness and the city.
To be a genuine, worthy citizen of the new South Africa requires a moral and political commitment to this double-rootedness, of knowing where you come from. Those who refuse this imperative suffer the possibility of madness, and those who forget their home as they are seduced by greed can lose contact with ubuntu and develop pathological forms of behaviour and identity.
In this context, homeless Africans from other countries may be viewed as selfishly, persistently and blindly committed to profiteering, extractive forms of capitalism, drug trafficking and moral degeneration, all of which makes them marginal, dangerous figures in the township and the city landscape, disturbing established notions of shared poverty and survival among South Africans at the urban margins.
Adding fuel to the fire, the African immigrants, who are constantly visible in the country’s informal settlements and townships, may even establish family and sexual relationships with domestic residents, threatening the monopoly on virtue claimed by local “sons of the soil”. The threat posed by the “foreigners” is not only a material one connected to poverty and jobs. In a context in which the political and cultural legacies of migrant labour persist, amakwerekwere (a derogatory name for foreign Africans) are often perceived more as a threat to national and ethnic social reproduction.
Twenty-five years ago, Zulu migrants stormed out of hostels on the East Rand to fight the ANC and Xhosa migrants ostensibly to defend the Inkatha Freedom Party and their Zulu ethnicity. Today, they take to the streets, not to beat their fellow South Africans, but to chase away foreigners. These men have no interest in running shoe or clothing stores on the streets, or selling vetkoek or cigarettes. They perceive this as women’s work. Their Afrophobia is underpinned more by their concern about industrial job loses, which affect men, and questions of social proximity, moral corruption and opportunism on the streets. It is the cultural and moral profile of amakwerekwere, the nature of their urbanity, their apparent homelessness and their lack of respect, rather than the material gains they have made, that offend the South African men of the township and the countryside most directly.
It is not women who lead the violence against the African immigrants, even though they may have the most to lose from their economic success. It is the men who reach for their sticks and balaclavas, flooding into public spaces to “wash” the streets clean. The “washing” is done, not primarily for material gain or as some strategy against poverty; it is also for the cause of moral, cultural and social restoration and entitlement — to facilitate double-rooted forms of social reproduction.
By approaching the xenophobic violence from the perspective of social reproduction, a better understanding of some of its peculiar social dynamics can be reached, such as the fact that many of the attacks are led by men with strong rural connections, including the residents of hostels; the fact that women are relatively distanced from the violence; the fact that the violence and pillaging is focused most intensely on immigrants from other African countries rather than those from East Asia, or white people.
From a cultural perspective, the violence of “washing” is generally not about exclusion as much as it is about “disciplining” or “correcting”. Black South Africans in the townships do not generally hold the view that African nationals have no right to be there. Their concern rather is about appropriate forms of behaviour and respect, stemming from a long history of migrant labour and the social construction of ethnicity in South Africa.
Leslie Bank is a deputy executive director at the Human Sciences Research Council and a professor of social anthropology at Walter Sisulu University. This article is based on his new book, a co-edited volume, Migrant Labour After Apartheid: The Inside Story