When President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the national state of disaster on March 15, many breathed a sigh of relief. We were witnessing a world being consumed by a new virus and many world leaders failing to take sufficient action. Our government’s early and decisive response communicated a desire to protect its people. Yet even then we knew the cost would be high, and it would mostly be paid by those already marginalised in our society.
In the past few months the world has seen more domestic and gender-based violence, more people losing their jobs as businesses close, and as the number of infections grow, more people without adequate healthcare.
And in a world that was already becoming more hospitable to xenophobic nationalisms, we read and hear about increased attacks on foreigners, especially those of Asian descent — any outsider is regarded as a threat, a potential carrier.
Although we speak of the “unprecedented times” we are living through, this kind of attack is not unprecedented. It is a common narrative in South Africa that foreigners should be kept out because they bring disease into the country. All kinds of xenophobic discrimination, exclusion and violence against people from other countries have been justified by the claim that “they” are the cause of diseases such as HIV, and moral “diseases” such as drug addiction and crime. That this is true only in some cases is irrelevant to the xenophobe; humans easily extrapolate from “some” or even “one” to “all”. The individual, collective and systemic causes of xenophobia, and its intersection with racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression, are complex in ways I cannot do justice to here.
Studying instances of xenophobic discrimination and violence, one thing becomes apparent: the choice of victim is not determined by the individual’s guilt, actions, legal status or even their nationality. It is enough that they exist here (wherever “here” may be), and that they are perceived as a foreigner by the xenophobe.
Xenophobia is therefore not a response to a specific threat — despite our rationalisations about crime and job scarcity and viruses — but to a perceived threat, where the perception is shaped by the xenophobe’s prejudices and stereotypes, and by our political narratives about belonging, borders, nationhood and membership. Such narratives shape our ideas about who has a right to belong or to exist here, and who does not.
The fear underlying such perceptions may have different origins or motivations. In the South African context, migration and development academic Loren Landau identifies a deep apprehension about the meaning of belonging. It’s an apprehension anthropologist Frances Nyamnjoh locates in a historically oppressed and excluded citizenry who, for the most part, still cannot meaningfully get the benefits and rights that come with membership.
Xenophobia is a reaction to a sense of insecurity, of not having a place where one belongs, and an accompanying attempt to establish security. As we face the fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic — rising unemployment, lower levels of food security, a weakened economy and individual and collective trauma — the xenophobic violence that is already characteristic of contemporary South Africa may become more prevalent and entrenched.
The irony is that the logic underlying such violence and such attempts to establish security and belonging preclude the possibility of establishing a more secure society, for it is a logic that seeks to exclude and even destroy that which is strange or new, and it inevitably becomes self-consuming. If belonging is rigidly defined and policed, the circle of who “truly belongs” will inevitably become smaller and smaller.
This logic stands opposed to what political theorist Hannah Arendt called the fundamental human capacity of natality — our ability to begin something new. This ability is the root of our freedom, as we constantly bring new things into the world through our actions and interactions with others. It is also unpredictable, which is why we often respond to it with fear and a desire to control it. In asserting control, we banish the new and the strange and the unpredictable — and our ability to act and exist freely.
The pandemic poses a challenge that, for most people, is new. We have reason to be afraid — to fear for our lives and livelihoods, to worry about the country and the world’s future. These fears have been closely tied to our fear of others for so long, and the pandemic makes breaking those ties so much harder.
It is harder to conceptualise a form of belonging that is not exclusionary when we are isolated from one another, when the risks of sharing the world with others are so evident, and when we do not even feel safe in our homes. We have seen examples of incredible selfishness and cruelty in this pandemic.
Predictably, some of the regulations put in place to protect and support people in South Africa during this time negatively affected foreigners in ways citizens were not affected, especially those that initially limited the activities of informal traders and workers.
Yet the newness and strangeness of our situation offers us an opportunity to reassess our assumptions, to create new world-shaping narratives and to act in unpredictable ways. After hurricanes or earthquakes, great fires or terrorist attacks, when people are on the edge of life and access to resources cannot be guaranteed, we do not only see dog-eat-dog competition, but also altruism, solidarity and empathy, often between people who under normal circumstances would not have reached out to each other. Uncertainty can make us hunker down, but it can also open our eyes to realities and injustices we were unable to see before.
As we create meaning in this pandemic and from this virus, as we analyse and live through the implications of the lockdown and as we try to rebuild and, perhaps, build anew, we need a critical awareness of the precarious position of foreigners in our society, as well as the true danger to a society when it does not protect its most vulnerable members.
Judy-Ann Cilliers is a postdoctoral researcher in the department of philosophy at Stellenbosch University