South Africa is emerging from the most severe spate of xenophobic attacks since 2008, although the attacks have never really stopped. What lessons need to be learned from the latest attacks, and what needs to be done to prevent similar attacks from taking place in the future?
A key problem is political leaders’ ongoing ambivalence towards foreigners. Many lapse into the temptation to scapegoat foreigners for a range of social ills, to deflect attention from their own performance. Who can forget ANC Secretary-general Gwede Mantashe’s blaming of foreign-born left activists for fomenting unrest in the platinum belt?
In a more recent case of xenophobic foot-in-mouth, Mantashe argued for a ‘clear relationship between locals and foreigners’, and for refugee camps to make it easier to document foreigners.
Mantashe is not the only person to raise the need for tighter controls of foreigners: King Goodwill Zwelithini issued an elaborate set of instructions to traditional leaders to increase surveillance of foreigners in areas falling under their authority. Their views are clearly shared by many in government.
Underpinning these statements is an exclusive ‘us-and-them’ nationalism, premised on sealing South African identity up from influences from the rest of the region. Mantashe and Zwelithini have essentialised South African national identity for self-serving reasons. Yet the lessons of nation formation throughout Africa show that these identities are not frozen in time; in fact, people juggle identities all the time.
It is of the upmost importance that political leaders are not allowed to lapse into national chauvinism. Instead, they should promote an inclusive approach to nation building, which is capable of evolving and incorporating regional influences.
Then there are basic rights questions. The rights to freedom of movement, and to seek a better life elsewhere, are fundamental human rights. They stand above narrow national boundaries; that is why they are universal. Official arguments that rights belong to nationals only ring hollow. Yet the South African government continues to ignore this basic fact.
South Africa is not the only country seeking to tighten border controls. The richer North is adopting tougher controls to stem the migration of people from the more impoverished, conflict-ridden South. Thousands of Africans and Arabs continue to risk (and lose) their lives in desperate boat trips across the Mediterranean or South Americans across the Rio Grande. South Africa is adopting the same futile, unsustainable approach to the migration question; namely to turn itself into a fortress.
Despite many officials mouthing platitudes about the need to stop violence against foreigners, the reality is that xenophobia persists in society because it is embedded in the state. For as long as this is the case, tragically, outbreaks of violence are likely to recur.
The government practices doublespeak on the question of xenophobia. It condemns the attacks out of one corner of its mouth (after initially denying their xenophobic nature), and promotes discourses of exclusion out of the other. This it does by framing migration as a problem to be controlled, rather than as a basic human right and a resource capable of enriching a country’s socio-economic life.
Rather than addressing the underlying factors driving migration into South Africa, the government is turning migration into a national security threat, requiring the intervention of the security cluster. It is pursuing a more securitised response to the immigration question by deploying more troops to the border, and expediting plans to establish the Border Management Agency to strengthen South Africa’s border security.
Recent policing interventions have reinforced in the public mind the xenophobic relationship between foreign nationals and crime. The troops have also been deployed to various hotspots, ostensibly to assist the police in stemming the xenophobic violence and to root out crime through the controversial Operation Feila.
There are signs that the army has used xenophobia as a cloak behind which to harass the very foreign nationals they are meant to be protecting, and suppress dissent in areas like Thembelihle informal settlement. This is unsurprising: the coercive capacities of the state are not politically neutral. In moments of crisis, they are often deployed in the ruling elite’s narrow self-interest, rather than the universal interest.
It has become apparent that there is a deeper political agenda afoot in the government’s response to the xenophobia question. There can be little doubt that the government under Jacob Zuma wants to increase the coercive capacities of the state. This it wants to do to exert control over increasingly restive populations - foreign and local - through a combination of surveillance and brute force.
But it needs consent to expand the security cluster’s powers, which is proving increasingly difficult to obtain as the state uses more violence against its citizens. So it has to create moral panics to convince voting citizens that they are under threat and in need of protection.
The government cannot use terrorism as a reason, as countries in the North have done, as South Africa faces no major terrorist threat. Crime has proved to be a useful reason, and now xenophobia provides them with another reason.
Violence against foreign nationals serves a broader political purpose, as do the threats of greater surveillance. It keeps them insecure, which makes their presence in the country more precarious, and more exploitable.
Furthermore, since the 2008 attacks, foreign nationals in South Africa have become much more organised. Some have engaged in physical self-defence to protect themselves against the most recent attacks.
After all, the criminal justice system has a dismal record of bringing the perpetrators to book, which has exposed its systemic biases against those the state has branded problem populations: immigrants, striking workers, unemployed protestors, shack-dwellers. In response to this development, the state is asserting its authority on the pretext that it has to maintain a monopoly on the means of violence.
Not enough attention has been paid in media discourses to understanding xenophobia as a social phenomenon, and the work that the concept is being made to perform in South Africa. Xenophobia is not an irrational set of beliefs; it plays a regulatory role in that it creates the conditions for continued unequal exchange in Southern Africa, to the benefit of South Africa.
The government is securitising and militarising its borders to prevent labour from Southern Africa from entering the country; yet South African capital is allowed to roam freely in the region. So there is a Pan-Africanism for capital, but not for labour.
However, there is one exception to this general rule. South Africa does encourage immigrants who have scarce skills to work in the country: an employment regime, which reinforces the country’s warped ‘high-skills, high-wage’ economy. So government is prepared to look the other way on the immigration question if it serves the neoliberal agenda.
The official argument for limiting the freedom of movement of foreigners is really an argument to maintain, and intensify, unequal exchange between South Africa and the region. South Africa’s wealth is built, in part, on extraction of surplus value from the region.
Now it wants to prevent those who contributed to making what South Africa is today from benefiting from the country’s relative prosperity. South Africa cannot be a contributor to the problem of regional instability, and then complain about it.
Although anti-xenophobia messages play an important role in reducing social conflict, xenophobia cannot be eradicated simply by calling on people to change their attitudes to foreigners. These attitudes are underpinned by an exploitative system that benefits from prejudice and violence. Unless the system is changed, the material base for xenophobia will continue.
One of the most unexamined contributors to the xenophobic violence is the official obsession with borders. The need for countries to have borders has become so self-evident that their necessity has reached the level of commonsense. Yet many African nations have emerged from colonial boundaries, which imposed irrational divisions on previously united communities.
These boundaries do not serve the interests of the region’s most oppressed and exploited - including in South Africa – whose destiny must be a shared one that lies in unity rather than division. The most sustainable, socially just response to xenophobia is to open the region’s borders to migrants, rather than to seal them up even more. But regional integration needs to take place on terms set by labour, rather than capital.
The counter-argument will inevitably be that integration is unworkable, as South Africa does not have the resources to support such a decision. However, arguments that foreign nationals are stealing South African jobs and dominating the informal sector are not supported by recent research. The size of the migrant community in the country is relatively small, and South Africa’s capital-intensive growth path is the biggest contributor by far, to local job losses.
South Africa is on a fundamentally wrong path when it comes to dealing with xenophobia. Politically, it is important to recognise that the ANC is a divided house on the integration question, but in the wake of the most recent attacks, the securocrats seem to be winning the battle against the democrats. Only when it moves away from tightening borders, will the attacks stop. Progressive movements throughout the region, and in fact the world, should settle for nothing less.
Written by Jane Duncan, Professor of Journalism at the University of Johannesburg.
First published by The South African Civil Society Information Service
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