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Mirroring the Structure of Oppression: Notes on Xenophobia


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Two weeks after the end of the 2010 fifa World Cup, the much-anticipated outbreak of xenophobic violence in South Africa has passed with only a few reported incidents. However, the renewed threats against foreigners coupled with the memory of the 2008 riots were enough to send thousands of people, both legal and illegal residents of South Africa, fleeing across the border. And, indeed, the fears of Somalis, Zimbabweans, Mozambicans and other Africans were validated by acute episodes of aggression directed at foreign shop owners in some parts of the Western Cape and Kya Sands, Johannesburg. This should be more than enough evidence to remind us that the structural conditions underpinning the 2008 riots have not been adequately examined or addressed, and thus, a conflagration of violence could be ignited again.

There have been a number of possible explanations given for xenophobia, but many fall into the category of frequently quoted hypotheses or ‘assumed wisdom.' Generally, commentators from civil society have said that violence erupts from competition over resources - high levels of unemployment, scab labour, low wages, poor service delivery and an overall dearth of opportunity. In contrast, spokespeople for the police and government, in both the Mbeki and Zuma administrations, have frequently denied the discourse of xenophobia and attributed the looting and banditry to a small coterie of opportunistic criminals.


Between these two narratives many questions remain. For instance, a significant number of South Africans were killed in the violence. Does this suggest that South Africa's form of ‘xenophobia' might actually be closer to local governance based on vigilantism and community-arbitrated justice? And what about the fact that all affected foreigners have been poor? Does this suggest that ‘xenophobia' may be part of a wider pattern of violence directed at the weak and vulnerable (including violence against women, children, the elderly)? Why are only some groups of foreigners targeted (all have been African) and why are only some communities caught up in violence? What has been the media's role in the attacks - are the papers simply reporting on what is happening or is it happening because it is reported? Certainly some of the violence is xenophobic, but are there other impulses being expressed as well?

Political theorist Leopold Podlashuc has written about the "fractal" replication of violence at all levels of society. He argues that the legitimacy of democracy is premised upon the ideal that the power of the state devolves to the citizenry, instead of accruing amongst the elite. However, this standard of egalitarian participation proves itself more mythical than real, as the popular democratic impulse only occurs once every five years at the ballot box. Power and citizenship, even under a democratic regime, is highly uneven: ‘deepest' amongst the political and economic leaders, and ‘shallowest' for the poor.


Many South Africans are frustrated by this mirage of equal franchise. They feel relatively powerless and exist in a world of perpetual stress and crisis. Their physical security is compromised by their limited access to basic resources and excessive exposure to crime, violence, and HIV. The ostentatious displays of wealth amongst a small group of high-flying entrepreneurs from business and government increases the frustration of the majority, who are unable to attain the same.

The appropriate response to these contradictions of democracy might be vertical confrontation, directed at the political and economic elite, and this occasionally occurs in the form of service delivery protests. However, such uprisings have been met with condemnation from local authorities and have failed to accelerate service delivery. Thus, for the most part, the poor dare not enact their vertical anger against a government that might one day deliver.

In the absence of formal governance and the rule of law, parallel systems, rooted in immediate forms of street justice, arbitration, vigilantism, and sometimes mob killing, are always emerging and co-existing (particularly in rural, peri-urban, and peripheral communities). All that is needed for violence to erupt is several strong leaders directing and channeling the anger of their constituents against an identified target.

The economically ‘disenfranchised' poor sublimate their anger and violent impulses partly towards women, the elderly, children, and partly towards those outside the discourse of citizenship and democracy, such as foreigners and migrants. ‘Xenophobic' violence - around Johannesburg in 2008, De Doorns in 2009, and Cape Town in 2010 - has been primarily perpetrated by young men, who recreate in minutiae the power relationships of society: in the same way the State empowers itself by disempowering its citizens, so too, these citizens empower themselves by further disempowering the vulnerable. Even the weakest among us can, as Erich Fromm (of the Frankfurt school) reminds us, transform our "impotence into the experience of omnipotence," by replicating systemic oppression.

And while the rioting against Somali store owners in the Western Cape may be attributed to opportunistic crime and business competition, this is merely a distraction. The structural production of power dovetails perfectly with opportunistic criminality, inciting young men, from communities of relative powerlessness, to act out against those weaker than themselves.

This suggests the rather frightening conclusion that xenophobia, as a phenomenon that diverts the anger of the electorate away from real political problems, might be fortuitous for the political and economic apparatus of the State. Instead of protests directed upwards toward the beneficiaries of the uneven distribution of opportunities, the violence is directed downwards toward relatively weaker members of society. This is why, as the Forced Migration Studies Programme at Wits University revealed, much of the 2008 violence was in some way inflamed or perpetuated by the direct action or negligence of local leaders and police.

Thus, attention is deflected away from the foreigner Sepp Blatter and his cohorts of FIFA sponsors and beneficiaries who walked away with billions of rands in earnings from the South African economy unhindered by exchange control. It also ignores the 5 largest South African construction companies who allegedly coordinated their tenders to ensure colossal profits from stadia-building and Eskom which allows the top 138 companies in South Africa to pay 9 times less for their electricity than the average citizen. It is also not directed against any number of "tenderprenures" and multi-million rand Mercedes-driving Ministers.

And so, while many questions remain, it seems that each element of our uneven society reifies and reinforces the structural production of power. Every time there is an opening for power to exert itself - the elite over the citizenry, the citizens over the migrants - it exacts itself in the same way, mirroring the structure of oppression.

Written by: Erin Torkelson, Researcher, Organised Crime and Money Laundering, ISS Cape Town



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