Naming xenophobia

15th July 2015 By: Raymond Suttner

Naming xenophobia

Raymond Suttner
Photo by: Duane Daws

“Whatever is unnamed, undepicted in images, whatever is omitted from biography, censored in collections of letters, whatever is misnamed as something else, made difficult-to-come-by, whatever is buried in the memory by the collapse of meaning under inadequate or lying language – this will become not merely unspoken but unspeakable.” – Adrienne  Rich 

Reading African National Congress (ANC) MP and parliamentary committee chair Ruth Bhengu berating journalists for using the word “xenophobia” brought these words of Adrienne Rich to mind. Bhengu instructed:  “Media must report that it’s just attacks, not xenophobic attacks, which shifts the focus from the real issues.”

The parliamentary group she led comprised representatives from all political parties. None have departed from the script that the issue is crime and there is no xenophobia. In consequence, attempts to raise Operation Fiela and its impact on foreign migrants got short shrift.

As Rich, bell hooks and many others have indicated, how we name relationships, historical or current, has long been considered important by feminists. The powerful, those who dominate, those who have conquered, invariably claim the right to name the character and significance of what has transpired, and to erase or devalue the experiences of those who have suffered losses or been harmed in various ways. 

Equally, oppressed people who have experienced structural and personal injuries, where they have the capacity, have long considered “naming” an important step and a critical site of struggle.  That is why James Baldwin argues: “…when the oppressed name their oppression, they have taken the first step towards self-liberation.”

That is why naming was an important area of contestation in the political struggle against apartheid. The ANC and allied anti-apartheid movements, and many of the states from which African refugees have come, struggled long and hard to have apartheid named as “apartheid oppression” and not simply a system of separate development that recognised ethnic distinctions and set up independent “homelands”.

The ANC knows that language and naming carry political weight. Language also facilitates change in the ways in which people think of themselves; not just as marginalised, excluded or even stateless, but as human beings who have power to build unity across divides, including nationalism, but also recognition of bonds of common humanity, ties of solidarity going beyond tribal identities and nationality.

The ANC knows the power of naming intimately. When the apartheid oppressors described the ANC and MK as “terrorist” organisations, the ANC and its allies responded by claiming that they were freedom fighters and persuaded most of the world to accept this or at least apply a more neutral term to MK, like “guerrillas” or “insurgents”. This was not simply semantics or a rhetorical response. It was a struggle to claim and own how the ANC freedom fighters were known and received in the human community.

Indeed, many people and states came to accept, in contrast, that state terrorism was practised by the apartheid regime. Furthermore, it became widely accepted that apartheid was not simply an injustice but an international crime.

The process of naming can also be a personal act of asserting one’s identity as in African people rejecting the names given to them by missionaries and reclaiming their original names given by their parents. It is also a well-known phenomenon through which slaves discarded their slave names after escaping or through emancipation, where they took on names through which they asserted their freedom.

That is why Africans rejected their designation by the apartheid regime as “Bantu” and also, on the instance of the black consciousness movement, adopted the term “black” as a collective description of all who had previously been called Non-Europeans or Non-Whites, that is covering Africans, Coloureds and Indians.

Those who hold powerful office and positions in society have always tried to appropriate the process of naming.  The apartheid police and government sought to provide official explanations regarding the deaths of detainees, no matter how flimsy the reasons may have appeared. They used their power to try to provide an authoritative account of what had transpired.

Regrettably, unlike a resistance movement, those who experience violent attacks, who are mostly foreign migrants from Africa and to some extent parts of Asia, are generally unable to counter the statements and actions of the authorities as an organised group. They tend to be vulnerable and isolated individuals or families who suffer through attacks that are seldom manifestations of spontaneous hostility, but almost invariably planned attacks.

We have seen that these have often been publicly instigated through business people who have openly called for the expulsion of foreign traders, or government officials who have expressed hostility to them or used language such as “vermin” or “filth” to explain that they do not belong in South African communities. This has been the language of King Goodwill Zwelithini and it has also been the language of Operation Fiela. In the sense that the attacks result from conscious instigation, it is true that the word “xenophobia”, connoting an uncontrolled psychological hatred, is indeed inadequate as a description of the processes at work.

There is a paradoxical side to the unwillingness to recognise the foreign character of those who have been attacked. That it is an attack on foreign migrants by virtue of being of foreign origin is denied, for it is claimed, it is simply crime. But the very same people have their foreign character very clearly identified under Operation Fiela which is, inter alia, targeted at alleged undocumented migrants. Some 40% of those arrested under this operation may have been people of foreign origin. (Insofar as figures are provided, the campaign has continued and percentages may have altered.) Many of those arrested have been in the process of regularising their stay, regularisation being delayed by processes in the Home Affairs department. Some do have the papers but are nevertheless arrested. Very often lawyers have been unable to see them despite court orders and in some cases – we do not know how many – they have been deported before processes can be followed to claim their legal rights.

These are vulnerable people, on the margins of South African society, fleeing from war or hunger or other reasons that deserve the solidarity of a society based on the values of freedom. There appears to be a tacit assumption that being a foreign person means one foregoes the protections of the law. That is not the case, though there are some rights that accrue only to South African citizens, for example in relation to access to schooling, pensions and similar social benefits.

More importantly, the discourse and the actions relating to foreign migrants are corroding the basis of South African freedom and democracy. That foundation is the universal recognition of the basic humanity of all living beings and that according to the Freedom Charter South Africa “belongs to all who live in it”.

In all of this the statements of King Zwelithini, who, whether or not mistranslated, initially called into question the presence of foreign people, leading to the attacks on foreign communities in the KwaZulu-Natal province, remains above official examination. It is unclear whether the Human Rights Commission has raised the issue with him. Certainly government and the multi-party parliamentary committee led by Bhengu have not.

History has often shown that attacks on the freedom of one have a tendency to spill over. We know, of course, that some South Africans, such as Shangaans, were killed in the 2008 attacks. We know that South Africans have also been arrested in the present attacks, either as suspected “illegal aliens” or as partners or spouses of foreign migrants. 

South Africa is a society which holds within it dangerous tendencies towards inter-ethnic enmity and violence which can spread.  It has been manifested in recent years against sections of the Indian population.  Who knows where it can spread next?

Those who believe in South Africa’s freedom, and that it belongs to all who walk in our streets, who live in our towns, whether in shacks or proper houses, whether of foreign or local origin, need to stand together and rebuff the current onslaught.  We used to say, in the words of the Freedom Charter: “These freedoms we will fight for, side by side, throughout our lives, until we have won our liberty.” Certainly we have defeated apartheid in most respects, but we can see that freedom is never finally won. It needs to be constantly defended from attacks, even where attacks emanate from those who may previously have worked hard to ensure that South Africa is free.

Freedom is not a single moment. It is an ongoing process, which must be deepened and defended even from those who fought for freedom yesterday. None of us, not even those who were most brave yesterday, own the full meaning of freedom. Those who see our freedom as interlinked must reclaim even from those who consider themselves liberators the freedom to name the struggles of today and to name their oppressions as struggles and freedoms.

They must claim the right and to say the unsayable, for therein lies an important meaning of freedom.

Raymond Suttner is a professor attached to Rhodes University and UNISA. He is a former ANC underground operative and served over 11 years as a political prisoner and under house arrest. He writes contributions and is interviewed regularly on Creamer Media’s website He has recently published Recovering Democracy in South Africa (Jacana Media, 2015). His twitter handle is: @raymondsuttner and he blogs at