I write this as I complete a third draft of my PhD Chapter on Xenophobia in South Africa. The situation in the country is still unfolding, but certain attitudes and issues are rooted in history.
Areas of South Africa have once again been experiencing horrific displays of violence directed at foreign nationals.
Across social media are messages and hashtags of shock, disbelief, pain and support. These, I have seen, are often coupled with sentiments that the “savages” (in the words of one of my contacts) are “out there”, not online.
That view is precisely a part of the problem. You see, South Africans are xenophobic. Not a minority: a majority.
Extensive research by the Southern African Migration Project shows that 90% of South Africans feel that there are too many migrants in the country. Xenophobia is not just ‘out there’ in a mob: it festers beneath the surface of your/our day-to-day attitudes and encounters.
It’s there when outrage is expressed at violent acts but no action is taken to challenge the administration or to challenge Home Affairs, which is mandated to enforce and monitor (rather than protect). It’s there when leaders are not held accountable by those with the economic and/or social means to hold them accountable. It’s there when solidarity is only shown when one is at the receiving end of prejudice (it’s easier to remove statues than to remove xenophobia).
It’s there when one says “this is Afrophobia, not xenophobia” – because while it’s important to recognise that this is violence directed towards (some) Africans, claiming that it’s not xenophobia merely buys into a rhetoric that denies the possibility that South Africans can be xenophobic. It buys into a decade-old system of denial, and in turn it perpetuates a sense of exceptionalism: South Africans aren’t xenophobic, they’re *Afrophobic*. How twisted it is to feel that “we” must be special in some way.
It’s there when one refuses to acknowledge the painful truth that those who have been oppressed are capable of oppression, and that those who have historically oppressed continue to oppress in different ways. It’s there when one refuses to acknowledge that privilege and disprivilege sit hand-in-hand.
It’s there every time someone mentions how exceptional South Africa is – a national pride based on how the country’s history makes it ‘better than’ the rest of Africa.
It’s there every time someone buys into exclusionary nationalism – how ‘proud’ one is to be South African, and if you don’t buy into that then just leave the country (!). For to set up the parameters of South Africanness means to fundamentally define who does NOT belong.
Yes, it’s a minority of people who remain eager to use violence against migrants (only about 11% of the population by SAMP accounts).
Yes, reasons for such violence are varied and complex. No simple economic or social combination of factors can explain it all.
And indeed, xenophobic violence can be argued to be a symptom of absolute social discontent and disempowerment – a feeling of hopelessness.
Addressing the social and economic factors which contribute to xenophobic outbursts are crucially important, but as important are the psychological considerations. The journey ahead is not short and easy, but a necessary starting point is acknowledging that South Africa has historically been an incredibly xenophobic space, and that in 2015 South Africans on the whole are, to varying degrees, complicit in attitudes of xenophobia. The illusion of exceptionalism must be stripped away.
This is a painful admission, for it goes hand-in-hand with recognising a failure to create an inclusive society over the last 25 years. But this failure also presents the opportunity to start anew and begin to create an inclusive space – one which, importantly, transcends the bounds of artificial and random nationhood.