Research Progress

South Africans are Xenophobic

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.


PhD Outline

This week I submitted my research outline for the next 3 years. The working title of my PhD is:

Querying “Double Stigmatisation”: understanding everyday experiences of xenophobia and homophobia in contemporary South Africa

I’ll upload the entire document at another stage, but the summary of my research is:

This project seeks to explore the intersection of dual prejudices in South Africa through the lenses of globalisation, the media, and senses of belonging. It engages with socially and/or economically marginalised men from other African countries who express same-sex desires or subjectivities and who live or work in South African urban spaces, and explores their experiences of xenophobia and homophobia. The project contextualises these everyday experiences of social discrimination within a broader South African culture of legal protection and social intolerance. The project sets out to generate an understanding these of experiences in relation to the mediascape of South Africa, focusing on the role that the media plays in supporting or disrupting senses of belonging among such men. This is based on the recognition of an urgent need to engage with day-to-day local experiences and representations and move away from imposed assumptions about identity. The ultimate goal is to facilitate the generation of a collection of narratives, and offer suggestions for mediated intervention with the intention of increasing social understanding and aiding social reconciliation. 

Beginning a PhD at Sussex

University of SussexI moved from South Africa to undertake PhD research at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom. Like my blog description says, my research focuses on the South African context. A couple of people have asked me why I’m doing a PhD in the UK if I’m focusing on South Africa. A bit of a bizarre question on the surface, given the transnational nature of information today. But it is a legitimate query.

There are a couple of reasons why I chose to study here. On a pragmatic level I received funding to base myself at Sussex. I would have had to have been several degrees of stupid to turn this down.

On an idealistic level I appreciate the liberal and interdisciplinary history of Sussex, and I enjoy the youthful and socially-committed nature of research within the School of Media, Film and Music.

On an experiential level I felt it would be highly beneficial to gain a critically distanced perspective on the South Africa context. Although my field work will be immersive, I think that gaining insight from an institution (and country) with strong historical links to South Africa will be incredibly helpful. During research for my MA in South Africa I often felt that discourses of race overshadowed other issues of identity and consideration – completely to be expected, given how important discussions of race are in the South African context. However, for my PhD I want to remain critical of race as well as the intersection of other identities, subjectivities, and experiences.

Finally, on a personal level, I love the liberal, queer dynamic of Brighton and Sussex. And I’ve always wanted to live for an extended period in the UK and be able to explore some aspects of my heritage.

Brighton at night

Brighton, UK

Shifting to the UK education system has been a bit of an adjustment. I studied my first MA here a few years ago, so I was prepared for most of it. But some aspects have taken me by surprise. For starters, a different emphasis is placed on a Masters degree. In South Africa a Masters (in the Humanities and Social Sciences) is usually a 60 000 word dissertation undertaken solo over an intense one-year or two-year period – it’s something akin to the MPhil in the UK, I think. Although it doesn’t qualify one to get a permanent full-time job as a lecturer, at some institutions one may apply for a position with a Masters and the intention to undertake a PhD. Certainly it is not uncommon for Masters students to lecture parts of or entire modules. I lectured on contract for 2.5 years with my Masters degrees – I designed the course outlines, set essays and exams, held consultations… Perhaps it is because the number of MA students here is much higher, but teaching assistant opportunities are only afforded to 2nd year PhD students and above. I also think, perhaps, it has to do with the fact that in SA an Honours degree is something quite different: it is a 1-year postgraduate degree, much like a taught MA in the UK, and is a prerequisite for being accepted to any Masters program. A Masters, in the UK, is the next step up from undergraduate.

I’m certainly not complaining, though: I would hardly feel equipped to teach here at this stage! Just an observation. I’m thoroughly looking forward to auditing a few undergrad classes this term to understand how things are taught here.

It speaks to another adjustment, though.  Things are far more structured for postgraduate research. Which is fantastic – I enjoy structure. It’s easy to slip into the illusion of having time when it comes to a PhD, I think. Each term here has set research goals: this first term (September – January) had the goal of writing my research outline, which frames exactly what I’ll be doing over the next 3 years. This coming term has the goal of completing a research paper, which will effectively be a draft chapter. Each supervision requires me to type up a report, which is kept on file for future reference. There is an incredible amount of researcher support and development, and a strong network of postgraduate researchers.

Looking out of Silverstone Building

Looking out of Silverstone Building

Although I do not doubt that there will be stressful moments, and that there will be moments when I want to throw my computer out the window, I am going to try and refuse to allow myself to buy into the culture of being stressed as a PhD student. My very wise friend and role-model, Elizabeth Mills, shared this little tip. Everyone knows that the process is stressful at times, but at the same time I know what I’ve signed up for, and I enjoy the work, and am passionate about the social implications of my research. Being stressed at certain times and constantly performing stress, consciously or unconsciously, are two very different things. One acknowledges moments of difficulty to be overcome, the other speaks to a constant state of rush and anxiety which risks eliminating any joy that may be experienced in the actual process. So while there were moments of pressure this last term, I haven’t felt “so, so stressed”, like some of my friends.

Of course this is thanks, in large part, to having two fantastic supervisors: Dr Sharif Mowlabocus and Dr Paul Boyce.

This decision to not buy into stress culture sometimes makes me feel as if I’m doing something wrong: am I not working hard enough? Am I not intelligent enough to realise how difficult this is? Am I missing something? It takes a moment to stop myself and pause and remind myself that it’s okay to enjoy the work and to thrive under the pressure. Sure, I’m just starting, but I’m going to try to hang onto this attitude.