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A Canadian’s view on xenophobia

I’m writing as a Canadian who has made South Africa my home on and off for the past 8 years. I’ve been made to feel welcome by most, but there have been some xenophobic remarks directed at me. They usually come from middle-class South Africans who don’t wish to hear any critique of their country or their position here. I also get angry remarks from raging nationalists who will hear no negative remarks about their leaders or their country. I guess this is why I love the rural spaces and warm welcome found there. I thought I’d return to the topic of xenophobia due to its resurgence as a topic during the election and a topic, though out of the media, is still simmering away.

I must sadly admit that the xenophobia was not actually a surprise considering the nationalistic discourses that are prevalent in society. This is not unique to South Africa as many places suffer from jingoistic rhetoric from political leaders. The resent and anger of the poor directed at other poor people from north of the border is not surprising, even if it is disappointing. The shocking level of violence was somewhat of a surprise, but South Africa has a generally high level of violence that accompanies most criminal acts.

Analysts chalk the violence up to lack of service delivery, levels of inequality and other standard epitaphs that are paraded out to explain every social problem. This standard rhetoric actually explains little and is little more than populist sloganeering masquerading as analysis. These things only explain superficial reasons for resent of others and do not approach an explanation of why such violence accompanied the xenophobia. People do not kill and riot because they are poor; they do so for a range of complicated issues surrounding morality, responsibility and socially located and specific issues arising from the history of the country. Poverty may make someone steal a loaf of bread, but it does not make them burn the baker to death. Most analysts conflate reasons for xenophobia with reasons for the violence collapsing the issues.

In South Africa, a major way of problem-solving is the use of a mob. When construction workers go on strike they torch the trucks and damage the site; when municipal workers strike they burn cars and tip rubbish throughout the city and the police toyi-toyi and even shoot at each other. This use of mobs and the impunity of the anonymity of mass action allow truly horrible acts to be done. This is a direct result of the merging of militarised struggle politics with civics (unions and community organisations).

What is missing from the analysis of the xenophobic violence is a truly self-reflexive view of history of the various struggles against apartheid. The ANC and UDF had the strategy of ungovernability that was used to incite the youth and people of the townships to violently rise up against their oppression. The townships saw a lot of violence in recent times as apartheid began to unravel. The violence included mob justice in the form of necklacing, shooting and other violent acts against those deemed to be the enemy. The unforeseen legacy of the strategy of ungovernability is what we are seeing today.

Mangosutho Buthelezi foretold this in the 1980s when he said that in rendering South Africa ungovernable, it would surely create a nation of ungovernable people. It appears that areas which experienced the most oppression and most mobilisation by the ANC and UDF — the townships and specific informal settlements — are where most of the xenophobic attacks occurred.

Nobody wishes to denigrate the struggle against apartheid and that is not my intent. The lack of reflection on the past and an honest appraisal about the role of ANC-led violence needs to be taken into account. The townships still need demobilisation and a reconciliation process that addresses this aspect of their past. It seems the lessons from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission have not yet been learnt or at least not taken to heart. At heart I am a pacifist and believe that the armed struggle was carried out in a damaging way.

The townships still have the potential to be ungovernable and we should expect more violent outbursts as long as mob rule is used to assert claims to socio-economic rights. Also as long as the ideologues in power use crass populist claims and empty promises we should expect similar events to continue.

New ways of dealing with social problems must be created. Street committees from the past must not remain as kangaroo courts, instigators of mob justice and forums for ideologues to espouse their narrow points of view. The deferential political culture is damaging and damning.

Julius Malema and the ANC Youth League is a case in point with the threat of mob violence if they don’t get their way. As long as “leaders” like him espouse mob violence then we can expect people to follow suit. This brand of leadership should have no place in contemporary South Africa and struggle-era rhetoric is dangerous and puts party before the people. People cannot simply take violent struggle politics and apply it as a solution every time they do not get their way.

The ideologues in government must also take their fair share of the blame and address the roots of the problem with honesty and quit seeking external forces to blame. That’s what led to the problem in the first place. And as the election looms I worry about the power about to be granted to some of these ideologues.


  • Michael Francis

    I have returned to South Africa. I now teach Economic History and Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. I am happy to be back after a couple years away. I had been teaching anthropology at a Canadian University, but Africa called and I returned.