By Matthew Beetar

Now is rightly a time for action — to protect lives and end violence, urgently. But there will come a time in the near future for discussion and serious reflection on the recent attacks against “foreign” nationals, and I wonder whether South Africans are willing to have this discussion with themselves.

I wonder this because 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 this isn’t how South Africans behave — it’s not “us”.

And this view is precisely a part of the problem. You see, South Africans are xenophobic. Not a minority of “them”, a majority of “us”.

Research conducted by the Southern African Migration Project (Samp) suggests that up to 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 our day-to-day attitudes and encounters.


So when South Africa, in its state of shock, begins to have discussions will it recognise this festering? Will it recognise its own normalised xenophobia?

Because 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 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 warped sense of exceptionalism: South Africans aren’t xenophobic, they’re *Afrophobic*.

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 nationalistic 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.

So yes, it’s a minority of people who remain eager to use violence against migrants (only about 11% of the population by Samp accounts).

And yes, reasons for such violence are varied and complex. No simple economic or social combination of factors can explain it all. (In fact, the reports above also suggest that between 2006 and 2010 xenophobic attitudes decreased in lower-income groups and increased in higher-income groups).

And indeed, xenophobic violence can be argued to be a symptom of absolute social discontent and disempowerment (without legitimising the violence, of course).

But as important as addressing the social and economic factors that contribute to xenophobic outbursts are the psychological considerations for our collective next step forward. The journey ahead is not short and easy, but a necessary starting point is acknowledging that South Africa has historically been a xenophobic space, and that in 2015 everyday South Africans 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 collective failure to create a fully inclusive society over the last 25 years.

But this failure also presents a key opportunity. It gives “us” a chance to honestly confront our own prejudices, and our own intersectional positions in society, and ultimately work towards creating a truly inclusive space — a space which, importantly, transcends the bounds of artificial and random nationhood.

Matthew Beetar is a 2008 scholar. He is currently a PhD researcher at the University of Sussex. His research focus on xenophobia and homophobia in South Africa and potential strategies for mediated intervention.

Image – Foreign nationals protesting against the recent xenophobic attacks on April 8, 2015 in Durban, South Africa. (Gallo)


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