Denialism no answer to xenophobiaBy Imraan Buccus

Imagine if, in 2009, an armed white mob chanting racist slogans stormed a building known to house mostly black people and proceeded to hurl people to their deaths.

If local officials and politicians tried to deny that the motive had been racism and said that the mob was merely searching for criminals their denialism would, correctly, be seen as appeasement. There would, and rightly so, be massive national and international outrage as the appeasement of barbarism.

In May 2008 foreign-born Africans were attacked in Umbilo and hounded out of Cato Manor and Chatsworth. Local officials and politicians responded with the denialism that has often cursed the ruling elite. That denialism was, unquestionably, a form of appeasement. A social pathology cannot be confronted if it is not clearly named.

The obfuscation around the realities of the xenophobic attacks in Durban in May last year has allowed the disease of xenophobia to fester. Now it has returned in the most horrific way. And once again, the brutal reality that blatant and murderous xenophobia stains our city has been masked by denialism on the part of some local politicians and officials.

Every time a ward councillor or police officer says that the horrific recent attack on the refugee shelter in

Broad Street

was just an attack on criminals they are guilty of appeasement. The inexcusable cannot be excused.

But naming xenophobia for what it is will not be enough. We also need to understand how and why this disease festers in our society. Most of the responses to the many pogroms have manifestly failed in this regard. Indeed elite commentators often responded with the “analysis” that it was just an attack on the poor that revealed their expertise to amount to little more than typical middle-class prejudice towards the poor.

The reality is that xenophobia runs through all levels of our society and that, from the beginning of the democratic era, there have been huge levels of xenophobia in our society. It is also true that when the May pogroms happened some of the most effective and committed opposition, especially here in Durban, came from poor communities.

Xenophobia is not a disease of the poor – it is a disease of South Africa. There are rich xenophobes and poor xenophobes, xenophobes in mobs on the street and xenophobes working for the police or the Department of Homes Affairs.

An important attempt to theorise xenophobia in South Africa comes in the form of an excellent book by Michael Neocosmos, a respected political theorist. It was published in 2006 and is titled ‘Foreign Natives’ to ‘Native Foreigners’: Explaining Xenophobia in Post-Apartheid South Africa. Neocosmos gives a detailed history of how apartheid denied South African citizenship to Africans and attempted, via the Bantustan system, to turn African South Africans into foreigners in their own country. He also shows that the apartheid denial of citizenship to Africans was vigorously challenged by popular and democratic ideas of citizenship.

Neocosmos argues that radicalisation and democratisation of the popular resistance to apartheid in the late 1980s created a new and democratic conception of the nation based on the idea that South Africa belongs to all who live in it. This was a non-racial vision, which was also not narrowly nationalist in that it included migrant workers and others not born in South Africa. But Neocosmos argues that when the ANC was unbanned and popular democratic politics demobilised and subordinated to top down party structures there was a return to the exclusive power of the state to decide who is a citizen and who is not. Ordinary people, once agents of their own politics, were reduced to political passivity.

For Neocosmos the ruling elite “is unable to think beyond the confines of exclusion and control … Popular organisational and militant democratic struggles are no longer within its ambit of thought.” Once the state had regained the right to determine citizenship the post-apartheid state immediately began treating migrants in the most appalling ways and, also, used xenophobic discourse in the most reckless ways. Neocosmos shows that while politicians often spoke as if the phrase “illegal immigrant” meant the same thing as the word “criminal”, the fact is that 98% of people arrested on criminal charges in our country are citizens of our country.

If we take Neocosmos seriously it also becomes clear that, while NGOs have done a good job of documenting state and popular xenophobia, they have failed to take it on and will continue to be unable to directly confront it. This is because, while NGOs are very good at constructing people as victims and raising awareness about suffering, they have no power to confront oppression on their own. All they can do is to make appeals to the state but they have no way to force their agenda on the state.

If there is to be a real challenge to xenophobia it will come from a return to the popular modes of bottom up democratic politics that challenged the apartheid state in the Seventies and the Eighties. When these kinds of politics build solidarity between people who work the same jobs, live in the same places and so on, irrespective of race or country of origin, and when they do this outside of the logic of party politics which, with its emphasis on state conceptions of citizenship is inherently xenophobic, they can build an organic and powerful opposition to state and popular xenophobia.

But the great tragedy of the last few years is that the state has largely sought to repress the return to popular democratic politics. And NGOs have responded to the return to a bottom up grassroots politics organised outside of the logic of state conceptions of citizenship with similar anxiety.

If we are serious about defeating this cancer in our society we’ll have to acknowledge the importance of popular democratic politics organised outside of the narrow logic of party politics. We’ll have to return to a politics of popular solidarity.


  • Imraan Buccus is a university-based researcher in Durban. He is also a PhD Research Fellow at the Centre for International Development Issues, Radboud University, Nijmegen in The Netherlands. Imraan is the editor of Critical Dialogue, a journal on public participation in governance, and his academic interests include issues around civil society and poverty, participatory democracy, social accountability and local governance.


Imraan Buccus

Imraan Buccus is a university-based researcher in Durban. He is also a PhD Research Fellow at the Centre for International Development Issues, Radboud University, Nijmegen in The Netherlands. Imraan is...

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