NewsSouthern AfricaHollow promises to stop South Africa's xenophobic violence


Posted on Thursday, 04 June 2015 15:11

Hollow promises to stop South Africa's xenophobic violence

By Pumla Dineo Gqola Associate professor, Humanities, University of the Witwatersrand

Emmanuel Sithole's dead body, skull cracked open on the streets of Alexandra township in Johannesburg, has become the most striking visual reference for the latest explosion of xenophobic violence in South Africa.

 It is an image as chilling as that of Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuavhe's body engulfed in flames in 2008. We have been here before.

Treating these attacks as a phenomenon apart means that it will happen again

Played on a loop on South African Broadcasting Corporation radio, President Jacob Zuma's assurances that such violence will not happen again ring hollow.

The revelations that Emmanuel Sithole was, in fact, Emmanuel Josias and not Sithole as designated in his fraudulently obtained South African identity document did little to mediate public responses to his killing, even as reports continue to circulate about how his was a criminal, rather than xenophobic, attack.

Too many of us remember President Thabo Mbeki's insistence that the 2008 violence was less xenophobic than criminal.

It is not a particularly helpful distinction; these categories are not mutually exclusive.

There have been as many well-attended marches, co-ordinated efforts by citizens to provide support to the displaced and hashtags as seven years ago.

In all the visual records, young marginal black men are the perpetrators of violence against those suspected as foreigners, and both times they have killed South Africans in error too.

Their behaviour is cast as simultaneously incomprehensible, out of step with broader societal attitudes and easily explainable in public discourse.

The usual analysts appear on both opinion pages and television screens rehearsing the same lines from 2008.

Version one: These young men are the face of the masses disgruntled by lack of service delivery, who blame the foreigners in their midst for taking up opportunities due to them, for the spread of crime, for invisible support for foreign-owned small business networks.

Version two: The violent xenophobes are anti-social criminals who are hell bent on ruining the international image of the reconciled, transformed
rainbow nation.

They need to be reminded of the burden of responsibility South Africans now have to house African foreign nationals, given the latter's countries' support for the anti-apartheid movement and welcoming of apartheid's exiles.

Version three: This is part of a global wave of xenophobia that always has to do with perceptions of scarcity. We see it all over Europe and North America. Economic migration is becoming a problem for functional states. South Africa is a functional state, and one of the exceptions on the continent.

In vox pops, angry young men scream back that foreigners steal jobs, houses, opportunities, girlfriends, they introduce crime and therefore need to "go home or die here", in the words of the book of essays edited by professors Shireen Hassim, Tawana Kupe and Eric Worby in 2008.

More muted responses, recently joined by President Zuma, express frustration that other African states cannot sort their problems out and therefore unfairly burden South Africa.

However, if 2008 was met with pained incomprehension by the larger African political community, 2015 has seen strongly worded exchanges with Nigeria, Malawi and Zimbabwe, along with news of Mozambican retaliatory violence against South African truckers.

The public physical attacks make better sense when examined alongside how else power and life matter in South Africa, post-apartheid.

First, South African chain stores, technology companies, banks and airlines refer to 'African markets' available for mining and exploitation; nationally hosted World Cups are branded as African World Cups.

South African Airways positions itself as gateway to Africa. Afrophobic South Africa sees itself in relation to the continent as exceptional, entitled and superior.

These attitudes are consistent with the views held by those marginal young men on the streets.

Locked out of economic empowerment, they use the resources at their disposal to enact with their bodies what corporations perform with capital.

Foreigners prone to physical attack are also very specifically located within South Africa.

They are neither the wealthy, property-owning European and North American passport holders who settle in different parts of the country, nor the highly visible European criminals whose names have become household names and who have a particular preference for Cape Town and the affluent suburb of Bedfordview in Johannesburg.

The attacks are never just about foreignness and crime. They are about who matters in South Africa and is therefore likely to be protected through state resources.

Twenty-one years after the first elections, black life continues to be cheap because political freedom has not come with extensive economic and other institutional transformation.

Poor black South Africans are routinely blamed for laziness, opportunism and being burdensome.

Foreigners that are likely to be attacked live among marginal South Africans and without exception are black people from the African continent or South Asia.

They are prone to attack precisely because they are foreigners from unvalued countries, on the one hand, and because they attempt to integrate into everyday South African society, on the other.

It seems like a paradox, but these foreigners are open to brutalisation and looting precisely because their presence is simultaneously characterised by similarity to the marginal communities whose lives are deeply inscribed by layers of violence and because of their difference.

Other groups in these communities prone to large-scale physical attack are black pensioners and black lesbian and queer youth.

It is clear that in our understanding these attacks resemble more than they differ from the other kinds of violence enacted on the bodies of those without direct access to power.

All of these categories have notoriously low rates of successful prosecution.

The attacks on Africans and Asians in South Africa's urban margins is part of the continuum of violence that characterises life in those areas. This does not excuse it.

This hierarchy of who matters and who does not matter is at the heart of the reconciliation motif and its failure.

It points to many of the failures of a vision of the post-apartheid nation, with a state equipped to deal with the needs of its residents and a country poised to benefit from equal exchanges with the rest of the continent.

Treating the attacks on black bodies assumed to be foreign as a phenomenon apart means that it will happen again.

Only a deep repositioning and rejection of entrenched Afrophobic orientation, an institutional decolonisation of South African power – education, health, services – offers us a way out of the impasse. No armies in townships or inter- ministerial committees will intervene with lasting solutions.

The poor will continue to turn inwards until Sandton is no longer safe either.

Elsewhere in South Africa's political, civil society and university landscape, we are beginning to see a refusal to turn inward and an unapologetic rejection of the terms of the post-apartheid reconciliation motif. ●

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