What do we mean by Xenophobia
by Amandla! Correspondent | Amandla! Issue No. 66 | October 2019
Xenophobic violence and attacks on foreign nationals have steadily increased in post-apartheid South Africa. Shortly after 1994 there was a significant spike in xenophobic incidents, as the newly elected ANC government embarked on an aggressive nation-building project in an attempt to address divides of the past and create new kinds of social cohesion. At the same time, the government promoted a steady (and at times rapid) shift to greater liberalisation of the economy, entrenching the predominance of private property and intensifying competition. In this context, xenophobic incidents continued to occur sporadically over the ensuing decade, but they tended to remain relatively isolated from one another.
In 2008 and 2009 there was an upsurge in intensity, with a number of larger outbursts occurring as attacks becoming more coordinated. This upsurge coincided with South Africa beginning to feel the effects of the 2007/08 Global Financial Crisis. Inflation rose to double digits in 2008 for the first and only time after apartheid, and the economy went into recession for the first time in 19 years. Incidents then subsided in the years around the World Cup, but they began to reoccur again from 2012 through to 2014.
In 2015 there was another upsurge in attacks that spread nationwide. They began in Durban, fuelled by Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini saying foreigners should “pack their belongings and go”. It then moved to Joburg and other areas of the country. In the subsequent years, violence subsided. Yet still in 2016 riots in Tshwane, sparked by political discontent within the ANC, turned into attacks on foreigners, and in 2017 a large scale officially sanctioned anti-immigration march was held in Tshwane.
This year has seen yet another upsurge in attacks, with major riots occurring in Durban and Johannesburg. This again coincides with anti-immigrant sentiment emerging from politicians. This included the President’s commitment to crack down on undocumented foreigners. It also coincided with a struggling economic situation, with growing unemployment and ever-increasing pressure on households.
Xenophobia: description or explanation?
It is clear that these attacks are happening, that they are directed against foreigners, and that they are once off but reoccurring. What is less clear is why they are happening. In this regard, the term xenophobia has been commonly used not only to describe these attacks but also to explain why they occur. This has been met with opposition. Certain individuals, including prominent politicians, have come out publicly contesting this labelling of attacks as xenophobic, going so far as to claim that xenophobia doesn’t exist in South Africa. So what exactly does xenophobia mean? And does the way in which the term is commonly used adequately capture and explain the dynamics of what we observe, or should it be dismissed?
The word itself comes from two Ancient Greek words – xenos meaning stranger, and phobos meaning fear. In broad terms, it can thus be used in relation to a fear or dislike of any range of people that are strange or different to another – to other races, cultures and ways of life. Contemporarily, it has come to be used to refer to a deep-seated fear of foreigners from other countries. But the use of this term goes further than just this description, it is also used explanatorily. This fear of foreigners is considered to be the underlying factor that makes people act out in response to uncomfortable situations, bringing forth strong emotional responses. Such behaviours are not considered to be planned or premeditated, but rather involuntary responses to fears that are irrational.
But is it simply a deep-rooted fear of foreign nationals that bursts forth at moments and gives rise to violent attacks? Do people just attack foreigners at certain moments because somewhere deep down they are afraid of them? Is it just an irrational, baseless fear lodged deep in people’s psyches that rises to the surface at particular moments?
This particular usage of the term, and kind of reasoning linked to it, is limited in helping understand the problem of violent outbursts directed against foreigners. An inexplicable fear is used to explain an otherwise inexplicable outburst. On the surface it may stand up to a certain amount of scrutiny, and even appear to be logically sound, but actually it just ends up explaining away the problem. Xenophobia explains xenophobic violence. This circular reasoning does not get to the root of the problem; it deals with it by avoiding it and rendering it inexplicable. It avoids dealing with the question – what gives rise to this fear and what makes people act on it?
This kind of thinking is not just inaccurate and harmless; it has implications. It leads to moralising, blaming and false solutions – we thus often hear that “people just need to get over their irrational fear of foreigners”, “those people should just suppress those kinds of feelings”, “why can’t those people just be better human beings…?”
The context for xenophobia
All of this fails to properly recognise and account for the contexts in which the problem of xenophobic violence arises. Xenophobia does not just exist in and of itself. It is not a predisposition. It is not merely an irrational fear of foreigners that explains why people act the way they do in certain moments. There are other factors involved. Fear may be one of these factors, yes, but it is not the only one. In many cases it is probably not even the most important or driving factor.
Xenophobia needs to be considered as a social issue that arises in specific economic and political contexts. The political and economic contexts in which xenophobia has emerged in post-apartheid South Africa have been alluded to above. To recap, post-apartheid South Africa can be characterised by the dominance of nationalist and exclusivist politics, and liberal economics that promotes free competition. This manifests at many levels, from politicians to ordinary citizens, serving to reinforce, promote and entrench a dominant ideology of exclusivism and competitive individualism. Faced with a situation of increasingly intense competition for scarce resources, and located in such a context, it comes as no surprise that foreigners are targeted and seen as a burden on society, competing for jobs and social benefits. It is an easy answer.
Faced with a crisis of everyday life, ordinary working class people will always be searching for answers to the problems they face to ensure their livelihoods. In looking for ways to access basic necessities and services, many have turned to service delivery protests. In these moments there are elements of unity; communities come together to demand basics from government. But there are also elements of exclusivism; certain groups demand they have the right to these basics and services before and instead of others – because they are the most exploited, the most oppressed, they were there first, etc. There is a fine line between working class people deciding to turn to each other and working class people turning on one another, and today’s context promotes the latter.
From xenophobia to tribalism?
To answer a question posed earlier, xenophobia cannot be dismissed, but it also cannot be understood in and of itself outside of any context. In short xenophobia is a product of capitalism and the competitive individualist ideology that this system nurtures and requires to thrive. As some have pointed out, this violence will not stop with foreigners. It is only a matter of time before it spreads to other social groups – tribes, ethnicities, races, etc. These problems cannot be solved in a system which is based on and perpetuates competition and division. The most that can be done is to contain and try to manage these tensions, which itself will require the use of force and violence by those with power.
So, where can real solutions come from? Real answers can only start to come from ordinary working class people turning to one another, building over divisions and working to stand together against the ones who are responsible for reproducing this context and the problems that arise out of it. Standing together against the bosses and their system, their government, and their politicians that protect and promote their interests.