Xenophobia and Integration: Fear, Near and Far- Part II: South Africa and the Living Past

An Exploration of South Africa's Ongoing Encounter with Xenophobia and the 'Other'

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

William Faulkner

In recent months, amidst the hope that accompanies a newly dawned year, South Africans were borne back into the shame of a past moment. Once again the language of fear, reprisal and ultimately assault became a part of our national dialogue as the word “xenophobia” dominated news headlines. Moreover, these attacks gave lie to the belief that the outbreaks of 2008 were a unique moment - an aberration, both shameful and easily vanquished. Instead we are forced to pause and once more search deeply for the systemic problems still at play.
This will not be a simple process, but it is a necessary one. The following observations might yet help us on this journey. 

There are fewer immigrants in South Africa than is often claimed

The number of immigrants (illegal and legal) presently in South Africa is a contested issue. A common assumption is of a figure numbering between 5 and 10 million.[1] This statistic may find its basis in the estimates of the Human Sciences Research Council, which was forced to withdraw its claims of 4 to 8 million undocumented migrants in South Africa. Writing for Christian Science Monitor in 2013, John Campbell notes that these figures, nevertheless still find frequent usage in local media outlets, despite Statistics South Africa’s official estimate of 500 000 to 1 million undocumented migrants.[2]
A third figure has been produced by the Forced Migration Studies Programme at Wits University, which has calculated a total foreign population of between 1.6 and 2 million. This last number includes both illegal and registered immigrants in the country who together make up 3 to 4 per cent of the total population of South Africa.  In contrast, the corresponding number for the United States is 11 per cent.[3] Ultimately, this population is far smaller than is often claimed — a fact with dramatic implications to both official policy as well as societal attitudes to ‘outsiders’ in South Africa. 

The situation is unique, complex and ongoing

In 2010, amidst fears of another wave of violent attacks, the Helen Suzman Foundation held a roundtable on the topic of Xenophobia. Entitled “Of Strangers and Outsiders - Overcoming Xenophobia”, the roundtable sought to investigate the roots of such attacks and identified an array of complex overlapping factors. These included a South African self-conception of being “exceptional” and thus removed from the rest of Africa and her people; as well as widespread inequality and disappearing livelihood opportunities in the country.
This last point is reinforced by findings of the Institute for Security Studies. Indeed, in his 2008 report for the Institute Jonny Steinberg, lecturer in African Studies at the University of Oxford, explains the root of much of the animosity to be found within the “lump of labour fallacy.” This term is employed by economists in reference to the belief that there is only so much work and pay available within the economy. Thus any benefit gained by a foreigner is seen to be directly taken from the resources available to local citizens.  It isn’t true.  Foreign additions to South African human capital and entrepreneurial energy create new opportunities. 
Moreover, violence cannot be framed entirely in terms of deprivation. Poverty does not necessarily lead to violence- to say so is an unfair prejudice to all those fighting poverty each day, particularly those who do not turn against their neighbours but leverage their strength and fight together. The importance of local power struggles were emphasised by the Helen Suzman Foundation’s panel. Here the pogroms were cast in light of contests for local influence with foreigners the most vulnerable to exploitation and ultimately attack. In this regard we are reminded of Thucydides’ famous line— often considered to be the golden rule of realpolitik, “The strong do what they will, the weak suffer what they must.” 
The uniqueness of the South African situation must also be highlighted. Speaking at the event, Tara Polzer, at the time a senior researcher at Wits University’s Forced Migration Studies Programme, drew attention to the distinctive nature of these attacks. She pointed out that these assaults have not been targeted against isolated and closed groups living separately, but instead at neighbours dispersed throughout communities.  In Polzer’s words “we are talking about people who have been an integral part of society and the economy of South Africa for many, many generations, for hundreds of years in fact. In many ways we are talking about people, individuals and families who have been living as neighbours for 20 years, people who have children who are married in South Africa.”[4]
Importantly, Polzer went on to underscore the continuing nature of the situation, stating at the 2010 roundtable, “it is absolutely incorrect to say xenophobia happened in May 2008 and that it has now been prevented in July 2010. That is not the case. It is an ongoing issue.”[5] This warning may be seen as somewhat prophetic in light of the resurgence of attacks at the beginning of the year. 

It isn't all about inequality, but inequality cannot be ignored- some history

A recurring theme in examinations of the 2008 wave of attacks has been the role of globalisation. Writing for Cultural Anthropology, Dr Jason Hickel of the London School of Economics notes two primary variations of this argument. The first draws attention to the threat posed against established national identities by a new reality of global connections of previously unimaginable proportions. Here, identity politics may play an increasingly central— and at times extreme— role in rebuilding boundaries of self-conception.[6]
This is contrasted to a second reading of the events, which understands the violence to be a response to a new wave of economic policies made to accommodate global competition. These are said to create vicious contests over scarce resources including employment opportunities and housing. While acknowledging the value that both perspectives may add to an analysis of the issue, Hickel asserts that they both miss the nuances of the South African condition.[7]
In outlining a new approach Hickel explains that concerns over the inevitability of a popular uprising led the planners of apartheid to build an economic foundation upon co-option strategies.  One component of this stability was the image of a married black male breadwinner “living in a formal township house and working a stable job in manufacturing, mining, or the civil service”.[8]  However, at the same time there was great reliance on migrant labour.  Especially after territorial apartheid was announced, migrant labourers were unable to build up a continuous period of residence in urban areas required for permanent  urban residence under the Urban Areas Act. In effect, migrant labourers were treated as foreigners in their own country
The result was a systemic undermining of the stability of township life which has been termed a “crisis of social reproduction”— a term referring to the transfer of culture, knowledge and labour power from generation to generation.[9] The ultimate effect was a compounding of limits on opportunity. Indeed, apartheid restrictions on employment, training and education were now amplified by declining income stability for many.
One manifestation of this crisis cited by Hickel is a rapid decline in marriage rates from the 1960s to the point “that today only 3 of 10 South African adults are married”.[10] Here a clear connection is drawn between high unemployment rates and an inability to recreate the basic elements of traditional households across generations. In Hickel’s words “with unemployment rates as high as they are, most young men find it impossible to raise the resources they need to pay lobola (bridewealth) and establish their own legitimate, respectable homes.”[11]
The ramifications are grave with xenophobic attacks only one in a range of potential outcomes. We are forced to ask — if the old model has been lost, what then may pave the way for sustained social reproduction and stability, if not shared dignity, prosperity and success?

Our social reaction to the 'other' is difficult

In approaching this difficult subject, we are forced to examine not only the xenophobic actions that happened on our soil, but also the response that we form towards these deeds. 
In 2013 the Southern African Migration Programme (SAMP) found that 54% of South African respondents believed “that migrants do not deserve the destructive and aggressive actions they experience in South Africa”, while 43% described the violence as “unjustified.” On the whole just over half of all respondents had a negative response to the violence.
At the same time when surveyed “Nearly two-thirds of the respondents (64%) agreed that a primary cause was that migrants are involved in crime. Other prominent explanations for the attacks were that migrants take jobs from South Africans (62%), that they are “culturally different” (60%), that they “cheat” South Africans (56%), that they use health services for free (55%), that they take RDP houses (52%) and that they “steal” South African women (52%).”[12] Such attitudes represent a common trait of focusing upon the fault of the victims.
Overall the study found that South Africa is “still the country most opposed to immigration where nearly 80% of citizens either support prohibition on the entry of migrants or would like to place strict limits on it.”[13]
The statements of Lindiwe Zulu, Minster of Small Business Development echo this trend. In January, Zulu called for foreign business owners to “understand that they are here as a courtesy” and thus “cannot barricade themselves in and not share their practices with local business owners.” [14] Here it is the success of foreigners and not their claimed illicit behaviour that is at fault.  Nevertheless the thrust of the argument is familiar- if only the ‘other’ would change this could all be different.
And what are we to make of King Goodwill Zwelithini's recent call to deport foreigners and the apparent support given to his statements by Jacob Zuma’s son, Edward? [15]
Our response to these issues affords us the opportunity to define ourselves anew. Mindful in this task of the American theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel’s comments on the moral relationship of society, “few are guilty, but all are responsible.”  
It has been 50 years since Heschel famously marched hand-in-hand with Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama. Twenty-one years into the life of our young democracy our own march seems so much longer than we might have believed and hoped. On the path forward may we find strength in Heschel’s comments on that vicious event – “When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.”  May our own steps forward be so clearly guided. 
Joshua Hovsha


[1] Helen Suzman Foundation, 2010. “Of Strangers and Outsiders- Overcoming Xenophobia”  Quarterly Roundtable Series, Issue 16 August 2010
[2] Campbell, J., 2013. How many immigrants does South Africa have? That depends who you ask. http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Africa/Africa-Monitor/2013/0221/How-many-immigrants-does-South-Africa-have-That-depends-who-you-ask  Accessed: 2015.03.30
[3] Polzer, T., 2010.”Migration Fact Sheet 1: Population Movements in and to South Africa.” Forced Migration Studies Programme, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.
[4] Campbell, 2013.
[5] Helen Suzman Foundation, 2010. p.10
[6] Hickel, J. 2014. “’Xenophobia’ in South Africa: Order, Chaos, and the Moral Economy of Witchcraft,” Cultural Anthropology Vol. 29 (1). p. 120
[7] Hickel, 2014. p.118-120
[8] Hickel, 2014. p.118-120
[9] Hunter, M., 2010. Love in the Time of AIDS: Inequality, Gender, and Rights in South Africa. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana p. 5
[10] Hickel, 2014. p.120
[11] Hickel, 2014. p.120
[12] Crush, J, Ramachandran, S and Pendlteton, W., 2013. Soft targets: Xenophobia, Public Violence and Changing Attitudes to Migrants in South Africa after May 2008. Southern African Migration Programme (SAMP). p.1-8 
[13] Crush et al. 2008, pg. 4
[14] 702, 2015. Min. Lindiwe Zulu to foreigners: "Share your ideas with local business owners” http://www.702.co.za/articles/1505/zulu-foreign-business-owners-must-share. Accessed: 2015.03.31
[15]  Mail & Guardian, 2015. Zuma's son wants foreigners out of the country. http://mg.co.za/article/2015-04-01-zumas-son-wants-foreigners-out-of-the-country. Accessed: 2015.04.02