Xenophobia and Immigrants: South Africa Today

Friday, May 23, 2008 marks the 12th day of xenophobic attacks in the greater Johannesburg area in South Africa. As it stands, over 40 people are dead, hundreds, if not thousands, are injured, over 15,000 have been (photo credit) displaced from their homes, and at least 400 have been arrested (see the Mail and Guardian and The Sowetan newspapers for more). The victims are primarily Zimbabweans, Mozambicans and Malawians, although many of the assaults have involved native South Africans as well. Much of the targeting has been based on rumors about the citizenship of victims; the use of random identifiers such as accents or skin shade are frequently, and inaccurately employed (see here). To an outsider such as myself, it is unfathomable to see such obscene black-on-black violence in a country that has prided itself on a relatively peaceful government transition. South Africa to me represents hope. These attacks, however, have been in the making for years. Although the Apartheid government placed black Africans on the lowest rung of the populace and subjected them to tremendous violence and hardships, it also sent a very clear message that South African blacks were better than those from other countries. When the government transitioned, despite changes in immigration laws, police and immigration officials’ misconduct reified the prior government’s xenophobic sentiment . As the years have gone on, the press has also become a significant contributor to xenophobia. Past research suggests that media reports can have significant impact on subsequent activities as we are seeing here. A series of studies by the Southern African Migration Project reveals that the majority of newspaper articles which mention immigrants do so in a flagrantly negative way. Foreign nationals are frequently referred to, among other things, as “aliens”, “job-stealers”, and “criminals.” These public displays of xenophobia have served to reinforce anti-immigrant sentiments among those whose lives have seen little improvement over the years.

Although it is unclear at this point who specifically instigated these attacks in terms of organization and leadership, the source of strain, coupled with the type of outside support from police and news agencies referred to above, has led to a distinct profile of perpetrator: young males living in the poorest of poor situations within impoverished towns. There are several sociological theories and empirical studies that explain why this particular demographic is responsible such as competition theory and relative deprivation, but the level of organization involved here has led many, including myself, to suspect a third-party sponsor. These attacks are organized; the perpetrators are armed (frequently with guns), have distinct, although often incorrect targets and the spatial diffusion of this is unlike what we generally see in a riot. That is, outbreaks of violence and destruction are occurring in physically discrete areas, yet most of what we have seen in academic analyses suggest that the spread of this sort of collective action is generally contiguous.

At this point, the national government’s response has come far too late. Mbeki has finally ordered military reinforcement for the police who quite clearly, have little control over the situation. (photo: sea turtle) I only hope that these attacks are stamped out soon. As many here have pointed out, those responsible have turned their backs on the countries that hosted and aided South African exiles who furthered the anti-apartheid movement. What is left for social scientists such as myself to do, is unfurl the long-term and immediate stimuli of this violence. Although strain theories can help explain the long-term impetus, it cannot account for the timing or location of the attacks.

~ Maya Beasley, PhD
University of Connecticut