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A Literature Review of Xenophobic Attacks in South Africa

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    Attacks on foreigners in South Africa have been on the rise since the transfer of power to the ANC in 1994. These violent outbursts, which have resulted in riots and dozens of murders, have been described as xenophobic in nature. After the months of summer 2008 in South Africa where there was a sudden wave of anti-immigrant violence, scholars are asking what is the driving force behind these attacks. Scholars see continuity in the ideology behind these xenophobic attacks occurring in South Africa.

    In his article, ‘Fortress SA’: Xenophobic Violence in South Africa, John Sharp writes about the causes of the violence and the Human Sciences Research Council’s response on the matter. He criticizes them for starting their research with the supposition that the violence is xenophobic, for 1/3 of those killed were native South Africans. He does not write his paper with the assumption that the attacks were Xenophobic in nature, he says “‘we have come to realize that these labels invariably hide at least as much as they reveal” (Sharp 2008).

    Sharp goes on to say that the violence was targeted at those who the violent mobs identified as “outsiders”, those who were darker than the typical South African or could not fluently speak one of the main languages of South Africa. He shows that using HRSC data collected from interviews that these people were associated with foreigners who South Africans feel they have to compete with for jobs, housing and rising food prices.

    His assessments are conducive with my statement, that the violence in South Africa against foreigners has an underlying ideology in society. In September 2010, Aidan Mosselson at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg published the article: ‘There is no difference between citizens and non-citizens anymore’: Violent Xenophobia, Citizenship and the Politics of Belonging in Post-Apartheid South Africa. He postulates that the violence is symptomatic of South Africans practicing their belonging in the political process.

    He argues that when South Africa’s government underwent transition and the citizenry took part in the Truth and Reconciliation council they established a new identity, as being one universal people in ‘the nation’. This causes South Africans to draw distinctions between insiders and outsiders within the nation. His method of analysis is drawn from social theories of belonging, which he identifies as springing from the governments harsh response to illegal immigrants crossing into South Africa.

    Mosselson’s argument is agrees with my statement in that this violence a distinct nation-wide cause can be seen as causing this xenophobic violence. This helps extend Sharp’s argument by identifying a causal factor in government policy towards immigrants. He draws from similar sources as Sharp like the HRSC report, which may have led him to draw this conclusion, but he also uses a variety of other literature to back up his claims.

    In the wake of the 2008 summer violence in South Africa Moradewun Adejunmobi was looking for answers to explain the attacks and their origins. His paper Urgent Tasks for African Scholars in the Humanities, seeks to explain violence in South Africa through the concept of autochthony or indigenousness. He also connects the attacks in South Africa with other xenophobic violence across the African continent like the Rwandan genocide, the Congo crises and the post-election violence in Cote d’Ivoire through their sharing of similar themes.

    His using of the work autochthony highlights the clear distinction that the attackers are making between themselves and those they see as being outsiders. He says “What the African foot soldiers of autochthony seek is a place where they can live, work, and realize their public and private aspirations in relative safety. ” (Adejunmobi 2009). This is conducive with what many in South Africa associate with illegal aliens; they feel they represent violence in the community, and the source of unemployment.

    His argument is in alignment with my statement, that the violence against foreign nationals is perpetrated by collective autochthony identity which foreigners do not belong to. South Africans allow their national issues to be represented by foreigners who they feel brought them upon them. Adejunmobi makes and interesting case by identifying South Africa’s xenophobic violence with the trend of anti-alien violence in Africa in the past 20 years and by doing this opens up a continent wide discourse about what he calls the “ethics of locality” (Adejunmobi 2009).

    Even in examining different phenomena continent wide he is able to come to a conclusion, which supports a congruent ideology for the attacks, and puts them in a larger perspective. In his article in Third World Quarterly, David Mario Matsinhe, Africa’s Fear of Itself: the ideology of Makwerekwere in South Africa, he uses the term makwerekwere to represent South Africans uneasiness with outsiders. The phrase originates out of the fact that word makwerekwere sounds very distinctly un-South African.

    Makwerekwere is so distinct for South Africans because it shares no similarities with any South African words (Mario Matsinhe 2011). He writes “Since the collapse of apartheid, the phantom of Makwerekwere has been constructed and deployed in and through public discourse to render Africans from outside the borders orderable as the nation’s bogeyman. ” (Mario Matsinhe 2011). He provides a great argument and uses a variety of sources including human rights network publications.

    He supports my statement in his writing where he highlights that the ideology behind these attacks can be seen as scapegoatship for the problems that South African society. David says “In the context of South African history the violent aversion towards African foreign nationals in South Africa can best be described as Afrophobia. The ideology of Makwerekwere seeks to make visible the invisible object of fear in order to eliminate it. The roots of this ideology ‘must be sought in the psychological realm of ego-weak characters who construct their identity by denigrating others . . [in need of] scapegoats to externalize what cannot be sublimated’. The ideology of Makwerekwere externalizes internal repression. ” (Mario Matsinhe 2011). His paper resonates with my statement; by giving a phrase that South Africans associate with immigrants and outsiders, which serves to make an even clearer delineation of who belongs and who doesn’t in modern South African society. He uses ethnographic fieldwork methods to construct his argument, which he collected in group participations and interviews.

    This allowed him to get a closer look into ideology of those who conducted the violence than some of the other authors I utilized in this paper, which further solidifies my statement in the fact that he calls Makwerekwere an ideology. The final piece of literature I will analyze for this paper is David Abraham’s work, A Synopsis of Urban Violence in South Africa, published in The International Review of the Red Cross. His argument in this possesses continuity with my statement that these attacks are fueled by an overarching deology and they are not just phenomena. He quotes Nahal Valji “In September 1998 two Senegalese and a Mozambican were thrown from a train by a group of individuals returning from a rally organized by a group blaming foreigners for the levels of unemployment, crime, and even the spread of AIDS” (Abrahams 2010). This goes to show the psychological effects the massive problems that are literally infecting South African society have on the minds of South Africans, and their desire to blame them on someone or something.

    This is what is fueling the ideology of makwerekwere and the vision of a universal people protecting their nation or “fortress”. In his article Abrahams focuses more on the governmental policy, which has helped fuel xenophobia in South Africa. He shows the structuralism of xenophobia in South Africa “Low educational qualification, high unemployment and the weakening of social organizations, especially at the family and community level, seem to have combined to breed a significant sense of alienation, marginalization and neglect.

    This expresses itself in anger against the establishment and violence against various targets from time to time. This then also manifests in the spate of violent crime, disorderly protests and senseless attacks on ‘others’” (Abrahams 2010). He also shows how South African government clearly discriminates against immigrants, against the binds of international law. He seems to agree with the other authors whose works I elected to analyze and my statement in that xenophobia in South Africa possesses a psychological ideology stemming from a need to blame something for their nations problems.

    His paper helps extend the arguments of the other authors by showcasing how structural of a problem this xenophobic crutch that South Africa seeks for its problems is. His methods of analyzing governments responses to Xenophobic violence strengthen the case of an underlying ideology in South African immigrant attacks. South Africa under apartheid was a divided nation; black South Africans were separated into different homelands and whites lived in a society of their own.

    When South Africa extinguished the structural apartheid in the nation, and tried to come to terms with the horrors perpetrated by both sides in the struggle to end apartheid. The TRC was established by the new ANC led government to do just this, help South Africa come to terms with what had happened and move forward in learning to live with each other as a unified nation. Apartheid’s legacy still exists today in South Africa; it has been realized in the educational issues of the nation which the Bantu Education Act helped to create by lowering the ability of South Africans to get a decent education.

    This has resulted in mass unemployment and the spread of AIDS on a nation wide scale. Now that South Africans are now all included in the political process, they have been trying to cope with the fact that their nation is undergoing so much suffering. This has resulted in foreigners in the nation being on the receiving end of scapegoating for the problems of the nation by South Africans who feel that those who “don’t belong” are the bringers of the problems.

    My literature review stands to highlight the continuity nation wide of ideology that fuels the xenophobic attacks. One thing that could be done, but probably shouldn’t due to the danger of it being correct, is to asses whether this ideology has any truth to it. By seeing if there is actually a correlation with being a foreigner in South Africa and level of violence, AIDS and illegal wage employment one could see the validity of these claims that foreigners are the primary casual factor in these problems.

    South Africa has always been a nation of immigrants and the fact is that their 20th century economy was built by foreign migrant workers should make this violence non-existent. It is the fact that they see outsiders being the cause of so many of their problems that xenophobic violence is so prevalent in modern-day South Africa.


    Abrahams, David. “A Synopsis of Ubran Violence in South Africa. ” Internationa Review of the Red Cross, 2010: 512. Adejunmobi, Moradewun. Urgent Task for African Scholars in the Humanities . ” Transition, 2009: 86. Mario Matsinhe, David. “Africa’s Fear of Itself: the ideology of Makwerekwere in South Africa. ” Third World Quarterly , 2011: 295. Mosselson, Aidan. “‘There is no difference between citizens and non-citizens anymore’: Violent Xenophobia, Citizenship and the Politics of Belonging in Post-Apartheid South Africa. ” Journal of South African Studies, 2010: 654. Sharp, John. “‘Fortress SA’:Xenophobic Violence in South Africa. ” Anthropology Today, 2008: 2.

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