Facing up to the unfamiliar
Images of Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave burning became impossible to unsee.
Since then hundreds have died across South Africa at the hands of neighbours, the police, or protesters. Following a pattern now familiar, recent public protests in North West resulted in the burning of shops and a Nigerian. His name was Clement Nwaogu.
Few deny violence is a part of South Africa. Police brutality, domestic abuse, sexual assault, robbery and vigilantism all shape our lives.The poorer you are, the more likely violence touches you directly.
Regardless, we design our days to minimise risks to property and bodies. We have reason to do so.
Some of this violence is xenophobic, most is not. Indeed, those killed in xenophobic incidents barely turn the needle on the overall murder rate. Whether foreign or citizen, all those who die have names.
In a country where thousands have died waiting to realise the promises of freedom, why do we single out Ernesto’s death? Why concern ourselves with migrants’ lives when we have yet to resolve the Marikana murders? How do we justify offering a hand to Zimbabweans, Somalis, or others seeking safety when we cannot provide security for South Africans? Why support counter-xenophobia campaigns to protect a few while everyone is at risk?
These are sound questions, but dangerous ones. Beneath these queries is a worldview dividing people into inherent and irrevocable categories. It is a language of difference separating the deserving from those without entitlement. It allows us to turn children away from schools and expecting mothers from maternity wards.
Such a worldview asks us to constantly conduct triage: to assess who should have access to our limited resources. It not only demands that our group - however we define it - must be front of the line for jobs and services, but also for empathy. It stems from a fear that recognising others’ pain takes away from the miseries and injustices our people face.
It crystallises past distinctions in ways that deny the desirability of productive engagement.
These hierarchies of difference make it almost impossible to address xenophobic violence.
Framing this as a problem of foreigners versus South Africans makes xenophobia a political third rail. There is no political mileage to be gained from protecting those seen as jumping borders and jumping queues. To the contrary, politicians increasingly embrace the foreign figure to explain paucities of jobs, houses, services, and security. As politics becomes ever more competitive, constituencies will always come first and next year’s local government elections will undoubtedly test constitutional commitments to inclusion.
The framing of xenophobia as a battle between undeserving aliens and citizens frustrates efforts to address it in at least two additional ways.
First, it draws attention away from the extent to which these attacks are not about immigration, but about migration. Depending on where you are, it matters little if you are from Bushbuckridge or Bulawayo. In either case, you are not local and you are not entitled.
A recent study found that 43% of Gauteng residents thought influx control should be reinstated. This is not about controlling immigration, but about keeping unwanted (that is, poor and black) South Africans out of communities.
Unsurprisingly, victims of “xenophobic” violence repeatedly include South African citizens. Research by the African Centre for Migration and Society indicates about a third of those killed in such attacks are citizens. Yet this, too, is a story not regularly told.
Second, framing xenophobic violence as an immigration issue distracts us from the politics of anti-outsider violence. After the 2008 attacks, an Alexandra resident said “if the government is not controlling the borders, we have to”.
Yet the violence is not about border control, it is about local power.The struggle for political and economic influence is behind attacks across the country. Outsiders are easy targets. Yet their shops are attacked less because they are foreign-owned than because they contain the goods needed to fuel mass protest.
Violence against foreigners empowers local leaders to give something back to their constituency. One cannot counter such practices through human rights education and dialogue, which is South Africa’s favourite solution to almost any conflict.
Addressing these changes requires the government to speak openly about its failures. Few politicians take that plunge.
Although the police now respond more quickly than in the past, the language of the 2008 gangsters and killers has gone mainstream. The ruling party wants to effectively establish refugee camps and further militarise the border.
Over the coming months the government will launch a sequel to 2015’s Operation Fiela. Ostensibly designed to help root out dangerous elements, the last one was undertaken in migrant-rich neighbourhoods where it bagged hundredsfor deportation along with a far smaller selection of people arrested on criminal charges.
In such gestures, officials placate the basest, most exclusionary fears among the citizenry. It is unclear what Fiela II will do, but leaders undoubtedly hope to recapture the magic of the original.
While it is easy - and justified - to point fingers at the government, civil society activism also regularly reinforces divisions between locals and outsiders. Campaigns for dialogues bringing people together to represent local and “foreign” interests conceptually and institutionally reinforce these distinctions while overshadowing sources of solidarity.
Sometimes tone-deafness antagonises communities struggling with economic insecurity.
That activists come to these poor communities practically emblazoned with the flags of foreign donors and agencies further feeds fears of outsiders coming to appropriate scant resources.
In a forthcoming book of stories told by foreigners and citizens, South Africans supporting anti-outsider violence describe it as a quest for justice: to realise the freedoms promised to them by removing those not entitled to them.
If South Africa is to address xenophobic violence, it must address it a part of its broader transformation to a moreinclusive society. This means eroding a worldview that labels some as excludable.
Whether it is across colour, class, or border lines, South African society is an entangled one and a more just future cannot be achieved by rationing empathy based on race or geographic origins. We must remember everyone’s names, Clement, Khwezi, Ernesto, and learn those of others.
* Landau is the SA research chairperson for mobility and the politics of difference at the African Centre for Migration and Society. He is co-editor of I Want to Go Home Forever: Stories of Becomin g and Belonging in South Africa’s Great Metropolis (Wits Press).