South Africa


Twenty-five years of democracy (Part 5): Xenophobia repudiates foundational values of democratic South Africa

Twenty-five years of democracy (Part 5): Xenophobia repudiates foundational values of democratic South Africa
Professor Raymond Suttner. (Photo: Madelene Cronjé / New Frame)

Xenophobia causes harm and sometimes deaths of foreign nationals. It is more than this, insofar as it runs against the main values that drove the struggle for liberation in South Africa. Xenophobic statements are now part of election manifestos. Those wanting to retrieve the emancipatory vision, that inspired democratic transition, need to think afresh after the May elections, to rebuild this.

This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s website:

Why is xenophobia so important?

Some readers may believe that the title of this article places too much weight on xenophobia. It comprises a set of practices that some even deny exists. Alternatively, while acknowledging its existence, it is said by officials not to be tolerated in South Africa. Furthermore, much that is xenophobic is concealed by being described simply as criminal.

The “new South Africa” was established in relation to a system that denied the common humanity of all human beings, that practised violence and humiliation against the majority of its citizens, who lived in poverty, were schooled – if at all – in inferior education and had access to little or no health care or social welfare.

South African democracy, after 1994, was intended to turn its back on this and give everyone a chance to live fully human lives, free of fear, hunger, humiliation, police intimidation and dispossession. All would enjoy dignity.

Most of the rights in the Bill of Rights apply to all inhabitants of South Africa. It does not specify citizenship as a requirement, and this is because the new South Africa was born with a sense of universalism, that freedom applied to all who lived within the country’s borders. The tradition and ethos of all the liberation movements was one where special care was taken towards those who came from situations of misfortune, marginalisation and vulnerability. These were the conditions that the majority of South Africans had experienced under apartheid.

Migration of peoples is a continuous part of South African history, from time immemorial, prior to conquest, as people sought better pastures or more fertile land for planting. Some migrations were a result of more violent developments, as was the case in the Difaqane/Mfecane, the forced migrations produced by the wars following the rise of Shaka as king of the Zulu people.

The South Africa of today is itself a country whose economy was built to a significant extent, on the backs of migrant labourers. Many South Africans come from this migrant background; very many have suffered the hardship of leaving home in order to survive and provide a better life for their families. Or as single individuals they have left their family in order to eke out a living on the mines or farms, far from home but always remitting wages and aiming to return in order to make things better for those left behind. Migrants under apartheid were often forced to live in squalor and suffered from degrading work and living conditions.

Migration in various forms is thus embedded in South African history. Without romanticising the precolonial past, welcoming strangers figures prominently in African cultures and there are proverbs that stress this in all African languages. The obvious example is the proverb from which ubuntu is derived which is closely connected with hospitality and self-realisation through relationships with others. Equally, Christianity, Islam and Judaism all place great weight on welcoming strangers. As has often been noted, Jesus was himself a migrant.

Naming xenophobia

Xenophobia itself is seldom acknowledged. It is not how people who practise xenophobia describe their own actions. Adrienne Rich has written:

Whatever is unnamed, undepicted in images, whatever is omitted from biography, censored in collections of letters, whatever is misnamed as something else, made difficult-to-come-by, whatever is buried in the memory by the collapse of meaning under inadequate or lying language – this will become not merely unspoken but unspeakable.” (Adrienne RichOn Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose, 1966-1978. WW Norton, Rev ed 1995 ).

Feminists have long argued that how we name relationships, historically or in the present, is a very important feature of power relations. Those who are powerful, who dominate or who have conquered others, generally claim the right to name the meaning of what has happened. They tend to erase or devalue the experiences of those who have undergone loss or have been harmed in numerous ways.

Equally, where they have the capacity, oppressed people who have experienced structural and personal injuries, have long considered “naming” an important step and a critical site of struggle. How events or people or organisations were named, was an important point of contestation in the struggle against apartheid. The ANC and allied anti-apartheid movements, and many of the states from which African refugees have come, struggled long and hard to have apartheid named as “apartheid oppression” and not simply a system of “separate development” that recognised ethnic distinctions and set up independent “homelands”. They fought long battles, many of these being gatherings in places like Nigeria, to have apartheid declared an international crime. (I mention Nigeria, specifically, because it was singled out by Gauteng Premier David Makhura, for having nationals who have a propensity to involve themselves in drug-related crimes. Nigeria, like most of the states whose nationals have come under attack offered support to our struggle and hosted our freedom fighters, for many decades.)

The ANC knows that language and naming carry political weight. Language also facilitates change in the ways in which people think of themselves; not just as marginalised, excluded or even stateless, but as human beings who have the power to build unity across divides, and are able to recognise bonds of common humanity, ties of solidarity going beyond tribal identities and nationality.

When xenophobic discourse and incitement is at work the person doing it usually denies its xenophobic character. It is important to name xenophobia for what it is and not misname it as the pursuit of criminals and those without papers or disguise it in any other way. Why is this so important? What follows is by no means exhaustive:

Xenophobia attacks the most vulnerable members of our society, those who have fled from their own countries often with few resources, just seeking a place of rest and peace. It is this human desire for shelter that xenophobia denies. “And Jesus said…’Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’” Matthew 8:20, quoted in Deirdre Cornell, Jesus was a migrant. (Orbis Books, New York, 2014, page v.) Solidarity with and defence of the most vulnerable used to be at the centre of the liberation ethic, which is now being repudiated.

Xenophobia is an attack on the dignity of human beings. Dignity is a foundational value of the South African constitution and of the struggle for democracy. It figures repeatedly in judgments of the Constitutional Court and other judicial bodies. In xenophobic discourse some human beings, who happen to be foreign nationals, often very poor, are stigmatised as bearers of disease, as having a propensity towards drug dealing and prostitution, and a general tendency towards criminality.

When working as traders they are sometimes said to sell expired goods and endanger the health of South Africans. They are sometimes said to be guilty of unfair labour or business practices. Many if not most of these claims are not borne out by evidence and when the immediate attack is past the complaint is often not pursued.

When attacks on foreign nationals take place, police and other authorities generally stand by and watch or assist looters or attackers. If there is any official follow up the focus tends to be on the purported reason for the attacks. Thus, health and consumer officials investigated claims of sales of expired goods after attacks on traders in Soweto last year and found that the claims were not valid. Few, if any, people are prosecuted for killings or arson or other crimes committed against foreign nationals, even though police have often witnessed them.

Xenophobia is violent. At this very moment there may well be a xenophobic attack taking place or people may have just fled with what remains of their belongings. It does not simply happen on a massive scale as in 2008 and 2015 but is continuous in urban and rural areas. These attacks are not spontaneous outbreaks of hatred against foreign nationals, but almost invariably preceded by incitement – sometimes by local traders who cannot compete with the business models of foreign-born traders (who in the Western Cape, offered to share their practices with local traders) and sometimes by authorities, including Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini. Sometimes attackers are transported from one township to another by local business people in order to perform the attacks and to loot.

The role of the state in relation to xenophobia

The truth of the matter is that the core problem of xenophobia in South Africa is not ignorance or antagonism between communities, who may have their prejudices but often live amicably side by side with foreign nationals. The state is at the centre, through its discourse and its practices; its statements often provide the rationale for excluding foreign nationals and hindering their settling, as with the actions and inaction of Home Affairs and police.

State actions in relation to foreign nationals have often helped create an inhospitable or hostile environment. While often prefacing xenophobic remarks with a statement like “I am not xenophobic” or “this is not xenophobic”, state officials have, throughout the history of post-apartheid South Africa played a fundamental role in preparing the ground for xenophobic hostility and attacks.

In the first place, they have stigmatised foreigners, as “illegal aliens”, a degrading, dehumanising expression. One of the reasons why some refugees, asylum seekers or others seeking to make South Africa their home, have been without papers has been because officials deliberately delay, sometimes taking 10 years to provide an answer to a request or process papers. Over so long a period, temporary papers are sometimes lost and replacing them is also an interminable process. Often bribes are required to “regularise” one’s presence in one or other place, as a trader, a permanent resident or as an asylum seeker.

I recall in the early years of democracy television footage showing police kicking down doors of “suspected illegal aliens”. Often police boasted of arresting a number of suspects and the way their alleged crimes were listed tended to associate allegedly being without papers with drug dealing, murder and other crimes.

The official discourse around foreign nationals is replete with words that suggest dirt, disease, germs, criminality and other undesirable qualities. As previously discussed, the Minister of Health, Aaron Motsoaledi and former Gauteng MEC for Health, Qedani Mahlangu, both claimed that the health system is overloaded with foreign nationals and that this is leading to disease. The association of disease with those who are unwanted has a fascist pedigree, as can be seen in Hitler’s reference to Jews as germs or disease carriers, and preceded by anti-Semitism in previous centuries.

This does not only come from rabid racists but from some who otherwise appear to be reasonable human beings. Gauteng Premier David Makhura has claimed that the health system is overloaded with foreign nationals and that neighbouring states need to compensate for the pressure on the health system.

President Cyril Ramaphosa voiced similar sentiments in a brief excerpt in a video clip, in which he attributed such attitudes to people with whom he had spoken. They are alleged to have watched how foreign nationals settled in South Africa and had babies and that this was overloading the health system.

Two points arise from the statements of Makhura and Ramaphosa. When Makhura wants compensation for health care of foreign nationals, he and Ramaphosa are not speaking of those without documentation, but almost entirely of those with valid documents. (Even they have difficulty getting treatment or admission into some hospitals. Read Jan Bornman’s articles here and here.

What this does is to dispose of the idea propounded in party manifestos and statements by both the DA and ANC that the concern over “flooding” or being overrun by migrants, relates to those who are undocumented. The truth is that they do not want them whether or not they have the correct papers. The suppose concern with undocumented migrants, for whose numbers diverse and hugely inflated estimates are given, is a fig leaf under which xenophobia hides. (See also statement of Minister of Defence, Nosiviwe Maphisa-Nqakula on the “war” against undocumented migrants).

Xenophobia attacks the foundations of our democracy

Xenophobia goes to the core of what our freedom means. It repudiates the notion of universal human rights, rights for all, and declares that some are to be treated as dirt. That creates the climate where a person is dragged behind a police van to their death as happened to Medo Macia, a Mozambican national, or burnt alive, insulted or driven out of their homes or shelters.

Xenophobia is an attack on key values that the liberation struggle embodied -humanism, solidarity with the poor and vulnerable, pan Africanism and internationalism. It is an attack on the notion of respect for all human beings and their constitutional right to dignity. In essence it is a species of racist discourse and aggression.

Insofar as xenophobia aims to scapegoat foreign nationals for problems in social services and healthcare, it is a continuation of the cowardly policies of the recent past, where the vulnerable are made to suffer for what has benefited political figures and their allies.

The ANC and beyond

It is a shameful moment in South Africa that the ANC, once a proud organisation, enters elections with attacks on immigrants as a key element of its programme. This shame derives from its failure to deliver what it promised to the poor.

Responsible and responsive leadership would accept responsibility for what it has done or condoned and not shift blame on to the most vulnerable. Regrettably, that is not found in many of the top leaders of the ANC. The struggle for liberation and freedom is too valuable to allow it to be squandered by nostalgic support for the ANC, or by simply choosing one of the other parties on offer. There needs to be a new beginning, not necessarily repudiating the ANC or other parties, that commit to an emancipatory vision. That vision and programme needs to be developed in the aftermath of whatever happens in the May elections, in order to rescue the hopes that so many cherish. DM

This article is part 5 of a series on 25 years of democracy. Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4 here

Raymond Suttner is a visiting professor in the Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg, a senior research associate at the Centre for Change and emeritus professor at Unisa. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions, especially issues relating to identities, gender and sexualities. He blogs at and his Twitter handle is @raymondsuttner


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