South Africa


Is the state complicit in xenophobic violence in South Africa?

Xenophobic violence undermines the rule of law and a state that is complicit in undermining the rule of law is a danger to itself, says the writer. (Photo: Gallo Images / Beeld / Felix Dlangamandla)

The mob attack on foreign traders in Johannesburg on 7 August can be directly linked to calls by politicians to ‘defend the sovereignty of the state’, and confirms a dangerous emerging trend: xenophobic populism leads to attacks on foreign nationals.

On 7 August 2019, amid police raids targeting counterfeit goods, a “xenophobic mob” armed with crude weapons rampaged the inner city, breaking and looting foreign-owned shops. The mob’s xenophobic intent was very clear. It wanted to do what the state had failed to do: remove foreigners from the city.

Xenophobic violence has become a regular and highly visible feature of South Africa’s political landscape. According to Xenowatch, outsiders have been regularly attacked, killed and their livelihoods destroyed since the dawn of democracy in 1994. This year, major violence incidents occurred in Durban (April 2019), when foreign nationals were attacked and displaced in five locations around the city. More information on xenophobia and related violence in South Africa is available on Xenowatch.

This ongoing violence is often blamed on the poor and criminals, but is the South African state complicit? Empirical evidence is overwhelmingly in favour of the affirmative. But do not take my word for it. Judge for yourself.

The 7 August mob attack followed a stand-off and confrontation between the police and inner-city traders, who government stated were foreign nationals. During the confrontation, traders attacked and forced the police to retreat. The stand-off was followed by remarkable outrage and condemnations by state officials at all levels (Cabinet, Parliament, Gauteng province, police, Johannesburg municipality) as well as political party leaders.

Through all condemnations, the central theme was that the confrontation with law enforcement was an attack on the state’s sovereignty. This implies foreign interference and suggests that the outrage was caused not so much by the action (the confrontation itself) as by the identity of the actors: foreigners. After all, violent attacks on the police and other law enforcement agents are a regular occurrence during police raids and service delivery protests but rarely evoke such levels of outrage. One can support the rule of law and condemn illegality, without disregarding basic principles of justice, proportionality, and due process. As others have noted, regular attacks of law enforcement in South Africa (whether by citizens or foreign nationals) are “an expression of outrage against a policing system that only oppresses and extorts but does not protect”.

As in the past, the language of “attack on sovereignty” was followed by explicit or implicit calls on citizens to defend their country. The mob attack on 7 August was a direct result of these calls, and confirms a dangerous emerging trend: xenophobic populism leads to attacks on foreign nationals. Indeed, Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini’s speech in 2015, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s campaign pronouncements earlier in the year, and other xenophobic utterances by lower-level politicians and government officials have been followed by xenophobic attacks in different localities. In all these instances, even when not responding to a direct call, political populism is used as justification by instigators and perpetrators who would have been waiting for an opportunity to strike for their own reasons.

Recent xenophobic attacks demonstrate state complicity in a number of ways. First, state officials’ calls on citizens to defend the country’s sovereignty and democracy is an order to attack foreigners; an order which the citizenry, already harbouring pervasive and strong xenophobic sentiments, is unlikely to turn down.

Second, the mob carried out the attacks in the presence and full view of the police (the state). The lack of decisive police response to prevent or stop the attacks implies the state’s support or passive involvement. Third, these xenophobic attacks have not elicited any official acknowledgement or condemnation. This is a sign of endorsement or at least tolerance by the state.

There is ample research evidence to support the analysis above. Indeed, comparative studies have shown that governance in South Africa (particularly at the local and community level) facilitates the occurrence of xenophobic violence by providing instigators with an opportunity structure to act. This facilitation happens either by direct involvement of local leaders or by lowering the perpetrators’ costs for their violent actions.

Research evidence further demonstrates that interventions to address xenophobia in the country have failed largely because of the state’s denialism (“it is just crime and not xenophobia”); lack of political will and impunity, all of which encourage perpetrators to strike whenever it suits their interests. Xenophobic violence is not a spontaneous and irrational outburst. It is a rational action taken after perpetrators have weighed costs and benefits. In the current context, benefits outweigh costs, and so violence against foreign nationals continues.

While there are many factors that interact in many and complex ways to produce an incident of xenophobic violence, this discussion indicates that state complicity is a key element in the violence causal chain. It needs to be addressed for xenophobic violence to be prevented and the rule of law that offers fair and equal protection to all country’s residents to prevail.

Xenophobic violence undermines the rule of law and a state that is complicit in undermining the rule of law is a danger to itself, its legitimacy and the very sovereignty it wants to restore/protect through police raids. DM

Dr Jean Pierre Misago is researcher and postgraduate co-ordinator at the African Centre for Migration & Society, University of the Witwatersrand.


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