Opinionista Leanne Stillerman 30 January 2015

Conversations about xenophobia: Some psychological dimensions

Thinking about group dynamics, in-group and out-group phenomena and the psychology of economic hardship may shed some light on the recent spate of attacks on foreigners living in South Africa. Strong leadership would also help re-establish order, and a more ardent condemnation and commitment to the protection of foreign nationals needs to be made by politicians.

In the articles and conversations about the last two weeks of violence and looting, our wish to understand is apparent because it feels like to understand and to diagnose would make it possible to remedy. Looting of foreign-owned shops spread from Soweto to other parts of the country, including Langlaagte and Alexandra in Gauteng, Khayelitsha in the Western Cape and Zamimpilo in KwaZulu-Natal, suggesting that these attacks have a contagious quality and are underpinned by nationwide systemic problems.

While a rigorous study of the underlying factors is required, and will (hopefully) be undertaken by a task team being assembled by the government, these preliminary conversations help to generate ideas about what might be at play. Thinking about group dynamics, in-group and out-group phenomena and the psychology of economic hardship may shed some light.

On the face of it, the sentiment that foreigners take something rightfully belonging to South Africans appears to underlie such attacks. Resentment builds when foreigners appear to be making a living while many South Africans face scarce employment opportunities and economic hardship. Cosatu’s statement acknowledged the socio-economic issues – unemployment, poverty, and crime – which create fertile ground for such attacks while cautioning against blaming people on the basis of their country of origin.

These problems are structural, rooted in years of colonialism and apartheid capitalism which kept the majority of South Africans in desperate poverty and denied them any democratic means to improve their plight, not by foreign nationals, who are themselves victims of the same problems of competing for limited resources, in the context of increasingly unregulated trading,” Cosatu’s Patrick Craven said.

The social conditions preceding these outbreaks of violence are significant. Many South Africans living in townships such as Soweto, Khayelitsha and Zamimpilo experience poor living conditions and have difficulty accessing both the financial and social capital that would help to break the poverty cycle. The legacy of apartheid, where black South Africans were isolated from the marketplace and social capital was systematically eroded, lingers.

The difficulty here is that “colonialism” and “apartheid capitalism” are abstract ideas, removed from the daily struggle for economic survival. These are faceless legacies that continue to exert their pernicious effects, but they are not concrete entities against which to direct the anger associated with economic hardship. There are those who would blame the state and its failure to create adequate employment opportunities, or supply the quality of education that would foster hope for a better future.

Even then, the state feels removed from the everyday lives of many, and like an absentee parent, appears not to register the experience of ordinary South Africans. With a lack of recognition from those who hold the reins of power, and a sense that politicians inhabit a different socio-economic realm and are fairly inaccessible, the daily struggle seems to go unnoticed. In the absence of an entity to acknowledge and address these experiences or against which to direct frustration and anger, these affects may be displaced on to those perceived as ‘other’. Foreigners may be seen as easy targets, vulnerable to the experience of marginalisation.

Over the past week, a debate emerged after some politicians attributed the looting to “criminality”, rather than to xenophobia, a view which flew in the face of evidence that foreign-owned shops were targeted while South African-owned shops were not. Why would politicians deny the xenophobic nature of these attacks, which is seemingly self-evident?

In his article in the Daily Maverick, Stephen Grootes suggested that the state may be loathe to acknowledge how rife racism and xenophobia are in our purported rainbow nation. I would add that to blame “criminality” de-politicises the issue, absolving the state of its failure to adequately address the grievances of those living in poverty. Looting shops is one way of becoming visible, one that draws attention to the forgotten multitudes that can no longer abide empty promises.

Exacerbating the anger and frustration of many South Africans is the perception that foreigners have the things of which THEY feel deprived. The irony of being in a foreign country is that foreigners may experience a more cohesive sense of community with fellow immigrants than South Africans do, and may draw on know-how gleaned from running businesses in their home countries.

Lindiwe Zulu, minister of small business, reflected on these dynamics in an interview with Grootes on 702, pointing to the need to address the factors that impede South Africans from starting small businesses. The experience of lack, coupled with resentment towards those who seem to have the things one lacks, creates a hazardous situation with potentially destructive consequences. There is also the sense that attacking the source of envy will help to get rid of the unpleasant experience, blotting out the awareness of a seemingly more privileged ‘other’, much like biblical Joseph’s brothers when they sold him into oblivion.

Perhaps humans are territorial animals who simply don’t want others stepping on their turf and benefiting from a share of the market, or rather, that we become territorial and hostile towards the “other” under trying conditions. Does this kind of understanding excuse xenophobic violence? I think not, but we need to acknowledge the uglier side of human nature in order to overcome it. It would be more comfortable to attribute the violence and looting to criminal elements. To acknowledge that children and ordinary citizens were involved in the looting raises serious questions about the state of our society.

While working in a clinical context in Soweto and Orange Farm, I became aware of the broken state of many of South Africa’s families; of the many absent fathers, poverty, and often sub-standard schooling children receive. In this environment, children may not get the input they need to feel hopeful about the future. Where groups are challenged in this way, identifying with an ‘in-group’ may be a way of shoring up the group’s self-esteem, and attacking an ‘out-group’ might enable one (temporarily) to rid oneself of negative feelings, including a sense of inferiority and marginalisation. When lacking a sense of secure belonging and cohesive family, banding together as an in-group sharing a South African identity has a certain pull.

These incidents cannot be understood without reference to aspects of group psychology and the way aggressive responses can become disinhibited in the context of group violence. The description of the advancing mob portrayed by Somali shop owners quoted in The Star speaks to the chaos and which becomes possible in a group. Some individuals act in ways to which they might be unaccustomed if not in the group context. In these descriptions is a sense of unravelling law and order which makes one question what factors usually hold society together and uphold the social contract, which involves a minimum respect for property rights. Enter the police, a symbol of law and order, to try to restore what has unravelled, but the police struggled to contain the looting.

The politicians who spoke to people last week Friday seemed to make an impact, although the looting spread to other parts of the country over the weekend and this week. One wonders why politicians did not take to national television to display a resolute effort that the message be heard countrywide, and offer a more ardent condemnation and commitment to the protection of foreign nationals. Without the felt presence of leadership to re-establish order and coherence, it feels as if the centre cannot hold.

Whether the state will take heed of the slow-burning issues underlying these attacks, or downplay their urgency, remains to be seen. While adequate policing and protection of foreign nationals is essential to contain and prevent xenophobic attacks, there may be another powerful, preventative remedy: hope. If South Africans felt more hopeful about being able to access a viable financial future, the sense of dispossession underlying these attacks may be attenuated. DM

Stillerman is a Clinical Psychologist


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