Defend Truth


Like racism and sexism, xenophobia exists, and denying this fuels more anti-migrant violence


Dr Philippa Kerr is a postdoctoral fellow affiliated with the Psychology Department at Stellenbosch University. Her PhD was about an incident of anti-immigrant violence in a Western Cape commercial farming community in 2009.

To say that we don’t have a problem with xenophobia is to gaslight the people who have been its victims and survivors, and deny them a language for articulating and naming what they have experienced.

Last week I listened to President Cyril Ramaphosa on the radio saying that South Africans are not xenophobic. He was responding to the recent incidents of violence and intimidation against immigrants in Gauteng.

When I heard him, my eyes nearly bugged out. Not xenophobic?! Actually, Ramaphosa is at least the third in a line of presidents who have made similar denialist pronouncements about xenophobia. Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma also said that South Africans are not xenophobic, immediately after other incidents of violence that South Africans had directed specifically at migrants from other parts of Africa.

How would we respond if a male political leader told us that there is no sexism in South Africa? Or if a white political leader told us that there is no racism? Or if a heterosexual person stood up and said that there is no homophobia? Many people would scoff and say that the leader is at best out of touch or, at worst, part of the problem.

Of course we have a problem with xenophobia. To say that we don’t is to gaslight the people who have been its victims and survivors, and deny them a language for articulating and naming what they have experienced. However, the fact that not everyone agrees we have a problem with xenophobia is itself instructive. Xenophobia is one of South Africa’s major blind spots, and the fact that so many people refuse to accept that xenophobia is a problem (Jonathan Crush, 2020) is precisely part of the reason it is so widespread and so little challenged.

What makes this denial so concerning is not just that it turns a blind eye but that it condones and empowers people who perpetrate and justify anti-immigrant violence by reinforcing the implication that the problem of violence against immigrants is not with the xenophobia of South Africans, but with the things that immigrants themselves do, which make violence a supposedly reasonable response. Here we can draw parallels with the kinds of excuses made for gender-based violence – for example, when violent and abusive men argue that the problem is not their own sexism or misogyny, but that a woman was “asking for it” or “deserved” to be treated this way. These kinds of excuses are a form of victim-blaming.

But the fact that not everyone agrees that the problem is xenophobia also means that simplistic moral calls to “say no to xenophobia” or to unite behind an anti-xenophobic position are likely to have only limited effectiveness, because these statements only appeal to people who already agree with this definition of the problem. When, by contrast, many people in a community believe that the problem is with all the things that migrants in fact do, this generates major dilemmas for anyone trying seriously to build an anti-xenophobic politics that goes beyond mere statements, because it means possibly having to enter the debate on terms that one might not agree with in order to be effective.

While working in universities I have also found that speaking about xenophobia is not popular. Many South Africans would rather find 100 reasons to explain away the actions of their fellow citizens than consider the possibility that these might be instances of xenophobia.

One can see parallels here with discussions about racism. When the conversation turns to racism, white people often become uncomfortable, and prefer to explain why racism is not really a problem, or to define it in a way that excuses themselves from being personally guilty of it, rather than listen to black people talk about the ways they have been impacted by racism.

So too, as South African citizens, we should start listening to the ways that migrants have been impacted by xenophobia, rather than denying that xenophobia is real. We should also learn from the examples of those communities and organisations that have already worked actively to avert xenophobic violence and to build community solidarity across nationality lines. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


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