Defend Truth


South Africa’s sense of exceptionalism contributes to the proliferation of xenophobia


David Reiersgord works in international higher education, specifically on curriculum development and academic management for US study abroad learners in South Africa. He lectures part-time and is interested in literature, history and politics.

South Africa’s unemployment crisis is the result of corruption, failed initiatives and widespread incompetence, not because of ‘foreigners’ taking jobs. But the ANC appears unwilling to condemn the rising xenophobia — or Afrophobia, or maybe just hatred — since that would entail looking inward.

For some reason, the so-called Operation Dudula and its accompanying chorus of xenophobia makes me think of South African exceptionalism. Those galvanised by Nhlanhla Lux, along with politicians who disingenuously fan the flames of xenophobia, misunderstand what’s exceptional about South Africa.

The implications of this misunderstanding are grave. On the one hand, they’ve already led to violence — and the death of Elvis Nyathi — and will likely lead to more. On the other hand, they misdiagnose the source of South Africa’s immense challenges by externalising blame on to nameless, placeless “foreigners”, instead of looking internally at the African National Congress and its many shortcomings and failures.

The rising tensions and transpiring vigilantism is a reminder of the convenient escape hatch immigration provides for those who mistake accountability with entitlement. Like the ANC, which is quick to overlook accountability in the name of unity, Operation Dudula is a crude germination of a sense of entitlement premised on the idea that South Africa is separate but equal to the rest of Africa, and deserves to be so. 

It’s worth distilling what exceptionalism means because often the term is reduced to arrogance. This isn’t necessarily the case. All countries may think themselves exceptional, a sentiment which is voiced as national pride. However, what distinguishes exceptionalism from the sense that a country is exceptional is believing that what makes a country special entitles it to play a special role in regional or global affairs.

Take the United States, for example. It’s a cliché that American identity has, over time, become underpinned by exceptionalism. While this has contributed to an arrogant perspective of much of the world, what’s more important is how this mindset has led to the idea that the United States has a divine role to play as the author of world history.

The consequences of this belief guided the invasion of Iraq, along with countless other instances in which the United States’ foreign policy treated other countries as passive backdrops for American ambition. These failures and outright disasters are rationalised through the grammar of exceptionalism — only the United States can operate in such a way because it has a destiny with World History.

South African exceptionalism similarly has a long history. With the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910, a whites-only government attempted to institutionalise the idea that South Africa is uniquely different from the rest of Africa, as a country with a European heritage. Since the end of apartheid, South African identity has undergone tremendous shifts, and the country has oriented itself towards Africa, but its sense of exceptionalism remains, albeit under a different guise.

There are features of South Africa that stand out in relation to other African countries, like freedom of speech and the press, and its strong judiciary, among others. Moreover, South Africa’s economy, although abysmal over the past decade, remains more productive than its SADC neighbours and most of sub-Saharan Africa. It’s also the top tourist destination on the continent.

For these reasons it’s understandable South Africans would feel like they’re exceptional — because South Africans are, and South Africa is, exceptional. The country’s diversity of people and cultures, landscapes and geography, languages and heritages, in addition to its revolutionary democracy, are parts of its exceptional makeup.

Like Americans, though, who, for so long swallowed American exceptionalism whole, South Africa runs the risk of a belief in its exceptionalism morphing into a clarion call for so-called activists like Lux, as well as politicians, to organise around. Other institutions can glom on too. On Friday, a video depicting police questioning an individual about the pronunciation of specific words suggests this is already happening. The longer this sentiment continues to be given legitimacy, rather than countered by the African National Congress with serious, informed rebuttals and condemnation, the more radioactive the situation will become.

One may well say: “What do you expect? Foreigners are taking our jobs. South Africans should be prioritised.” To be sure, there’s an important conversation to be had about immigration in South Africa. To think otherwise is to ignore reality. Part of this is the result of Home Affairs; it’s clogged up, which means visa applications take much longer than they should to be processed. The inefficiencies of Home Affairs implicitly incentivise people to live undocumented, despite participating in daily affairs like anyone else in South Africa. 

But to participate in this discussion by projecting frustration and disappointment with the failures of the ANC on to “foreigners” is disingenuous and misguided. Through the lens of South African exceptionalism, however, one is able to buy into the idea that what ails South Africa is the result of external pressures, rather than internal dysfunction and inconsistency.

The lack of jobs and sky-high unemployment figures aren’t the result of extremely high numbers of “foreigners” living and working in South Africa. The numbers simply don’t add up.

Still, it’s convenient for politicians to invoke the “foreigner” when bemoaning the lack of opportunities for employment. Herman Mashaba, for instance, the leader of ActionSA, claimed in 2020 that there are 15 million “undocumented foreigners in South Africa, some occupying jobs that can be done by our own people”. This is demonstrably false.

According to StatsSA’s 2020 mid-year population estimates, there were 3.9 million foreign-born people in South Africa, an estimate that includes undocumented people. Others, such as the United Nations’ population division, estimate there are 4.2 million foreign-born people, amounting to 7.2% of the population.

With these figures in mind, which don’t capture the entire picture, the reality of South African immigration becomes clearer: Its unemployment crisis is the result of corruption, failed initiatives and widespread incompetence, not the “foreigners”. But because the ANC operates as if it’s entitled to votes, it appears unwilling to condemn the rising xenophobia — or Afrophobia, or maybe just hatred — since that would entail looking inward.

South Africa’s sense of exceptionalism contributes to the proliferation of xenophobia, along with the adoption of the belief that the challenges facing South Africa aren’t primarily the doing of its government. But what makes this country exceptional is its belief — enshrined in the Constitution — that South Africa belongs to all who live in it. Concerned South Africans should remember this, and not let the government off the hook. DM


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  • Craig B says:

    This view is naive ……… poverty and uncontrolled immigration have collided and xenophobia has resulted. Happens all over the world there is nothing different occurring the minds of Americans or South Africans. This article addresses cliches as if they were facts

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