Populations, Populism and Institutions – Explaining South Africa’s Xenophobic Violence (June 2015)

The rise of Operation Dudula, All Trucker Foundation and the South Africa First Party have taken what was once relegated to the margins of South African politics, anti-immigrant xenophobic activism, and made it mainstream. In this piece, penned by Loren Landau in 2015, he writes of 'persistent demonization and denigration of foreigners in the country’s townships... (of) attacks on foreigners and other outsiders neither (beginning) nor (ending) in 2008.

Populations, Populism and Institutions – Explaining South Africa’s Xenophobic Violence
Teaser Image Caption
South Africans protest on Human Rights Day. Photo: supplied.

Over the past month, South Africans have again witnessed popular efforts to expel outsiders through threats and overt violence. Seven were left dead in its wake and thousands of others displaced.  Neighbouring countries have condemned the attacks as have significant segments of the South African citizenry.  Although the most visible violence has now abated, popular and political responses to it suggest that it will continue to lurk just below the surface from where it will return emboldened.

The past weeks’ violence will have come as no surprise to anyone who has followed the persistent demonization and denigration of foreigners in the country’s townships. Although the world woke up to the deadly mix of violence and xenophobia in May 2008, attacks on foreigners and other outsiders neither began nor ended in 2008. Hundreds have been killed since then in isolated incidents and locally organized melees. To date, only one person has been convicted for murder in connection with these killings.

Some have termed this Afrophobia—a kind of self-hatred or suspicion of other Africans – fostered through generations of apartheid-era education and social control.  To be sure there are legacies of these initiatives across South African society, legacies which help shape the violence. Yet looking closely at the nature and targets of the attacks reveals the limits of this argument: not all Africans are despised and not all victims are Africans. Tens of thousands of African immigrants live peacefully with their South African neighbours who have risked their own lives to stop the violence. Moreover, many of those killed over the past years have been from China or South Asia. South African citizens from the ‘wrong side of the tracks’ also suffer at the mobs’ hands.

We must also consider that strong anti-outsider (anti-immigrant and anti-migration) attitudes are strong across all groups, white and black, rich and poor. There are as many reasons for such sentiments as there are people, yet migration challenges groups and classes in varied ways. Wealthy Whites spin nightmares of a seemingly endless number of impoverished immigrants threating their pristine cities and privilege (even as they exploit their cheap labour). For Black South Africans aiming for boardrooms and banks, the migration of Africa’s elite – people with strong education and global experiences – threatens their climb up the corporate ladder.  But these groups can use law, policy, or private police to protect themselves from the threatening other. It is among the poor would-be workers where the most violent threats reside. Conditioned to dislike outsiders over generations by an exploitative migrant labour systems designed to surprises wages and political dissent, foreigners offer an easy (if inaccurate) explanation for sky-high unemployment and economic stagnation.

The most recent round of violence may well have been triggered by the Zulu monarch inflammatory remarks in which he compared immigrants to fleas or lice -- comments clearly heard in recordings of his speech. These are powerful and disappointing words from a leader many hold in high regards, not least because of their reminiscence to terms used during the 1994 Rwandan genocide.  However, he is not alone. Since apartheid’s end – also in 1994 – politicians and officials have consistently demonized foreigners, crediting them with sky-high crime rates, spreading debilitating disease, and sapping services and jobs.

Such accusations are not unique to South Africa, nor are they accurate. As in Europe where the migration from outside the EU is often understood as an existential threat to economic and physical security, South African leaders’ accusations resonate with portions of the population. These words echo loudest with those who are poorer than ever and remember an apartheid-era migrant labour regime that was explicitly designed to disempower Black South Africans.

Having said that, there is obviously no direct connection between hate speech or scapegoating and violence. Despite a faltering education system and an occasionally irresponsible tabloid media, South Africans are fully capable of seeing see through efforts to shift blame for transformation’s failures to external actors, even those living side by side with citizens. To argue that they respond mechanically to incitement or economic conditions is condescending and inaccurate. If there is inspiration to be drawn from the 2008 and 2015 attacks, it is from images of poor communities placing themselves at risk while standing up to the violence. Statements from leaders in traditional, elected, and selected positions help create a ‘fire pool’ of resentment from which politicians, gangsters, and others can dip in to mobilize hatred that benefits their own economic or political gain. As national and local leaders struggle for popular legitimacy, they will dip into that pool again and again.

The attacks’ deep roots may be in generations of discrimination, the migrant labour system, or persistent poverty. Yet many places – including many towns and townships in South Africa – face these challenges without violence. Outbreaks occur where governance systems fall short. Part of the problem is rooted in how South Africa selects and supports its leaders. Ward councillors, or some of them, are the only directly elected officials (the rest appear only on party lists).  As such, they are the only ones who must meet constituents face-to-face to be elected. While few citizens know their MPs or mayoral committee members personally or even by name, councillors and others at the local level are familiar.  Indeed, they face the firing line of popular discontent but are poorly empowered to address their voters’ gripes. With almost no budget or legislative authority, they are held responsible for problems they have no hope of resolving. Faced with perennial shortfalls of services, dwelling, and jobs, is it any wonder local leadership allows and abets the scapegoating and appropriation of foreign owned shops, houses or goods? With new resources to distribute and a demon to blame, they come out winners. With no evident penalty from law enforcement their political superiors only sweetens the deal.

Unfortunately, the responses from South African citizens and politicians are doing little to address the structural and institutional conditions that incentivise violence. To their credit, the police have been quicker to respond to this round of hateful rage and South Africa’s most senior political leaders have publicly condemned the violence, finally admitting that this must be something more than petty criminality.

But underlying this is a more worrying change: that the language of the 2008 gangsters and murderers is going mainstream. Beneath the appeals for tolerance are also calls for closure: ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe wants refugee camps; others demand tighter border controls, bans on foreign business and land ownership or bans on foreigners all together. Even the president was careful to say we must respect those who are "legally" in the country, suggesting an open season on others. In the days following the violence, the government launched an overt and highly visible anti-crime came under the name ‘Operation Fiela.’  Ostensibly designed to help root dangerous elements in society, it was undertaken in a migrant-rich neighbourhood and bagged over seven hundred people for deportation while netting fewer than 150 on criminal charges.  In such gestures we see officials placating the basest most exclusionary fears among the citizenry; seeking legitimacy among those who take others’ lives into their hands by conflating immigration with criminality.

Whereas xenophobia has long been part of nationalist discourse in the country, the gains made from the 2008 mobilization in the form of appropriated shops and houses; positions in local politics and government; and popular legitimacy offer great allure to a population that remains poor and the leaders who represent them. The leadership at the national level seems to have absorbed the message that attacking or scapegoating foreigners works.

This is a politically savvy move. For a government struggling to keep the poor on its side, such populist manoeuvres help divert attention from structural inequality and employment. If implemented, these controls would do little to boost wages or job numbers – they would likely do just the opposite – but rallying behind them is both politically expedient and perfectly rational. So is the violence that has rocked the country over the past weeks. Only by realigning institutional and political incentives can we effectively counter exclusion and xenophobia violence.

There are constitutional limits on what we can do to reform the electoral system, but there are concrete ways we can encourage local authorities to plan for and include diverse populations within their communities. Providing a budgetary bump to constituencies that register new migrants – domestic and international – and provide them services means that new arrivals bring resources not competition. As it is now, population dynamics are poorly predicted and budgetary support is all but absent.

Participatory budgeting and planning is valuable and democratic, but it too tends to exclude newcomers and other marginalised groups. Improved collection and use of population data in planning processes could better anticipate where housing or service needs will be most acute and respond proactively rather than waiting for protest. Identifying, prosecuting, or at least marginalising leaders who actively exclude on the basis of nationality, race, gender, or language may cost some political points, but can also rapidly shifts incentives away from violence.

Talk of institutional and technocratic reform does not stir the heart of ease our collective conscious. To those ends we can continue our marches, publicity campaigns and impassioned speeches. Condemnation from neighbouring countries and wealthy South Africans may hurt the government through trade sanctions. Such moves also risk heightening the political value of exclusionary, populist nationalism by cementing boundaries between classes and nations.

Seriously combatting xenophobia means moving beyond such appeals. We must instead address the institutional incentives that foment conflict. This may be harder worker, but it should give us encouragement. The people we are dealing with are rational if angry. Changing the incentives will change actions.  Whereas tightened border controls and encampment will only foster underground economies and harder social divide, institutional reform will much more palatable side effects: improved efficiency, better service delivery, and safer communities.