The sickness of xenophobia, and the need for a politics of healing

by Jun 12, 2015All Articles, Xenophobia

Thousands of people marched through the streets of Johannesburg to protest against xenophobia. Credit: Daylin Paul

THE NEVER-ENDING SAGA OF xenophobic violence has again engulfed South Africa. Again the same platitudes are repeated by commentators whose knee-jerk reactions have become so predictable. These reactions are as depressing as the acts of violence themselves, for they confirm that South Africa is a sick society in desperate need of healing.

Our country is sick because it treats fellow human beings who exhibit differences from the supposed norm as outsiders to community and therefore as enemies of the nation who can then become legitimate targets for violence. But it is also sick because it is unaware of its own sickness; it is literally blind to its own inhumanity.

Some people can actually stand aside and laugh as other people are being aggressed and robbed of all their belongings. The two accounts of xenophobic violence repeated ad nauseam in the country are criminality (deployed usually by state agents) and poverty/inequality (uttered by academic and other supposed pundits). Even though there is a grain of truth to both, these are far from identifying the fundamental problem and so contribute to the perpetuation of the sickness.

Clearly the killing and theft associated with xenophobic violence is quite obviously criminal and cannot be justified, but it has to be located within a wider context where violence, identity politics, corruption and graft have become the norm rather than the exception in the way our public life is conducted.

On the other hand poverty, although it clearly accounts for frustration and despair, does not account for the target of violence, for poverty can lead to all sorts of different reactions from self-immolation to class struggle. Criminality is no explanation at all; in fact it amounts to a failure to explain, and we can see what it may result in when top state functionaries blurt it out unthinkingly, as they did just prior to the Marikana killings. It is disingenuous to expect the criminal justice system to address the issue when at least one of its component parts – the police – is despite its change in nomenclature, for the majority, still a force, and only in rare cases a service. We have seen over the years police using foreigners to train their dogs, dragging them behind police vehicles, tearing up their papers, standing by and laughing while migrants (or supposed migrants) to this country are being robbed and accepting bribes to do what they are paid to do.

None of this is news, although putting it in headlines helps the print media to sell copy and to imply that the system is falling apart since Blacks took over the reins of power. As far as I am aware, only one person was taken to court for murder after the xenophobic violence of 2008, and then he was rapidly released. No one is in prison as a retribution for these killings. Impunity reigns within the police who harass migrants on a regular basis for bribes.

All attitude surveys undertaken from the 1990s have invariably shown that South Africans, irrespective of race, gender, class, party supported, age or whatever other criterion you care to think of, are equally xenophobic. This is a national disease. The middle-class (Black or White) may not usually go about killing their foreign neighbours, but their hatred and fear of the other is as deep as any other South African. Vulgar sociology cannot help us here; other accounts are necessary. It is in fact disingenuous to condemn xenophobia in public statements when the whole tenure of state immigration policy has been one of ‘fortress South Africa’, and when politicians have been falling over each other since the 1990s to blame foreign migrants for anything from drug dealing to hiv/Aids. A sick xenophobic culture is the eventual result of such a crude identity politics. Identity politics can only result in violence, horrors and war; even more so when one lives in a ‘smash and grab society’.

To say that our society is fundamentally sick should not raise any objections, as with few exceptions (and there are some) everyone connected with state power is in one way or another engaged in some form of graft, theft or plunder of communal resources. It is not simply a matter of stealing from state coffers, it is rather that a culture of personal entitlement has been allowed to develop, encouraged by a politics for which interest and identity are paramount. It is not simply that those with power are breaking the law when they allocate tenders to party supporters and other clients. It is rather that a culture of patronage has arisen in which access to contacts, powerful connections and charmed circles is necessary in order to acquire anything from jobs and housing to investments or to support for economic or state ventures.

The post-liberation version of the disease (of course it was there before; colonialism/Apartheid was a corrupt system – what could be more corrupting to thought than the systematic conception of the majority as sub-human?) began, it should be recalled, with foreign multinationals bribing politicians for lucrative contracts; it continued with the placing of politicians and trade union leaders on the boards of large companies and with the requests to tender awardees to put their hand in their pocket in order to fund the party which provided them with the tender. Nkandla is only the latest example of this culture and was totally predictable. It extends like gangrene all the way down the line with councillors providing jobs and housing only to the party faithful. There is no distinction to be made between political parties here; they are all at it. Moreover the vicious ideology of exceptionalism for which South Africans see themselves as superior to the rest of the continent ensures that an Afrikagevaar reigns supreme in the South African psyche.

Should we be surprised in this context if even lower down the political food chain forms of theft consisting of hijacking cattle trucks and slaughtering their consignment of animals on the side of the road also seem to be becoming commonplace? After all, God help the person left in his or her car beside the road after an accident, as all their belongings are likely to be stolen and their car dismantled while they are left to bleed to death. Of course those considered to be outsiders to community – not necessarily foreigners, after all 21 of the 63 people murdered in xenophobic violence in 2008 were South Africans (from beyond the area) – are in this context vulnerable because they are obviously located outside community.

‘They steal Our jobs’, ‘Our housing’ and even ‘Our democracy’ are common justificatory utterances in this regard. National identity having failed to grip the popular imagination beyond the 1980s has been allowed to degenerate into a crude simulacrum of itself. As Fanon had noted during an earlier sequence in the 1960s, from a liberatory egalitarian maxim, national consciousness in Africa came to acquire in the hands of the state and in those of the newly powerful, an exclusionary content which enabled the new oligarchy to access resources while the new middle-classes and the poor followed in their footsteps. Excluded by racism and poverty, many in South Africa have been seduced by a quasi-fascist ideology. The turning away of bleeding patients from hospitals on the grounds that they are unable to show an id is a national disgrace. I have had direct experience of this, I know. These actions are so demeaning to both victim and perpetrator that one wonders whether the term ‘dignity’ still has any meaning for people in this country. And yet we continue to ramble on about criminals and poverty. In the absence of a politics of the common good, of the public good or of the common interest, where what is held in common is understood by all to be beyond private acquisition, there can be no redemption from the social sickness we are confronting. Mutual help, cooperation, and a collective ethic of the common good must replace the crass individualism of the market as a matter of urgency.

African societies in the past understood that if individuals transcended collective moral codes and engaged in grossly deviant behaviour, not only was the individual guilty, but the whole society was equally so for having allowed the individual to err in the first place. In order to cure society of its ills a process of social healing had to be undertaken and fought for; this was not an automatic outcome of Ubuntu. Social healing was a politics to be fought for, not a simple given; Ubuntu was a prescriptive practice, not a romantic anthropological description of reality. Such a process of social healing is a vital necessity in this country today. For this to occur, what is required is the need to understand that we all live within a common humanity and that everyone without exception is entitled to a dignified life.

Of course the leading defenders of African culture are not particularly interested in this aspect, for it would require thinking a new form of political practice in which everyone can live a dignified life, now, today, at this very moment; and not at an unspecified future time. It means changing completely our political subjectivity so as to isolate the oligarchy of politicians, capitalists and racists, along with their hangers-on in, favour of a new way of thinking,a politics of the excluded, a politics of emancipation. This cannot concern exclusively the so-called working-class and an unspecified socialism, even if it were clear what these terms actually convey in the 21st century. It is not a matter of replacing ethnic or racial identities by class identities, but of overcoming identity politics as such. It is not a matter of putting forward yet another set of interests, but of fighting for a ‘disinterested interest’. For it is only this way that the public good, the common good, the national interest, dignity and humanity can become again terms within our public discourse.

Should the state itself be unable to pursue such a politics – which seems to be the case as all state political actors are vested in interest and identity politics of a frankly neo-colonial kind – it would have to find its source elsewhere. The recent example of the victory of the Syriza party in Greece is very instructive in this regard. While commentators seem to notice the ‘leftist’ character of that party, it is less a dogmatic leftism and more a concern for the dignity of the people and for national sovereignty which has guided its politics. Its desire to break the back of a corrupt oligarchy of politicians, newspaper magnates, ship-owners and wealthy tax-dodgers, to restructure the state as a servant of the people and to re-establish its relations with the northern powerful states in Europe on a more equal footing are what guides its thinking. Seeing themselves as the inventors of democracy (they forget that they also invented despotism!) Greeks have been incensed by its corruption by both the EU and the local oligarchy.

Syriza has understood that in a context of neo-colonial oppression, a form of popular nationalism, must be at the core of an alternative democratic politics. In doing so, it has undercut the violent xenophobic chauvinism of the neo-Nazis, which had been encouraged by the state in the first place, much as it was in South Africa (the barbarians are at the door!).

Our oligarchy is much newer and therefore less well-entrenched, although it has been brazen in its corrupt activities. If left to continue on its current trajectory, the country will simply be destroyed. A different current of political thinking is what the country needs to heal its sickness and to restore the dignity of all people as human beings.

Michael Neocosmos is a Professor and Director of the Unit for the Humanities at Rhodes University. This piece was originally published on the Daily Maverick website:

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