Xenophobia or racism? Migrants in South Africa

Xenophobia or racism? Migrants in South Africa

In the South African news last week was the violent round up and arrest of many migrants camping out around St George’s Mall in Cape Town while attending the building that houses the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Many and perhaps most of them had arrived in South Africa as refugees. They were there to apply for appropriate documentation as genuine refugees to enable them to leave South Africa, where they do not feel safe from violent harm, and go to other safer countries. The irony of it, that the forces of so-called law and order did this, following a court order, and that it was in respect of an agency where they might have expected to be treated with consideration if not respect. The background here is that is not unknown that migrant groups in South Africa are targeted for extreme violence including murder, with the ‘best’ known examples being the widespread killings that occurred in different places in 2008, 2015 and March 2019. Also part of the background is that it is by no means so easy as officialdom pronounces to distinguish between migrant workers and refugees Also part of the background is that it is by no means so easy as officialdom pronounces to distinguish between migrant workers and refugees.

And important analytical questions arises. When particular groups of people are picked out and treated negatively because of their skin colour, hair, facial characteristics and so by black people regarding other black people, is this a variant of racism, or should it be seen as something else like xenophobia?

Migrancy and refugees perhaps conjures up a picture of mass arrivals of people by boat et cetera in northern Europe, whereas across southern Africa migrancy has of course been a fact of life for the black population for a long time period and most ordinarily takes the form of migrant labour working, often long-term, in both the formal and the informal economy. Migrancy, refugees, migrant labour, in practice overlap considerably in practice overlap considerably. Much of the academic as well as popular literature treats violence against such groups when associated ‘othering’ them in respect of presumed physical characteristics as xenophobia. And it sees this as occurring because such groups are viewed as outwith notions of citizenship and therefore thought to be illegitimately present and undeservingly taking scarce resources – jobs, money, accommodation, whatever – that should belong to those who are deserving citizens and ‘belong’. The viewpoint underpinning this is said to be that these ‘others‘ are outsiders, do not belong, are usurping what should go to those who do belong, and anyway are inferior and deserve being treated as such.

Perhaps this is xenophobia. But perhaps not. Xenophobia is in some ways a comforting interpretation, that such things are not to do with race/racism, which is instead treated as confined to how black people are negatively treated by white. In this conceptual schema, black people do not do racism. But looking at the groups so targeted, those doing the targeting, and the rhetorics expressed around the dreadful events that occur, it is the similarities between these and racism that are striking, not differences. and as a consequence, rather than assembling and debating labels and categories that allocate blame differently, it seems more important and more relevant to look at events and how these are triggered and unfold at local levels, rather than treating such behaviours as somehow belonging to the macro level on the one hand and the micro level of internalised phobias and ‘isms’ on the other. Norbert Elias on the established and outsiders in a given context still seems the best way of explaining such dynamics, and Elias himself later turned this analysis towards race and racism in an interesting discussion of To Kill a Mockingbird. For a discussion of this, see Elias on figuration and whiteness.

Last updated: 8 November 2019