Xenophobia: have we learnt nothing from the 2008 attacks?

A recurring theme in discussions about the xenophobic violence of the past few weeks has been whether we learnt anything from the 2008 attacks? LOREN LANDAU, research chair in mobility and the politics of difference, looks at what we’ve learned in the past seven years – and what we haven’t.

Over the past weeks, newspapers and radio stations have broadcast laments from citizens and leaders despondent that South Africa is again engulfed into an embarrassing and murderous xenophobic melee. Amid the outrage is a great deal of hand wringing about the failure to learn from the 2008 attacks. Did we not condemn them then? Did we not promise ourselves that this would not happen again on our watch? But the truth is, we have not been watching and this has been happening all along.

The past weeks’ violence is acute, especially brutal, and visible in city centres in ways that are novel and shocking. Many of us wonder what has changed; where has this come from? Have economic conditions suddenly worsened or has there been a spike in anti-foreigner sentiment?

Certainly the Zulu king’s incendiary remarks have encouraged his followers to express their rage in a performative, murderous spree, but violence against foreigners – particularly shopkeepers – has been an ongoing part of South African township life for the past decade, if not longer.

The “xenophobia” is not something that happened once-off in 2008. It was occurring before in townships and informal settlements. And even after the toothless commissions and inquiries into the 2008 attacks, the numbers of people attacked and killed have been steadily and sadly rising.

Generalised threats, lamppost notices, emails and text messages are circulated daily. Rumours amplify and distort the message as it is passed from lips to lips. While few South Africans are ready to kill, fear is part of the price foreigners pay to live and do business in the country.

Does this mean nothing was learned from the 2008 attacks? To their credit, the police have been quicker to respond to this round of hateful rage and our most senior political leaders have publicly condemned the violence, finally admitting that this must be something more than petty criminality.

But this belies a more important lesson. Whereas xenophobia has long been part of nationalist discourse in the country, the gains made from the 2008 mobilisation 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.

The people now behind the violence have proven themselves the keenest students. Attacking foreigners works. The country loses when we expel workers and shop keepers, but local political and business entrepreneurs almost undoubtedly prosper.

Unless one buys arguments about a third force at work, the violence in South Africa will remain relatively fragmented and poorly organised, flaring up more or less intensely in the months and years ahead. This is dangerous and worrying, for these local struggles for space and resources are battles with their own logics which flourish in the shadows of an increasingly fragmented and locally illegitimate state.

The greater fear is that in recognising its own weakness, the national state and its leaders will further embrace discourses of violent exclusion. The rhetoric around foreign land ownership, the desire to encamp refugees, and the general tightening of immigration laws suggest that they too are learning. If that is the case, we should all be afraid.

Loren Landau bio picProfessor Loren B Landau is the founding director of the African Centre for Migration & Society (formerly known as the Forced Migration Studies Programme) and South African chair in mobility and the politics of difference.
– Featured image: By Qiniso Mbili.