The Politics of Fear and the Fear of Politics

Topics: Africa, South Africa, African Union Pages: 13 (4271 words) Published: August 16, 2010
Journal of Asian and African Studies

The Politics of Fear and the Fear of Politics: Reflections on Xenophobic Violence in South Africa Michael Neocosmos Journal of Asian and African Studies 2008 43: 586 DOI: 10.1177/0021909608096655 The online version of this article can be found at:

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The Politics of Fear and the Fear of Politics: Reflections on Xenophobic Violence in South Africa Michael Neocosmos
Monash University, South Africa

Journal of Asian and African Studies Copyright © 2008 SAGE Publications (Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore and Washington DC) Vol 43(6): 586–594 DOI: 10.1177/0021909608096655

Reflecting on the causes of the recent xenophobic pogroms in South Africa, it is striking how most commentators have stressed poverty and deprivation as the underlying causes of the events. Yet it requires little effort to see that economic factors, however real, cannot possibly account for why it was those deemed to be non-South Africans who bore the brunt of the vicious attacks. Poverty can be and has historically been the foundation for the whole range of political ideologies, from communism to fascism and anything in between. In fact, poverty can only account for the powerlessness, frustration and desperation of the perpetrators, but not for their target. Why were not Whites, or the rich, or White foreigners in South Africa targeted instead? Of course, it is a common occurrence that the powerless regularly take out their frustrations on the weakest: women, children, the elderly – and outsiders. Yet this will not suffice as an explanation. The systematic and concerted attacks on those deemed to be foreign according to popular stereotypes requires more of an explanation than powerlessness can provide, however important a factor that may have been. Keywords political discourse • South Africa • state • xenophobia

In order to provide a more inclusive explanation, one should first recall the observations of Frantz Fanon in the immediate post-independence period in Africa: The working class of the towns, the masses of the unemployed, the small artisans and craftsmen … line up behind this nationalist attitude; but in all justice let it be said, they only follow in the steps of their bourgeoisie. If the national bourgeoisie goes into competition with the Europeans, the artisans and craftsmen start a fight against non-national Africans … From nationalism we have passed to ultranationalism, to chauvinism, and finally to racism.These foreigners are called on to leave; their shops are burned, their street stalls are wrecked … (Fanon, 1990: 125)

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Neocosmos: Politics of Fear and the Fear of Politics


The collapse of nationalism into chauvinism, Fanon observed, was fundamentally occasioned by the new post-independence elites, who grabbed the jobs and capital of the departing Europeans while the popular classes only followed in their footsteps in attacking foreign Africans. This suggests that a politics of nationalism founded on stressing indigeneity lay at the root of postcolonial xenophobia. To what extent is Fanon’s account applicable to postapartheid South Africa? There is little doubt that the politics of grabbing and enrichment among the post-apartheid elite have been both brazen and extensive. So-called Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) has enabled the...
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