A Literature Review of Xenophobic Attacks in South Africa

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Brett Holberg
Xenophobic Attacks in South Africa
Attacks on foreigners in South Africa have been on the rise since the transfer of power to the ANC in 1994. These violent outbursts, which have resulted in riots and dozens of murders, have been described as xenophobic in nature. After the months of summer 2008 in South Africa where there was a sudden wave of anti-immigrant violence, scholars are asking what is the driving force behind these attacks. Scholars see continuity in the ideology behind these xenophobic attacks occurring in South Africa.

In his article, ‘Fortress SA’: Xenophobic Violence in South Africa, John Sharp writes about the causes of the violence and the Human Sciences Research Council’s response on the matter. He criticizes them for starting their research with the supposition that the violence is xenophobic, for 1/3 of those killed were native South Africans. He does not write his paper with the assumption that the attacks were Xenophobic in nature, he says “‘we have come to realize that these labels invariably hide at least as much as they reveal” (Sharp 2008). Sharp goes on to say that the violence was targeted at those who the violent mobs identified as “outsiders”, those who were darker than the typical South African or could not fluently speak one of the main languages of South Africa. He shows that using HRSC data collected from interviews that these people were associated with foreigners who South Africans feel they have to compete with for jobs, housing and rising food prices. His assessments are conducive with my statement, that the violence in South Africa against foreigners has an underlying ideology in society.

In September 2010, Aidan Mosselson at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg published the article: ‘There is no difference between citizens and non-citizens anymore’: Violent Xenophobia, Citizenship and the Politics of Belonging in Post-Apartheid South Africa. He postulates that the violence is symptomatic of South Africans practicing their belonging in the political process. He argues that when South Africa’s government underwent transition and the citizenry took part in the Truth and Reconciliation council they established a new identity, as being one universal people in ‘the nation’. This causes South Africans to draw distinctions between insiders and outsiders within the nation. His method of analysis is drawn from social theories of belonging, which he identifies as springing from the governments harsh response to illegal immigrants crossing into South Africa. Mosselson’s argument is agrees with my statement in that this violence a distinct nation-wide cause can be seen as causing this xenophobic violence. This helps extend Sharp’s argument by identifying a causal factor in government policy towards immigrants. He draws from similar sources as Sharp like the HRSC report, which may have led him to draw this conclusion, but he also uses a variety of other literature to back up his claims.

In the wake of the 2008 summer violence in South Africa Moradewun Adejunmobi was looking for answers to explain the attacks and their origins. His paper Urgent Tasks for African Scholars in the Humanities, seeks to explain violence in South Africa through the concept of autochthony or indigenousness. He also connects the attacks in South Africa with other xenophobic violence across the African continent like the Rwandan genocide, the Congo crises and the post-election violence in Côte d’Ivoire through their sharing of similar themes. His using of the work autochthony highlights the clear distinction that the attackers are making between themselves and those they see as being outsiders. He says “What the African foot soldiers of autochthony seek is a place where they can live, work, and realize their public and private aspirations in relative safety.” (Adejunmobi 2009). This is conducive with what many in South Africa associate with illegal aliens; they feel they represent...