Wednesday, June 4, 2008



Paul T Zeleza

The Pan-African world has been watching with mounting horror the
xenophobic violence that has gripped several South African townships
over the past two weeks which has resulted in the wanton destruction
of many lives and property. Fifty-six people have been murdered,
thousands seek sanctuary in police stations, churches, community
halls and 'safe havens' or camps, and many more are fleeing back to
their countries of origin as several governments desperately try to
repatriate their nationals.

Our horror reflects our immense investment in the success of the
rainbow nation born out of our collective abhorrence of apartheid
South Africa as the supreme embodiment of the barbaric crimes
committed against peoples of African descent over the last half
millennium: slavery, colonialism, and racism. It also reflects deep
disappointment that migrants from the neighboring countries and the
rest of the continent are being treated with such vicious contempt
notwithstanding their countries' unwavering support and sacrifices
for the liberation of South Africa from the historic nightmares of

To date, 35,000 people are internally displaced and more than 26,000
have fled to Mozambique alone, and 25,000 Zimbabweans are fleeing
through Zambia. The scale of the violence has shocked South African
civil society and humanitarian organizations, pummelled the rand and
business confidence, and dented South Africa's image across the
continent, shaking the South African state and its embattled lame-
duck president out of their stupor of political indifference, policy
incoherence, and operational incompetence on migration and the poor.

The current cycle of xenophobic violence--there have been several
others--is a depressing testimony to the failures of post-apartheid
South Africa to resolve the interconnected challenges inherited from
the political and racial economies of apartheid: domestically the
deracialization and reduction of social inequalities and externally
the reinsertion of South Africa into independent Africa from its
apartheid laager of isolation. While South Africa has made remarkable
progress since 1994, not least in terms of economic growth, national
integration, democratization at home, and reincorporation into
African and world affairs abroad, social inequalities persist and are
in fact deepening, and the dangerous and occasionally deadly myth of
South African exceptionalism endures.

The South African poor are still awaiting the fruits of uhuru as the
black middle classes expand and the white rich maintain their
monopolies of wealth and privilege even if they are now joined by
politically well-connected 'native' beneficiaries of black economic
empowerment. In the meantime, South Africa historically constructed
as a sub-imperial metropole ever since the mineral revolution of the
late nineteenth century continues to attract labor migrants from the
subregion and further afield. The postapartheid migrants are no
longer chanelled predominantly to the declining mining industry, but
find themselves increasingly competing for economic survival with
South Africa's poor in the townships.

The demise of apartheid ended internal 'influx' controls into the
previously designated 'white' cities and opened South Africa to new
waves of African immigrants. Circumscribed by its conformities to neo-
liberal economic policies on the one hand and its commitments to a
Pan-African agenda on the other, the ANC government has thus far
failed to stem domestic racial and social inequalities and develop a
sound and sustainable immigration policy. This is the combustible
brew that has blown up: the struggle for resources among the
disaffected South African poor and the disenfranchised immigrants,
whose very social and spatial intimacies engender the violent
narcissisms of minor difference.

Whatever their debilitations and marginalizations from the
postapartheid dispensation, the township poor have citizenship on
their side, which they periodically wield violently to dispossess the
immigrants, for petty primitive accumulation (342 foreign-owned
businesses have been looted or destroyed), for national attention, to
make claims for redress from the neo-liberal state. As is typical in
such struggles, the former blame the latter of taking their jobs,
opportunities, and women (the gendered inflexion of xenophobic
bigotry), and the escalation of crime--never mind that levels of
crime in South Africa are much higher than in the countries where
most of the immigrants come from, itself another tragic legacy of

But there is more to this depressing carnage of xenophobic violence
than material conditions. Nor is South Africa unique in its eruptions
of xenophobia in the Pan-African world, let alone the world at large.
Remember the state-sponsored expulsions of 155,000-213, 000 West
Africans including 50,000 Nigerians from Ghana in 1969, 1.3 million
Ghanaians from Nigeria between 1983-1985, the killings and mass
expulsions in Libya in the 1980s and 1990s, the tit-for-tat
expulsions of nearly 150,000 people between Eritrea and Ethiopia in
the late 1990s as the two countries slid into a senseless war, and of
tens of thousands from Cote d'Ivoire during its boom years. The list
of xenophobic violence across Africa is a long and depressing one

One could of course blame the incongruity of Africa's porous national
boundaries and the legacies of colonialism, the universal propensity
of governments and the media to blame foreigners for domestic
economic and social crises, and the rise of chauvinistic and
explosive nationalisms in response to the stresses of neo-liberal
globalization. In the case of Africa's former settler societies from
Algeria to South Africa, via Kenya and Zimbabwe, there is an added
dimension: the cruel bequest of deeply racialized and internalized
superiority and inferiority complexes. The current xenophobic
violence in South Africa is being meted out to what some in the
country call "those Africans," or more popularly, the makwerekwere.
None of the fifty people who have been killed is white. The anger is
intra-racial, directed at other black Africans.

Pius Adesanmi discussed the social pathologization and discursive
ridicule of the makwerekwere ( http://www.zeleza. com/blogging/ african-
affairs/makwerekwer e-black-south- africa-s- instant-mix- kaffirs ) in an
earlier blog on The Zeleza Post. African commentators and visitors to
South Africa are often confounded by the pervasive sense of South
African difference, of exceptionalism, the lingering racist apartheid
myth that South Africa is an outpost of civilization, of modernity,
on the 'dark continent'. Ignorance about other African countries is
of course not peculiar to South Africa, nor is the sense of misguided
national superiority. I have encountered it in many other countries
in which I have lived in the Pan-African world from Zimbabwe to
Jamaica to Kenya, not to mention Britain, Canada, and the United
States. It is the deadly mantra of xenophobic nationalism: 'We are
better than you, You are less than us'.

In all these cases, across the Pan-African world, the measures of the
'better than, less than' national discourses mutate and are
articulated in peculiar local idioms, but they revolve around two
axes: the relative levels of material development and the magnitude
of the white presence. Thus, westerness and whiteness remain
imprimaturs in the scale of human worthiness in the Pan-African
world, the reason why diasporan Africans feel superior to continental
Africans, why within the diaspora the light-skinned have historically
enjoyed better opportunities than their darker skinned compatriots,
why shades of blackness have become a shameful basis for
distinguishing African immigrants among black South Africans, why the
latter's xenophobic rage is not directed at white immigrants but at
'those Africans', the despised makwerekwere.

This is the racialized devaluation of black lives that we are
witnessing in South Africa today in the xenophobic violence against
African immigrants perpetrated by fellow Africans whose own lives
were devalued during the long horrific days of racial segregation and
apartheid. Racialized superiority and inferiority complexes have
stalked the Pan-African world for decades, stoking the mistrust that
sometimes degenerates into interpersonal and intracial animosity and
even violence. This violence is the flipside of the collective Pan-
Africanist struggles and ideals for the unity of African peoples and
their collective liberation and empowerment. South Africans and all
of us could benefit from a more systematic and sustained education
about our shared pasts, present, and futures in a world that has
devalued and continues to devalue our lives and humanity.

*Paul T Zeleza is editor of The Zeleza Post. This article was first
published at http://zeleza. com