Violence and the Immigrant


The immigrant experience, and why they get targeted

On the 6th Phil from the ACTION team attended a Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER) panel discussion entitled “Violence and the Immigrant”. The panel was made up of Khadija Patel (Al Jazeera journalist and WISER Fellow), Prof Sarah Nuttall (Director of WISER), and Neo Muyanga (WISER Resident Composer). The event took place at the Workers Museum in Newtown, Johannesburg, a fitting location to discuss the situation of migrant workers, and was attended by academics and members of the public.

“Xenophobia is an everyday reality in South Africa” observed Khadija Patel, who opened the event, reporting on her coverage of this year’s xenophobic violence, including the government’s response. She cited the experience of one Somali shopkeeper who may have escaped the highly publicised looting that took place in January, but had not been so lucky six months earlier when his previous shop had been burnt down with him inside it, an event which received no media attention. Patel spoke about the closure of the camps that had sheltered the foreign nationals who had been driven from their homes, and while most were “reintegrated”, many were also rejected by their previous communities, causing some to sleep on the streets. She went on to speak on operation,”Fiela”, where police and army had swept the townships for illegal activities and immigrants, an operation that was labelled “routine”. While such a show of force was shocking, immigrants interviewed welcomed the presence of the military as it kept certain members of the police from extorting bribes. In addition Home Affairs officials present were able to recognise legitimate documents held by migrants, something the police are often unfamiliar with, resorting instead to blanket arrests of legal immigrants.

Professor Sarah Nuttall continued the discussion by taking stock of the current discourse on xenophobia, highlighting three key arguments that have been put forward in the light of the violence. The first was that the problem is one of structural inequality: that it is the government’s inability to provide adequate public services that is causing the dissatisfaction, with the attacks against foreigners explained by the (problematic) idea of “false consciousness”, that has township residents mistakenly blaming foreigners for their poverty, rather than capitalism and white supremacy. The second argument seeks to explain the emergence of a more ideological justification for xenophobia that was much less evident in 2008, contrasting it with the concept of panafricanism – the idea that “no African can be a foreigner in Africa”. One driver of this ideology that was suggested was the reduction of state power by globalisation, which causes a turn towards nationalism. The final argument discussed by Nattall was one of “sacrificial bodies”, the idea that certain people, including immigrants, have come to be classed as disposable in public discourse – such as entitling the operation that has seen hundreds of migrants arrested “Fiela” or “sweep”, with it’s connotations of cleaning the polluting migrants from the townships.

Muyanga then attempted to put the recent violence into a longer context, talking about the history of migrant workers in South Africa over the last century or more, and how many of those families who were once migrants have become so settled that they no longer identify with the act of migration. He also talked about the community responses to the violence, noting that while many have joined marches against xenophobic violence, many of the same people do not reject the structures that create the violence.

The discussion then continues with the participation of the audience, with many interesting points being made. One audience member suggested that those foreigners running successful business without aid from the government may be seen as undermining local South African’s claims that better public services are required to succeed.