Xenophobia tears at the cloth of constitutional inclusiveness

Excerpt from Justice Edwin Cameron’s foreword of [BR]OTHER, a photographic record of xenophobic violence in South Africa, 2008 – Present.

More information at brotherbook.co.za


No African is a foreigner in Africa!
No African is a migrant in Africa!
Africa is where we all belong!

– Professor Achille Mbembe



South Africa has experienced brutal cycles of xenophobic violence. These have led to horrific murders, and to displacement of thousands of cross-border migrants, mostly from our own continent, Africa. Worse, they have led to fear and suspicion and terror. They have torn at the cloth of our constitutional inclusiveness, shredding and tattering it. The most recent wave began in late August 2019. There was a resurgence of anti-migrant protests, looting of foreign businesses and assaults: bodies stoned, beaten, burned and killed.(1)

There is a conspicuous race and class edge to this. The white cross-border migrant in an affluent haven like Sandton will fear no criminality beyond the ordinary. Five kilometres away, in Alexandra township, the black African cross-border migrant may be in fearful peril of her life, her livelihood.

Our leaders have responded by predominantly labelling xenophobia a crime. This is true. In an obvious sense. But also only partly true. The bigger, more horrendous truth is that it is crime with an edge – an anti-migrant crime, an anti-African-migrant crime. The typology evidences denialism.

As with our AIDS epidemic, denialism springs from shame. There, the shame of the virus, of infection, of its mode of transmission, was unwarranted. Here, the shame is rightful. Shame that we turn against our own, our African own.

Despite pleas from local civil society organisations, international and regional bodies, and other African governments, we continue to hush xenophobia with denialism. The migrant becomes a hyper-visible substitute for our failure to respond effectively to our history of subjugation. Yet, simultaneously, we erase the migrant from our understanding of violence, as xenophobia is subsumed into a narrative of rising crime.

Rather than a danger posed to particular, individual persons, xenophobia becomes lost in growing statistics of assaults, murders and robberies. Dismissing xenophobic violence as mere criminality
obscures the hard fact that we have failed adequately to address our country’s structural legacies of Othering and, with this, the socio-economic conditions that provide the seedbed for violence.

Migrants are blamed for the daily hardships experienced by poor South Africans. By refusing to articulate what they experience as xenophobic, we are left without the reflective means to
question the colonial histories and political failure that reinforce anti-immigrant attitudes, and that continue to structure our engagement with the Other within our country.


Reference –
1) https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/09/13/south-africa-punish-xenophobic-violence.