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The state, xenophobia and nationalism

Friday 19 September 2008, by Dale T. McKINLEY

While the violent intensity and geographical spread of the recent attacks on immigrants across South Africa certainly surprised most of us, we should not have been surprised that such attacks happened — or at the state’s response.

We shouldn’t be surprised given the political and socio-economic context within which the post-1994 South African state was formed and has functioned.

It is only by analysing this context, with particular reference to the “marriage” of nationalist politics and “nation-building” alongside economic neoliberalism, that we can understand and critically appraise the reaction of the South African state to the recent xenophobic pogroms.

When the dominant force in South Africa’s liberation movement, the African National Congress (ANC), came to power in the 1994 elections, it took political control of an existent state that had been built to secure the interests of a national capitalist class.


The only difference was that now, the state was in the hands of a movement whose main aim was to build, and secure, the interests of black nationalist capitalists.

In this sense, the democratic victory of 1994 represented, above all else, the triumph of a majority (black) bourgeois nationalism over a minority (white) bourgeois nationalism.

This state-centred “changing of the nationalist guard” was overlaid by the ANC’s acceptance (indeed, embracement) of South Africa’s capitalist political economy, within the context of a dominant, global capitalist neoliberalism.

As soon became clear through the “new” state’s adoption of an overtly neo-liberal macro-economic policy/development framework (GEAR), the desire was to pursue a deracialised, national capitalism while simultaneously pursuing full-scale (re)integration into the global capitalist economy.

These strategic choices on the part of the ANC leadership demanded the creation of a dominant discourse of “nation-building” as a means to politically legitimise the role and character of the “new” bourgeois/neoliberal state and the “place” of those under its leadership.

The majority black population who had, historically, been denied any meaningful national or international “belonging”, were told that they could achieve both because they were now the “real” owners of a state dedicated to securing their national identity and international status.

What was being consciously constructed was an inherently false and exclusive nationalist identity and politics to be secured by political loyalty to a “new” South African state claiming to represent the “national will and interest”.

This nationalist paradigm was, and is, designed to create the illusion that the struggle for liberation by the black majority is defined by the active and loyal participation of an “authentic national subject” that supersedes all other “identities” of social relations (for example, class).

It is an illusion not only because it has been clear (since 1994) that the fundamental decisions of the South African state have not been informed by the interests and needs of the majority of so-called “national subjects”, but also because under capitalist neoliberalism such a “subject” is effectively non-existent.


It is in this context that the South African state has helped create and feed xenophobia. At its heart, xenophobia is a fear of the “other”, with the “other” most often being defined by nation-state “membership”.

In turn, xenophobia cannot exist in practice without the competing ideological and institutional constructions, by the national state, of other such “national identities”.

In this regard, the South African state has been remarkably consistent in its contradictory construction of xenophobia. At the same time as the post-1994 state has presented South Africa (and “South Africans”) as the new and natural leaders of a continental (black African) “renaissance”, it has systematically instituted immigration policies that have favoured non-black African immigration.

It has also simultaneously constructed a web of “sub-imperialist” presences across the continent, ostensibly designed to enhance South Africa’s (corporate dominated) “international competitiveness” status.

The result — creating and assisting in the exploitation and displacement of other African “nationalities” (in the name of the “national interest” and nationally defined “economic growth”) while using South African “nationality” as the litmus test for social acceptance and integration of those who have, not surprisingly, made their way to the “new” South Africa.

Nowhere has this been more apparent than in relation to Zimbabwe.

Similarly, the state has, through its implementation of neoliberal socio-economic policies inside South Africa that have fundamentally undermined any meaningful redistribution of political and socio-economic power, made a mockery of substantive “citizenship” for the majority of South African “nationals”. It is the “classic” ruling class recipe for constructed tension, prejudice, competition and conflict among the “have-nots” (whatever their nationality).

Of course, none of this applies to the respective “haves”, who have long ago placed themselves above and beyond such non-consequential identities such as nationality.

Under such a state-led rubric, the parallel constructions of internal (South African) xenophobic attitudes and practice have flourished. The coercive forces of the state — most consistently through the actions of the police services — have treated African immigrants as if they were, a priori, criminals and charlatans intent on destroying the imagined “national community” of “authentic” South Africans.

The endemic corruption in, and venality of, several departments of the state — home affairs and housing have taken the lead — have criminalised the desperation of poor African immigrants and contributed substantially to their criminalisation in the eyes of both the “law” and among many with whom they live.

Leading ANC politicians, alongside sizeable sections of the mainstream media, have also been remarkably consistent (despite transparently hypocritical denials to the contrary) in their reactionary populism that has sought to portray African immigrants as the main cause of a host of South Africa’s economic and social problems.

For a long time prior to the recent xenophobic pogroms, the inheritances of the state’s sustained construction of a xenophobia-friendly South Africa were clear to see for anyone paying attention.

Whether it was throwing Mozambiquans off a moving train, the deportation of tens of thousands of assorted “foreigners” every month, the aiding and abetting of Mugabe’s scorched-earth politics in Zimbabwe, the blaring media headlines about trouble-causing “aliens” or the murder of scores of Somali shop-owners, there was ample evidence to show that the so-called “rainbow”, “African renaissance” nation was a mirage.

The reality is that one of the most defining features of post-apartheid South Africa is a narrow, chauvinist nationalism.

Once the pogroms began, intensified and spread, the response of the state was predictably tragic. For the first several days there was a deafening silence, a silence that was so cynically and consistent with the ways in which the lives of tthe “non-existent” had, for so long, been treated by the South African state.

The complete absence of any political, moral or social leadership (not to mention basic human empathy) from the state, most clearly visible in the pathetic, half-hearted response of the police services to the ongoing violence, only gave further succour to the xenophobes.

A state-constructed xenophobic, chauvinistic nationalism, combined with the catastrophic socio-economic impacts of neoliberalism, had finally broken free. The state could not own up to its own creation.

The dishonest attempts to blame “a few criminal individuals”, the empty calls for “African unity”, the hypocritical praise for humanitarian “patriots” and the belated mobilisation of a few state resources and personnel that followed, confirmed what many have long known and have tried (mostly unsuccessfully) to expose — that the South African state is a state whose very existence and legitimacy has been built on the corpses of the poor and downtrodden (whatever their nationality).

Logical outcome

It is the logical outcome of the kind of post-apartheid politics and ideology that has not only been embraced and celebrated by those who have benefited from it, but has been tragically imbibed by many of those who are oppressed by it.

Any national state is but a reflection of the (national) society that gives it both form and life. While a collective (South African) ownership of responsibility and shame for the recent xenophobic pogroms is both needed and required, it is also the role and character of the state, along with the content of the policies that flow from it, that desperately needs radical change.

That struggle demands that we all throw off the yoke of nationalism. It is a struggle that must know no borders.

* Dale McKinley is an activist with the Anti-Privatisation Forum,, and Social Movements Indaba, as well as an independent writer, researcher and lecturer.