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Home > English > Website archives > Rainbow of Crisis > Staring into the mirror


Staring into the mirror

Sunday 25 May 2008, by HEIN MARAIS

Let’s first clear our heads a little. The distinction drawn so often between xenophobic attacks and acts of criminality is spurious. Murder, assault and looting – indisputably criminal acts – historically have been intrinsic features of pogroms. Opportunism invariably thrives in these frenzies.

Similarly, it is unremarkable to point out that that there appears to have been a degree of orchestration and organizing behind these outrages. Pogroms and genocides are, by definition, engineered. But they can only be carried out within a climate of suitable sentiment.

‘Why now?’ is a question worth asking. But the real issue is ‘Why at all?’.

While the ferocity and scale of these attacks are new, the sensibilities driving them are familiar and somewhat vintage. A groundswell of xenophobia – directed especially against migrants and refugees from elsewhere in Africa and Asia – has been evident since the mid-1990s in surveys, focus group studies and other research, and sporadically has erupted in attacks on foreigners.

These sentiments have intensified in the context of perceived scarcity and heartfelt injustice. But the conduct of the Home Affairs department and especially the police has afforded them a veneer of legitimacy, too. The institutionalized denigration of refugees and the routine rounding-up of foreigners in ‘anti-crime’ sweeps has helped amplify the common slur that they’re thieves, imposters – and legitimate targets. The pillaging that has accompanied the most recent attacks is a loud echo of the extortion and shakedowns many foreigners experience at the hands of the SA authorities, including the police. The routine victimization and exploitation of foreigners – facilitated by their inability to summon the protection of the state – has legitimized their status as ‘deserving’ targets of outrage and expropriation.

As for the ‘deeper’ motives, the contention that these attacks are fuelled by frustration at the slow and inadequate delivery of the promise of liberation seems both valid and self-evident. It is axiomatic that such popularized violence should draw its impetus from perceptions of injustice, betrayal and resentment. The lawlessness and opportunism of these outrages does not erase the possible authenticity of grievances.

This combustive context extends beyond our own shriveled reconstruction and development enterprise, and is fed also by the destabilizing dynamics of globalization. These, as theorist Arjun Appadurai has shown, compromise national economic sovereignty, constrain the state’s ability to act as trustee of the interests and well-being of a ‘people’, and deepen mass social uncertainty. It is unsurprising to see such anxiety and insecurity displaced onto victimized social categories.

But by defining – through slander, violence and expulsion – an ‘Other’, a devalorised ‘Them’, we are also asserting and affirming an ‘Us’. This is a time-honoured and global phenomenon, as elementary sociological theory informs us. The commonplace calumny picturing persons from elsewhere in Africa as ‘lazy’, ‘dirty’ or ‘thieving’ not only matches the staples of white racism, it also assembles, by way of exclusion, a myth about South Africans and ‘South Africanness’. In this sense, the pogroms form part of the unresolved business of delineating and building a particular ‘nation’ in post-apartheid South Africa. Writing about the Rwandan genocide, Philip Gourevitch famously reminded that “genocide, after all, is an exercise in community-building”.

Like it not, this seethe of gory frustration and opportunism also involves statements of affirmation about who belongs, what identities constitute that status, and who has legitimate claims on the state. Particular definitions of citizenry are being asserted.

The pogroms present to us the challenge of preventing the emergence of what Appadurai has termed “predatory identities” – identities that are established on the basis of the expulsion or erasure of “other, proximate social categories”. Indeed, as Appadurai notes, history suggests that all nationalist ideologies carry within them ethnicist tendencies.

The appropriation of Jacob Zuma’s campaign song as a pogrom war cry needs to be understood in that context. It offers an unsettling glimpse of the chauvinistic undercurrents swirling about in a society already deeply-schooled in and –scarred by racism and bigotry. In light of the attacks on Pedis and Shangaans in downtown Johannesburg last weekend, the menace broadcast by those ‘100% Zulu Boy’ T-shirts of yore seems sharpened. And the wisdom of extending the reach and weight of traditional authorities becomes even more questionable. The pogroms are a warning – how early, we cannot know – that we will rue steps that provide ethno-chauvinism with institutional traction and advantage.

The attacks, in other words, are also grizzly interventions in an unsettled (in each sense of that word) national ‘debate’ that has moved beyond the glare of polite confabs and punditry, and become a matter, literally, of life and death on the streets of our country.

These outrages call us all to account. They broadcast unpleasant truths about our society and this grand experiment of ours. Like peering at a shattered mirror, we might not immediately recognize ourselves or approve of the images beamed at us. But that’s us staring back at us.