Exclusive Nationalism from below in Post-Apartheid South Africa

Wednesday, 18 July 2018
Distributed Paper
Marcel PARET, University of Johannesburg, South Africa, University of Utah, USA
In May 2008, a wave of anti-migrant attacks spread through the townships and informal settlements of South Africa, leaving more than sixty people dead, many more injured, and up to one-hundred thousand displaced from their homes. In the wake of the 2008 attacks, xenophobic antagonism continued, though more sporadically and on smaller scales. Persistent attacks increasingly targeted foreign-born traders from East Africa and South Africa.

Xenophobic attacks shattered the myth of South Africa as a “rainbow nation”. Yet they mirrored official nationalisms, which frequently portrayed migrants as a threat to the nation and an ongoing liberation project. Taking place within poor areas ravaged by unemployment and precarious work, the attacks also represented popular frustration about the failure of democracy – won in 1994 after decades of resistance – to deliver significant economic transformation.

Drawing on ethnographic observation and interviews with residents of impoverished townships and informal settlements around Johannesburg, conducted between 2010 and 2017, this paper illuminates the local political dynamics that lay beneath anti-trader xenophobia. I argue that understanding such attacks requires attention to three interweaving forms of popular expression: resentment of foreign-born residents, driven by conditions of economic insecurity; the reconstruction of apartheid-era racial categories to assimilate foreign-born residents, particularly migrant traders; and collective resistance, including both the coincidence of protest and xenophobic antagonism, and the ways in which activists sought to counter xenophobia through discourses of solidarity. The latter expression underscored the significance of “xenophobia” as an important terrain of struggle in post-apartheid South Africa.