SCAPEGOATING ILLEGAL AFRICAN IMMIGRANTS AS CRIMINALS ADDS FUEL TO THE XENOPHOBIA FIRE

SCAPEGOATING ILLEGAL AFRICAN IMMIGRANTS AS CRIMINALS ADDS FUEL TO THE XENOPHOBIA FIRE

The crucial fuel to anti-African immigrant sentiment, and hence of xenophobia, is the language of illegality which serves to scapegoat African migrants. They are here illegally, the logic goes, therefore they must be criminals.

I have been researching the response of civil society to xenophobic violence in South Africa since 2013. I was motivated to begin this research project because I was impressed with the broad public response to the 2008 violence, which seemed to invoke the best of South Africa’s anti-apartheid values.

While conducting my research, I have been fortunate to work with many remarkable activists, particularly migrant activists, and I have encountered powerful condemnations of the xenophobic violence from across South Africa’s social spectrum. But I have also become aware of the contradictions that underlie that condemnation, particularly in the way calls for protection of the rights of migrants are matched by anxiety about the threat of African migration, anxiety fuelled by stereotypes and misinformation about African migrants. It is unsurprising to me, therefore, that xenophobic violence has persisted despite expressions of pan-African solidarity.

The crucial fuel to anti-African immigrant sentiment is the language of illegality, which serves to scapegoat African migrants. In my discussions with South Africans of all walks of life, I have encountered two repeated tropes:

South Africa’s borders are porous and the government isn’t doing enough to control migration (even as deportation and policing of migrants continues to escalate); and

Corrupt, criminal migrants are taking advantage of bad systems, including a broken asylum system, and unfairly claiming opportunities that belong to locals (that is, migrants themselves, rather than inconsistent and contradictory immigration policies, are the source of the problems with our immigration system).

An important feature of the language of immigrant illegality is that it imputes bad character to migrants. Because they deliberately choose to break the law by entering the country without permission, they have shown themselves to be both immoral and untrustworthy and as a result, they deserve to be punished. Failure to punish these treacherous migrants, in turn, would be condoning criminal behaviour, thus undermining the rule of law.

Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba has been a key proponent of these arguments, even as he is simply voicing a widespread commonsense. The irony is, it is exactly this reasoning that is driving the vigilante violence in the first place. By taking the law into their own hands, vigilantes are simply appropriating the state’s legitimate monopoly on the abuse and victimisation of migrants.

I think it is important to be critical of the language of illegality, which ascribes a problematic agency to undocumented migrants, thereby masking the structural factor that both creates the condition of illegality and forces certain migrants to move.

It is a fallacy that most African migrants can easily be documented in South Africa. All the African migrants I have worked with are desperate to be documented because being undocumented increases their vulnerability and makes it harder for them to access needed services. But they can’t.

South Africa, both during and after apartheid, has consistently limited the ability of African migrants to legally migrate. A profound legacy of apartheid is broad scepticism about the value of African migration. As a result, about the only way for most African migrants to legally enter the country is through claiming asylum, which has only served to magnify the contradictions of our refugee system, which features a nearly 90% rejection rate.

Unfortunately, rather than interrogate those contradictions, we continue to scapegoat African migrants. The problem is those “illegals” rather than the system of legal violence that defines our immigration controls. The result is the continued justification of the heavy-handed policing of migrants, despite calls for the protection of those same migrants.

Even worse, vulnerable migrants end up being conflated with their attackers, implying that they should be treated similarly. Police operations like Operation Fiela, which featured disproportionate arrests of undocumented migrants, exemplify this dynamic. The outcome is a vicious cycle of xenophobia that we are struggling to escape, in part because immigration controls necessitate the very condition we seek to punish. This vicious cycle builds on and reinforces colonial legacies.

I will offer a few brief observations about how we might disrupt this cycle.

To start, I think it is necessary to change the way we think about xenophobia. Xenophobia is not an outlier, it is not simply a matter of individual attitudes, and it is not only expressed through overt hostility. Rather, it is a manifestation of a broad anti-African immigrant culture, which takes shape through a range of forms — from statements by political leaders to township gossip to uncritical media reports — and is finally reified through legal and political institutions of immigration control.

In other words, xenophobia has its roots not in the unjustified hostility of vigilantes, but in the commonsense of border controls. A more complex understanding of xenophobia requires grappling with the dangerous logic of the Mashabas of the world, who, in many ways, reflect the status quo of the international border hegemony and its requisite rhetoric of illegality.

South Africa’s xenophobic violence is hardly an exception. Actually, the vigilante violence in South Africa is dwarfed by the legal border violence that has taken the lives of thousands of migrants while crossing the US southern border and the Mediterranean. All of this violence is performed in the name of citizenship and its attendant rights. The irony is that South Africa is under pressure to increase its controls exactly because the US and Europe are deliberately pushing the “risk” of migration back to countries such as South Africa, Turkey, Jordan, Libya, Mexico, Honduras and so on.

In effect, I am asking South Africans to be more critical of the status quo of international immigration controls, which serve to limit the movement of Africans in particular. As the Department of Home Affairs’ contradictory 2017 white paper on immigration recognises, the colonial legacy of border controls works to reinforce historical inequalities, which means we need a policy that fundamentally challenges that border logic.

In other words, it is time for us to move from saying “no” to xenophobia to saying “yes” to African migration.

Ryan Solomon / DailyMaverick
Ryan Solomon is a South African academic based in the US who has been conducting research on xenophobia in South Africa since 2013. He is Assistant Professor in the Department of Writing and Rhetoric at Colgate University.

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