Is xenophobia the downside to nation building?


In recent years, there has been a rise in violent attacks on foreigners in a number of communities around South Africa. Although there has been a lot of discussion and debate about what causes South Africans to act in this way, it is important to look at the issues that have not been addressed – such as whether the violence has been caused by an expression of a form of national identity.

This event examined a number of key questions: To what extent is this a throwback the identity politics of the past? Is this a foreseeable consequence of the nation-building project of the 1990s and 2000s, or a mixture of both? Who benefits from the continuing violence, and how does inequality contribute to identity politics or the creation of different kinds of nationalism?

According to Nasiphi Moya, currently doing her PhD at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa’s nation-building project has been largely state-driven, with citizens not fully understanding what citizenship means in a democracy. In addition, a lack of education often drives many inaccurate sentiments against foreigners. Inequality and divisiveness is contributing to many communities becoming increasingly insular in their perceptions, and government’s seemingly haphazard way of dealing with the challenge of xenophobia is not helping.

In fact, government’s messaging has been inconsistent. There has been outright denial that there is xenophobic violence and ruling party politicians repeatedly lead the way by stating that such attacks are ‘mere criminality’. Of course, there is a criminal element to the violence, but there is also no doubt – as the results of various surveys show – that there are increasing levels of xenophobia in South Africa.

Government’s responses have been un-coordinated and many statements and actions from politicians have served to sanction and promote xenophobic attitudes. The high levels of corruption in the South African Home Affairs Department also fuels a number of problems, including rights abuses and undermining security. But South Africa is not alone. Xenophobia and large-scale migration are international phenomena, evidenced by the migrant crisis in Europe and other parts of the world.

Brilliant Nyambi from Africa Unite discussed the practical position of refugees and asylum seekers in South Africa. Nyambi believes education about human rights could promote a better understanding of the challenges facing these vulnerable people. Also, social cohesion in South Africa is low and makes the integration of foreigners into different communities extremely difficult.

Participants agreed that a key way to deal with nation-building and creating ‘positive nationalism’ is through active citizenship.

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