Prof. Simon Bekker discusses xenophobia

Professor Simon Bekker is currently Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Stallenbosh University, Cape Town, and has discussed the issue of xenophobia and its reasons with Ibrahim Tigli.

Prof. Simon Bekker discusses xenophobia

Ibrahim Tigli - World Bulletin / News Desk

Prof Simon Bekker is currently Emeritus Professor of Sociology in the Sociology and Social Anthropology Department. His interests in collective identities and ethnicity together with migration have led him to focus on urban studies in South Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. Recent publications include articles on religious and urban identities in South Africa, on xenophobia, and an edited book on capital cities in Africa. He acted as Professor of Development Studies at Rhodes University, Professor of Sociology at UNISA and Director of the Centre for Social and Development Studies at the (then) University of Natal (Durban). He has held visiting fellow appointments at Oxford University, the Centre d'Étude d'Afrique Noire in France, and the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study in Uppsala, Sweden.


Ibrahim Tigli: The xenophobia in South Africa is generally targeting Black African refugees. Why have they not targeted refugees from other continents/ ethnicities?

I am able to compare the series of violent xenophobia events in 2008 to those of this year. Although there were some in between, there were about 135 recorded xenophobic attacks that we recorded seven years ago. One important difference between the two episodes of xenophobia is that in 2008 the violence began in Gauteng and then spread to Cape Town and surrounding towns. This time it began in Durban and then spread to Gauteng.

But to answer your question, as was the case in 2008, properties and persons attacked were all in poor urban residential areas. So it is where it took place rather than who was being targeted that is most important. In these poor urban areas there are many African immigrants. So the properties and the people were attacked because of where they were. They were urban, poor, and residential rather than industrial or mining. There were some incidents where it is traders or hawkers – we call them townships in South Africa – who were attacked. This reflects a competition over resources and trading. There were also a few Bangladeshi traders attacked, but the attacks have mostly focused on African refugees.

Ibrahim Tigli: This is not the first time South Africa has encountered xenophobia. What causes xenophobia to re-emerge in the South African society?

 It is an important and complex question. I would first say that there is a generalised anger and frustrations among the urban poor in South Africa. There is anger about poor living conditions, high living costs of food, and problem with jobs. So depending on local traditions this generalised anger is converted into aggression towards a perceived target or perceived cause for this deprivation. The local conditions and histories as well as economic conditions are both important.

There are two more points that I would like to make. The first is deteriorating conditions in South Africa is not only true for South Africa. They are also true for countries in sub-Saharan Africa, as a whole. The oil price falling is a recent example. This means that South Africa has been receiving over the last seven years continuing stream of African immigrants and job seekers. The application of South Africa’s immigration policy is not that good.

The second point is that for the first time in the media we have seen senior South African public figures, like the King of the Zulus, have been understood to have said that foreign Africans must go. This has spread rumours. The rumour is very important. So the rumour was that people may attack the property and persons of foreign Africans with impunity. Impunity means exemption from punishment and exemption from arrest.

Ibrahim Tigli: There are many new campaigns and marches against xenophobia. Will this type of actions be effective in resolving xenophobia? What would be possible solutions to the xenophobia crisis?

You are absolutely correct. This time, in comparison to 2008, the reaction came late which should have come earlier. There has been much more widespread reaction against xenophobic attacks on property and persons. We have seen politicians, business people, faith communities, newspapers, and television channels condemning the violence. It is a late response but very widespread. This undoubtedly is a very good thing. It is public pressure on anyone who believes that there is impunity for their actions. In particular a number of policemen and police women have condemned the violence in the public. This very good because it is sending out the message that if you do attack property or person that the police will act against you. It may not be the solution to the problem but it is a very important necessary condition that people cannot believe that if there are attacks or looting that there will be no response. So addressing impunity is a very important first step in terms of how to try to ensure that this will not happen again.

Ibrahim Tigli: Minister Nhleko stated that this is not xenophobia but more so "Afrophobia". What are your thoughts to such a statement?

The minister used the term ‘Afrophobia’ which means fear or rejection of Black Africa. Now such an explanation shifts the blame away from the aforementioned factors on to something else. It also suggests a third force. The term a ‘third force’ has been used in South African politics for a good twenty years. A third force means an unidentified group that is stoking the violence.

I want to say two things about this idea of a group behind the violent xenophobic events. First, each event has its unique features and we need to look at each of these in their specific case, rather than trying to find general explanations. Secondly, in some cases of events local interests that may be political or economic or criminal may have urged young men to become involved in looting or attacking foreigners. Such cases cannot be taken to be the norm or the general explanation across the board. So if there are such cases it should not be provided as if it is the norm. 

Ibrahim Tigli: We have seen a strong response from the African continent towards the xenophobia in South Africa. How has or will this affect South Africa's relations within the continent?

It is a very important question. I will give you an opinion rather than an expert’s opinion. Compared to seven years ago, South Africa is seen on the continent as more visibly and less influential. I say this because the South African National Defence Force is on peacekeeping missions in a number of wars in Africa today. The African Union has a South African chairperson. On the other hand, Nigeria has replaced South Africa as the largest economy on the continent and President Zuma over these few years has known to be under stress at home which is known in Africa. So a number of the sub-Saharan government has acted very critically of South Africa. In particular, they have been critical of its government.

The South African government’s response was to point to the streams of refugees leaving countries north of South Africa coming here. So there is a critical discussion among these governments on migration in sub-Saharan Africa. This can only do well. The more these countries can discuss and admit to why these streams are leaving and entering these countries it will bring good. As for interstate relations, I really do not think that there will be any radical shift in policy as a result from the criticism and discussions regarding migration.

Ibrahim Tigli: Recently President Mugabe said that the solution to xenophobia is to send Whites to other countries. What are your thoughts on this?

This is Mr Mugabe’s opinion and he can have such an opinion. What is very interesting about the xenophobic attacks in 2008 and today is that there has been no over detach on minorities in South Africa, i.e. the White minority, the Indian minority, the Indonesian minority, the Coloured minority. It would seem that the xenophobic aggression comes from the poor urban area and is not directed necessarily at African foreigners but at a target that is perceived to be the immediate cause. So I do not think that there is any reason to believe that there is a negative orientation in South Africa developing towards the minorities like Asians or Indians.

Ibrahim Tigli: Can you tell us about your work on xenophobia?

We were asked in 2008, after the 2008-6 weeks, by an NGO that was close to state departments to a study on the events at that time. We decided when we did this to use newspaper accounts as being the main source of information. We did some focus groups. Our approach was not to look at xenophobia as a single phenomenon. We took an events based approach. We tried to find out information about each event that we could identify. We started looking at the similarities and differences of these events. This helped the argument I made earlier that there is a generalised anger but to find a general explanation is wrong. One needs to look at these different events and then look at the general state reaction, police reaction, and mass media reaction. To a large extent the spread of such violent events is driven by information that is received through the mass media and the government, as well as credible rumours. Many times the rumours are not true but they are believable which makes them credible. We have not done as much research this year to do a complete comparison.


Güncelleme Tarihi: 30 Temmuz 2015, 15:07