'EXPERT' COMMENTARY ON XENOPHOBIA HAS MISSED THE POINT

Cape Times , 19 June 2008

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The recent violent outbursts against "foreign nationals" in South Africa by South African citizens, popularly described as "xenophobic attacks", have triggered emotional responses among South Africans and even in other parts of the world. They require practical and concrete measures to be resolved. Failure to do so would lead to various ongoing "social ills". These violent outbursts have been characterised by various dominant and powerful social actors, such as the media (in particular CNN), non-governmental organisations (NGOs), human rights groups, South African government departments, political parties and international organisations as a "migration problem" and/or issue. Furthermore, it is assumed by these groups that this is a new phenomenon in South Africa. Also, these groups offer prescriptive, formulaic answers to the problem. Metaphorically thinking, these actors are patching a dam full of holes, using incorrect material. In other words, it is as if they are trying to fill with water a bucket full of holes. I want to argue there is no "recipe" and neither are there any methodological prescriptions for such a complex social problem. My point of departure is that this problem is not only an issue of migration, but that migration is only a minor part of the problem. Instead, it is a problem dealing with multi-dimensional, long-standing cultural, political, social and global issues: such as exile and exiling; the notion of a nation state; collective identities versus individual identities; and the issue of migration and illegal migration patterns. These issues are not new, they are not unique, nor are they easy to resolve by many nation states, especially the South African state. In fact, they are an episode without end that requires constant and ongoing debate and social analysis. The notion of a "nation state", as well defined as it may be, still requires some thinking, for it certainly affects the movement of people in different ways, and thus limits their strategies for survival and/or improving their livelihoods. The key emerging questions surrounding the notion of the nation state are: can our nation states in Africa afford a policy framework that can be flexible for the movement of citizens? Given the different conflicts on the continent, can they allow free movement of people (as is the case in most European countries)? Is there a continental policy framework set in place to deal with this problem? Secondly, at a "theoretical" and "methodological" level of analysis, in South Africa (and sometimes elsewhere) the theoretical and conceptual framework adopted by many expert analysts and the international media has been that of homogenising the issue. A good example for illustrating this is when CNN (an international news agency with so-called "powerful experts") at the beginning of the outbreak, had as one of its headlines "South Africans are blaming foreign nationals for their problems of inequality and poverty". This is a gross over-simplification and homogenisation of the South African citizenry. Equally, this is a statement that homogenises social practices of foreign nationals residing in South Africa. Not all "foreign nationals" residing in South Africa acted in accordance to the expected South African "norms", "standards" and legal framework of the state (many foreign nationals have been reported to have committed crime and many gained entrance through other means as opposed to the set standards). However, there are also many who acted according to the expected "norms" and "standards". Equally, not all South Africans are inclined to be xenophobic, though, as clearly indicated by recent events, there are a substantial number of them who are inclined to be xenophobic. Central to this whole "xenophobic" discourse lies the disturbing issue of poverty; which essentially is a livelihood issue. Finally, contrary to most of those "policy expert analysts", "state experts", "NGO experts", "television expert commentators" and others, who argue that the current state policy, due to its assimilation approach, has failed to adequately protect foreign nationals and thus these "foreigners must be placed in camps", I argue that the South African policy framework is progressive in this regard, for it allows for the integration and assimilation of these foreign actors into the South African public space. Experiences elsewhere (for example, the Middle East, especially Palestine) are a recipe for further disaster.