The Curse of the Nation State and History as Remedy? Xenophobia and Migritude in Post-Apartheid South Africa

The Curse of the Nation State and History as Remedy? Xenophobia and Migritude in Post-Apartheid South Africa

Julia Willén (Linköping University)


We aim, politically, at government of the Africans by the Africans, for the Africans,
with everybody who owes his only loyalty to Afrika and who is prepared to accept the
democratic rule of an African majority being regarded as an African.

Robert Sobukwe, address to the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania, 1959


In early December 2014 the sixth World Social Forum on Migration was held in Johannesburg, entitled “Migration in the heart of our humanity: defending our freedom and re-thinking mobility, development and globalization”. Amongst the statements from the Forum’s final declaration there is a call “to all migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, workers and the displaced around the world to unite and fight for universal citizenship.”

This year’s version of the WSFM was turbulent. The ANC-governed City of Johannesburg, who initially supported the event that had been planned since two years, pulled out at the very last minute and left the organizers without a venue for the Forum. According to Aline Mugisho, the public relations officer of the African Diaspora Forum (ADF) and one of the organizers behind the forum, the mayor expressed his view that “if we do not postpone this Forum it will be a disaster and the city cannot be associated to it”. Mugisho continues: “being a migrant in that meeting almost felt like the worst thing that can happen to one” (1).

ADF is a Pan-African migrant association, with members from 34 African countries, and the objective of combating xenophobia and discrimination against migrants, and to ‘consolidate a shared feeling of belonging in Africa’. It was formed as a reaction to the weak response from the ANC-government to the so-called ‘storm’ of xenophobic violence in May 2008 that started in the township of Alexandra, Johannesburg and then swept the country. May 2008 was preceded by several instances of xenophobic violence and the standard views of migrants taking jobs, committing rape, murder and theft, and spreading HIV/AIDS, leading to a call for (re)militarisation and electrification of borders.

The city of Johannesburg in its short history was always a hybrid city, built by migrants; by colonized African labour and colonizing European capital. The entanglement of history is surely played out in this complexities arising in South Africa today. Despite the history of exiled South African dissidents finding a refuge in other countries of the continent during Apartheid, and despite the long history of hard labour in the mines shared by workers from the whole continent and beyond, post-1994 South Africa does not see a point in ‘paying back’ this hospitality. A poll done in 2006 by the Southern African Migration Project suggested that two thirds of South Africans rejected the idea of reciprocity for past support in the struggle. Instead such reciprocity has been questioned from the idea that exiled South Africans during the struggle were ‘mannered’ and ‘did not commit crime’, and that political exile is different from other push factors such as poverty.

It’s true that Apartheid with its mesh of legal structures of racial separation also created social cohesion amongst those who were at the effect of its racialist ideas. But inside these entanglements across race and different ethnic groups, there were loops and interstices and spaces of non-belonging. The anti-Apartheid struggle for universal, non-racial citizenship and national liberation submerged all other struggles. Driven perhaps by a desire to belong to a ‘multi-coloured, any-coloured’ society as Nadine Gordimer phrased it in 1959, instead of racially or ethnically ascribed belongings, the non-racial term, yet national, “South African” became a liberational term of identification. With the 1994 democratic elections, all natives of South Africa were granted citizenship status. Yet the state was not decolonised, and in this sense today’s South Africa is similar to most other settler countries. If South Africa was seen as an exception due to the Apartheid regime, it has resulted in a new kind of economic exceptionalism, as a prosperous BRIC-country that never took on Pan-African ideals and accepted the occidental model of the nation state and its borders, including the idea of the citizen as a member of that national community only. The migrant remains an outsider and, as xenophobic phenomena reveal, is perceived as a threat against the citizenship rights now enjoyed by all South Africans.

When Thabo Mbeki, the then President of South Africa, gave his address to the victims of the May 2008 violence, he rejected the term ‘xenophobia’ as the affective force behind the violence. Instead Mbeki suggested, it should be understood as plain criminal acts, that were not caused by “perverse nationalism, or extreme chauvinism” (2). Given the straight link between colonialism and Africa’s national borders and ethnic divisions, the arbitrariness and colour-blindness of the concept ‘xenophobia’ is palpable. What does ‘xenos’ stand for in this context, other than the stranger in the shape of the black African migrant? As Francis B. Nyamnjoh notes, the derogatory term makwerekwere, onomatopoeia for the ‘unintelligible’ speak of the stranger, similar to the Greek barbarbaroi, has been used since at least the early twentieth century about non South African blacks. The makwerewere was seen as inferior, ‘darker than the darkest’, uncivilized–a case in point of Fanon’s inferiority complex. Post 1994, the term has seen a revival. The xenophobic violence and hatred of 2008 came from blacks, whites and ‘others’, but it was directed against black migrants, the makwerewere. Other non-colour blind terms have been suggested, such as ‘Afrophobia’ or ‘negrophobia’, terms that would reformulate the source of the violence in both continental and racial terms, placing South Africa as external to Africa, and racism against black South Africans as part of the past rather than the present. With reference to the already existing scholarly and journalistic work that employs the term, ‘xenophobia’ remains the concept of use.

There seems to be a general view that the xenophobic violence in South Africa is paradoxical, given the history of Pan-African solidarity during the Apartheid era and the “non-European” experience of overt racism, displacement, migritude and forced removals. Such a perspective rests on the idea that we should all learn from the past in order not to repeat history, a blind belief in the storm called ‘progress’. What we see is rather a continuous repetition of tragedies as farces. There is nothing that speaks for the idea that victims of past atrocities–such as Apartheid, with its untreated traumas–will end up being ‘good citizens’.

Last year South Africa’s immigration policy was further restricted. One of the visa-restrictions of the new amendment, is that the 250 000 Zimbabweans that were given a five-year residence permit after the crisis in 2008, now have to go back to Zimbabwe in order to renew their visas. Many of them now fear forced deportations, as they are now declared ‘undersirable immigrants’ according to the new law. Yet Malusi Gigaba, Minister of Home Affairs sternly declared that “Workers from other countries, and I dare say Zimbabwe, have flocked to South Africa seeking asylum. We must ask: Is there a conflict in Zimbabwe which necessitates that Zimbabwean nationals must apply for asylum in South Africa?” This can be related to the what push factors for migration that are seen as relevant, based on a conflation of the Geneva convention and other forms of migration.

South Africa’s borders are yet not electrified, but this may be a matter of time. It now faces a critical point where the country can either go the European Union’s way of ‘managed migration’ and circular migration that meets the need of capital, closing its borders towards the rest of the continent. Or, it can move in a decolonial direction, porousifying if not tearing down its inherited colonial borders, and open up for a social citizenship across the continent that guarantees free movement and settlement.


1. Personal correspondence with Aline Mugisho.
2. Address of the President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki at the National Tribute in Remembrance of the victims of attacks on foreign nationals, Tshwane.

Crush, Jonathan (Ed.), “The Perfect Storm: the Realities of Xenophobia in Contemporary South Africa”, Report, Southern African Migration Project (SAMP), 2008.
Gordimer, Nadine, “Where Do Whites Fit In?”, The Essential Gesture, (London: Cape, 1988 (1959)).
Nyamnjoh, Francis B., Insiders and Outsiders: Citizenship and Xenophobia in Contemporary Southern Africa, (London: Zed Books, 2006).
For further updates on the WSFM, please visit Stefan Rother’s blog 


Julia Willén is a PhD-candidate at the Institute for Research on Migration, Ethnicity and Society (REMESO), Linköping University.


Image Credit: Stefan Rother