The fallout of the violent raids by authorities in the Joburg CBD two weeks ago brings the way that South Africa responds to migrants from other African countries in sharp focus.
So do calls last week by the National Association of Nigerian Students for South Africans and South African businesses to leave the country, including its occupation of Nigerian offices of MTN and Shoprite, to protest what they consider to be xenophobic attacks on Nigerians in South Africa.
Referring to strong bilateral relations and the history of the Struggle for liberation the countries share, Minister of International Relations and Co-operation Naledi Pandor, this past Sunday responded to the students’ claims and confirmed that no group of Africans are targeted.
However, a week earlier, in what seems to be a message in contrast, chairperson of the parliamentary portfolio on home affairs Bongani Bongo, welcomed the arrest of more than 600 illegal immigrants during the Joburg raids – on the face of it continuing sentiments reminiscent of populist, political rhetoric for South Africa to protect her own.
The reality of heavy contrasts in the types of responses seems to be the defining trend in how South Africans engage both the lived realities and policies relating to immigrant communities – responses of nearness or distance, of collaboration or control, and of embrace or revenge.
Last week the National Association of Nigerian Students called for South Africans and South African businesses to leave the country, including its occupation of Nigerian offices of MTN and Shoprite.
Picture: Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters
These contradictions aren’t uniquely South African. In a global reality of migration that defines much of international relations South Africa’s struggle isn’t exceptional.
It is often assumed and argued that our struggle is unique since the immigrants we engage with are also African, from other parts of the continent, and who therefore share similar histories and lives – a struggle with brothers and sisters from elsewhere in the continental neighbourhood.
This may be so, but what the South African struggle shares with struggles with xenophobia elsewhere is the underlying dynamic of how societies deal with “the stranger”.
In theory a stranger will offer different and novel contributions to help design a new society and solutions to its problems – a fresh perspective that brings new knowledge and as such must be embraced. However, in reality people fear and fight the stranger.
He is unfamiliar, unknown and therefore remains unseen.
He has no story, no voice and no standing in the social ranks of a local community – the other, who is present, but unrecognised.
Over time one stranger becomes many strangers, a community of those other than us – a “stranger community”. However, as the stranger and his community begin to draw on and compete for local resources, they demand to be seen. Their successes become reminders of the local community’s failures.
It makes the stranger community a threat to a local community’s beliefs of who it is, what it values and what it owns. In response to the stranger the hidden work intensifies to make that community more faceless, more silent and more powerless.
This is the process of “othering”, which lies at the heart of social prejudice. By othering the stranger, the immigrant, a society escapes responsibility for its own struggles to find justice and transform; it loses its moral compass.
This is the threat to a changed society that emerges when the arrests of immigrants are celebrated as an achievement – it’s a celebration of othering. However, this storyline can be remade when societies remind each other of their shared struggle against injustice and for freedom in the face of student protests that replicate the violence against the other in another country.
When this happens, societies become “co-authors” of their shared struggle to not be strangers.
* Buys serves as executive dean and dean of humanities at the non-profit and social justice focused private higher education institute, Cornerstone Institute.