The Roots of Xenophobic Violence in South Africa—A Pan African Response

Albano Augustinho TrocoDr. Madalitso Zililo Phiri is a critical Black Studies scholar. Phiri was inaugurated into scholarship by a life-long fascination with politics, society, and world history and his research program pursue three complementary lines of inquiry: comparative social policy (in South Africa and Brazil), race and the political economy of development (especially in Africa), and Black radical thought. His publications include refereed journal articles, book chapters, and opinion pieces in internationally accredited periodicals such as the Journal of Southern African Studies (JSAS), Black Agenda Review, Africa Insight, and the South African Journal of International Affairs (SAIJA).


In South Africa, the Covid-19 pandemic has served to reify the manifold inequalities emanating from the country’s histories of colonial domination, Black genocide, and anti-black racism. But South Africa’s current social crisis is further exacerbated by internal perceptions that it has been inundated and infested with illegal immigrants who have eroded the country’s social fiber. It is a perspective that oftentimes leads to physical violence. Trucks driven by foreign nationals have been burned and there have been arrests and extra-judicial killings of ‘illegal’ workers, gardeners, and small shopkeepers from countries including Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Somalia.

While such violence threatens to further polarize working-class communities, it also highlights the key existential and political problem of twenty-first century South Africa: that of the nature of the relationship between South African citizens, the belonging and inclusion of foreign nationals, and the post-apartheid polity. As a Malawian national with a Pan-African orientation living in South Africa, recent anti-immigrant actions have, for me, pointed to a need to understand the origins of the formation of the colonial nation-state, with the aim of dismantling it, as a means towards forging a more expansive and inclusive idea of citizenship.

Several dates are crucial to understanding how aspects of colonialism and Black resistance were at odds in shaping the trajectory of South Africa. These dates are 1910, 1912, and 1913. The year 1910 saw the formation of the Union of South Africa, whose sole aim was to unite the antagonistic British and Dutch (Boer) territories to exclude Black Africans from participating in this newly formed state under the guise of the mission civilisatrice. By contrast, 1912 saw the birth of the African National Congress (ANC) whose sole aim was to resist the exclusivist, colonial, and imperial idea that South Africa would be governed by privileged White citizens. If these two dates bring to the fore the origins of state bifurcated by White supremacy and resistance to it, then 1913 further consolidated ideas of difference and White economic privilege through two pieces of legislation: the Land Act and the Immigration Act.

The Land Act of 1913 instrumentalized the dispossession and economic destitution of Black Africans. In the same year, on May 8, 1913 the colonial parliament passed legislation that banned the recruitment of migrant workers from areas north of latitude 22 degrees which included British governed territories like Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Nyasaland (Malawi) and the Portuguese colony of Mozambique.

The Immigration Act of 1913 has received less attention than the Land Act because contemporary contestations on redistributive politics in South African have focused on expropriation of land without compensation. However, both land dispossession and exclusive migration policies were produced under the epoch of a violent colonial modernity, and their consolidation in the colonial era were in the service of British imperialism. The Immigration Act of 1913, I argue, with its ban on the “tropical native,” was a progenitor of contemporary violence toward African nationals in South Africa. Banning the tropical native served to cement the ideas of exclusive citizenship that has shaped South Africa’s post-apartheid migration policies. It is no coincidence that the colonial regime fused land dispossession and banned the “tropical native” in the same year.

That violence, has been central to contemporary state making in South Africa, has been extensively documented, especially through the construction of ‘Nativism’ as a theory. Mahmood Mamdani distills ideas of White supremacy and segregation that are foundational to institutional state making by engaging with Jan Smuts’ policy of Nativism. Smuts suggested, “The British Empire does not stand for the assimilation of its peoples into a common type, it does not stand for standardization, but for the fullest freest development of its peoples along their own specific lines”. The mythical racial foundations of inclusion and exclusion in this newly formed union had been drawn. As Frantz Fanon conveys, colonial modernity has been adept at creating two centers: the universal “Man” and the bastardized “Other”.  By this logic, the bastardized “Other” is perpetually condemned into the “zone of non-being”. More recently, Mamdani  has argued that the global project of carving out the world into a European image was first experimented in Europe and the Americas.

Similarly, the modern South African state was founded on the premises of ethnic cleansing and perpetual servitude of the “tropical Native” and the “South African Native”. Both are produced and reproduced to serve imperial labor demands in an economy that excludes them. South Africa’s ban on migrant workers from its northern neighbors created an environment for illegal migration to thrive; thus, we can better understand the phenomenon of poverty, unemployment, low wages, wars, and other factors that compel people to move from one country to another. This challenges current narrow nationalist populism that is insurgent and resurgent across Western countries and several African countries. Rather, the existence of a legal prohibition of any human activity almost always creates a field of illegal practices.

South Africa recently passed a new law in response to growing concerns in the country about its ‘porous’ borders. This became more topical when a Malawian who was living in South Africa and purporting to be a Christian prophet clandestinely escaped the country while facing charges of money laundering and racketeering, much to the dismay and embarrassment of South African authorities. Talk radio was filled with racist and xenophobic rhetoric that finds frequent expression in phrases like “we in South Africa” and “those people from Africa”. Figures on illegal immigration tend to be exaggerated and dated. According to 2011 figures from Statistics South Africa, legal migrants were about 4.2% of the total population, or about 2.1 million people. Over 75% come from across the African continent, with the majority (68%) from within the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region. Over 45% of those from the SADC region were Zimbabweans.

In contrast to the current discourse about legal and illegal immigration, radical Pan-Africanists aimed to unmake the racial hierarchies that have been solidified by European colonial modernity. It is common for people to superficially invoke Nkrumah’s ‘Africa Must Unite’ thesis by referring to ethnic and linguistic homogeneities across the Southern Africa sub-region and using tropes like  “we are all the same” and “we should just unite”. The nation-state, however, continues to lure us into its symbols of belonging and exclusion, including sovereignty, currencies, national anthems, cuisine, linguistic identity, religiosity, music, art, sport and complex collective histories that define what and who we are.

Fanon’s admonition in The Wretched of the Earth helps us understand the contemporary trap: “[S]o comrades,” he averred, “let us not pay tribute to Europe by creating states, institutions and societies which draw their inspiration from her”. South Africa’s path toward the transcendence of a violent, exclusionary national state is the creation of a Pan-African federation that stretches across the Southern African sub-continent. This redivision would not be predicated on the Southern Africa Development Community, which retains neocolonial political and market imperatives. The Pan-African federation might geographically redraw colonial constructed borders and identities on three geographical fronts: South Africa-Namibia-Angola, South Africa-Lesotho-Swaziland-Botswana, and South Africa-Zimbabwe-Mozambique-Malawi-Zambia. Adom Getachew reconstructs this model in her discussion of Kwame Nkrumah’s and Eric Williams’ vision of postcolonial federation. For them, regional federations would overcome the postcolonial predicament by creating larger, more diverse domestic markets, organizing collective development plans, ensuring regional redistribution, and providing for regional security.  Such a federation would help to overcome the current postcolonial predicament because, as Ndlovu-Gatsheni and Mhlanga suggest, “borders as political and social creations rather than natural phenomena, must be open to negotiation, re-construction, re-drawing, contestations, acceptances and total rejections”.  This is, in part, the promise of Pan-Africanism.

This article was first published by Black Agenda Report on February 24, 2021.

Secularism is not the answer to fundamentalist violence


John SanniJohn S. Sanni is a Postdoctoral Fellow in political theory at the University of the Witwatersrand. His research areas include African political philosophy, conflict studies, religion and politics, and contemporary philosophy.



Religious fundamentalist violence is becoming increasingly pervasive and enduring in many parts of the world. In the past few years alone, we have witnessed horrendous acts of violence perpetrated by groups such as al-Shabab in East Africa, which is allied to al-Qaeda, and Boko Haram, the West African branch of Islamic State, among others.

They use religion strategically to advance political and social change. Their use of religion is based on a genuine conviction that it will provide solutions to social problems.

The way to combat religious fundamentalist violence is not through further secularisation or attempts to extinguish religious thoughts altogether. (Nichole Sobecki/ AFP)

One could argue that while these groups have religious motives, they aren’t religious in their actions.

There have been attempts to deal with the problem of religious fundamentalist violence, and one such attempt is secularism. 

In my recent doctorate at Stellenbosch University, I drew on the ideas of German philosopher Martin Heidegger to argue that secularism provides a significant starting point in this regard, but it does not adequately help us to address the problem of religious fundamentalist violence — it has to be augmented.

Most religions provide a transcendental justification for worldly activities, for example, the belief that ethical actions in this world are necessary for eternal rewards in the afterlife.

The desire to carry out moral actions is believed to be influenced by God. This argument stems from the conviction that God is the creator of all good things, including the world. The world is often considered a place of sojourn and humans must strive toward the end, which is otherworldly. Religion plays a major role in the understanding of not only the world but also of life after death. It offers a moral and spiritual guide for people in their desire to make sense of the world and also provides answers to existential questions such as: Why were we created, what are we doing in the world and where do we go when we die?

Heidegger provides a different perspective to these questions. In his books Being and Time and What Is Metaphysics?, he maintains that human beings must return to the fundamental question (the question of existence), which he believes has been distorted by the desire to look beyond the very nature of the person posing the question. In other words, the question of existence posed by human beings must not be distanced from the nature of the existence of human realities. For Heidegger, the world itself is the essential starting point for addressing the question of existence.

He argues that our engagement with this question must rid itself of the belief that the answers lie beyond that which is presented within the phenomenon of human experiences. In other words, Heidegger insists that it is only within our experiences that effective interpretative tools can be derived. Phenomenology, simply understood, refers to the understanding of things as they appear to us, and how these things reveal themselves to us.

Heidegger emphasises that the world is the only reliable discursive space. He rejects positions that do not start from the world and return to the world. Conversely, religious views, although they address lived realities, may not necessary be worldly in their framework. This tendency informs some religious beliefs that sometimes legitimise acts of religious violence.

Heidegger does provide a legitimate theoretical model for addressing the problem of religious fundamentalist violence that emanates from a certain kind of religious disposition. He provides a secularist position that is critical of religious beliefs that seek to view human experiences from other-worldly religious perspectives. He limits human ability to the phenomenal. This position is valid in that it considers the lived world as a significant starting point.

But it reduces, as French philosopher Emmanuel Levin as would argue, the nature of human experience to that which can only be ascertained by lived realities.

In addition, secularist views can promote violence, especially when world views are absolutised. Heidegger’s position risks being labelled absolutist in the sense that it imposes a particular world view. This is not to say that his position does not provide a significant starting point for addressing the problem that has been attributed to religious fundamentalist views. But it does not provide a sufficient solution for addressing the problem.

A solution to religious fundamentalist violence is neither a secularist view nor religious in nature; it entails a blend of both. On the one hand, Heidegger’s framework provides a significant and necessary starting point for reimagining religious views, especially views that are potentially dangerous. On the other hand, religious freedom must be promoted, especially as lived human realities are considered very important. A secularist position, with its emphasis on human reality as a starting point, must be reconciled with religious viewpoints to address the possibility of religiously motivated violence.

The way to combat religious fundamentalist violence is not through further secularisation or attempts to extinguish religious thoughts altogether, because they respond to a legitimate, authentic and enduring human need: asking about the ultimate meaning of human existence.


This article was first published by the Mail & Guardian, 18 Apr 2019.