Almost two decades after the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa, the country still has a long way to go.

A beach in Cape Town, South Africa. In a recent report, South Africa received a lowest-possible rating for its lack of progress in addressing xenophobia. Image from Creative Commons.

Associate professor of sociology and anthropology at George Mason University

Recent news out of South Africa that the rainbow nation received the lowest possible rating for its response to xenophobia should not come as a surprise. Since the outbreak of violence against foreigners in the urban peripheries three years ago, the government has shown little commitment to addressing the underlying tensions that generated it. More broadly, the violence marked only one aspect of a failure of governance that has come to define the state in relation to the country’s townships since the end of apartheid almost two decades ago.

The African Peer Review Mechanism Monitoring Project (APRMMP), a creation of the African Union, gave South Africa a red light, its lowest rating, for its response to the 2008 wave of violence, finding not only a lack of progress in addressing xenophobia by government but also an element of denialism. Referring to the news, Tara Polzer Ngwato, of the African Centre for Migration and Society at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, observed, “Government responses have been fragmented, poorly resourced and with limited political commitment.”

It is important to note that Ngwato’s description could easily refer to virtually any one of the country’s many social problems, particularly those that plague township communities, and speaks to the lack of progress in addressing apartheid’s legacy of underdevelopment. Indeed, the APRMMP also gave the country red lights for its efforts on poverty and unemployment, while only the management of elections earned a green light.

A complex web of relationships connects the many challenges the country faces. In my recently released book, I examine the city’s attempt to confront crime and gangsterism as the leading edge of its wider urban development strategy. What I found is that its anti-crime strategy, which in practice prioritizes displacing crime from affluent areas and containing it within poor areas, is rooted in a perception that the townships are a threat to the city’s revitalization.

Through this strategy, the city is attempting to disentangle the fate of the affluent downtown from that of the threatening periphery and protect the former from the “pathologies” of the latter. This conceptualization mistakes the source of the city’s disorder. In an attempt to deal only with certain consequences of a repressive inequality, the city fails not only in delivering development, it actually undermines it.

Similar to the challenge of gangs and crime, the failure to address xenophobia cannot be separated from failures to address poverty, unemployment, adequate housing, violence against women and children, and other dimensions of social development. What is required in South Africa, as in all unequal societies, is a reconfiguration of basic social relationships. Good policy – comprehensive, sustained, well-resourced – cannot accomplish this alone, but without government playing a central role, it is unlikely to happen.

Further, an effort at this scale this cannot be launched, much less sustained, through economic and governance strategies that are based on the alleged transformative power of free markets. South Africa’s leaders, like many global elites, hold fast to the idea that the path to development for struggling countries lies in reshaping the national economy as a destination for international capital. This has been the gamble the African National Congress and its partners in government have made for almost two decades, and seems determined to continue, despite its overwhelming failure to spark a South African renaissance.

The kind of comprehensive development strategy that is sorely needed would require the full attention of government for years, perhaps even decades, leaving little time and few resources required to host global events, such as the 2010 World Cup and other spectacles that, in part, are attempts to draw wealth to the country. Sadly, despite often laudable rhetoric, even the limited initiatives to address glaring inequality, whether at the national or local scales, have fallen victim to the forces identified by Ngwato: a lack of coordination, a lack of resources, and most importantly, a lack of genuine political will.

If the problems facing the average South African are unable to command the required attention from government, we should not be surprised that the danger facing even more vulnerable foreign residents has not compelled government to act. More insidiously, the strategy of portraying the “troubles” of the townships as somehow intrinsic to the social organization of the townships – the same implicit strategy employed with crime – goes beyond neglect. In fact it reveal another conscious iteration of the infamous narrative of ‘black on black’ violence used in a previous era to locate the cause of township unrest in township residents themselves, all the while making less visible the role of state and market actors. Such is the implication in a remarks made by Maggie Maunye, chair of the parliamentary oversight committee of the Department of Home Affairs, that foreigners were a cause of continued underdevelopment.

In both cases, xenophobic violence and criminal violence, some of the most vulnerable of South Africa’s residents are made to bear the burden of almost twenty years of failed social policy, neglect, and a now more colorful elite’s efforts to protect their social position relative to the nation’s majority. Until the political will is mobilize to upturn these entrenched realities, it is unlikely that any of South Africa’s vulnerable communities will be secure.


Tony Roshan Samara is associate professor of sociology and anthropology at George Mason University. He is author of Cape Town after Apartheid: Crime and Governance in the Divided City.

“Cape Town after Apartheid is a major contribution to the field of urban studies and criminal justice. It provides a framework for understanding gangs, violence, and neoliberal crime policies, emphasizing how security policies are rooted both in neoliberalism and apartheid-era policy and how they serve to strengthen gangs and fail to stem violence.”
—John Hagedorn, author of A World of Gangs

Leave a Reply