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Amongst other things, Paul T Zeleza argues that in spite of the xenophobic violence being black on black, there is a "bequest of deeply racialized and internalized superiority and inferiority complexes at work."

The Pan-African world has been watching with mounting horror the xenophobic violence that has gripped several South African townships over the past two weeks which has resulted in the wanton destruction of many lives and property. Fifty-six people have been murdered, thousands seek sanctuary in police stations, churches, community halls and 'safe havens' or camps, and many more are fleeing back to their countries of origin as several governments desperately try to repatriate their nationals.

Our horror reflects our immense investment in the success of the rainbow nation born out of our collective abhorrence of apartheid South Africa as the supreme embodiment of the barbaric crimes committed against peoples of African descent over the last half millennium: slavery, colonialism, and racism. It also reflects deep disappointment that migrants from the neighboring countries and the rest of the continent are being treated with such vicious contempt notwithstanding their countries' unwavering support and sacrifices for the liberation of South Africa from the historic nightmares of apartheid.

To date, 35,000 people are internally displaced and more than 26,000 have fled to Mozambique alone, and 25,000 Zimbabweans are fleeing through Zambia. The scale of the violence has shocked South African civil society and humanitarian organizations, pummelled the rand and business confidence, and dented South Africa's image across the continent, shaking the South African state and its embattled lame-duck president out of their stupor of political indifference, policy incoherence, and operational incompetence on migration and the poor.

The current cycle of xenophobic violence--there have been several others--is a depressing testimony to the failures of post-apartheid South Africa to resolve the interconnected challenges inherited from the political and racial economies of apartheid: domestically the deracialization and reduction of social inequalities and externally the reinsertion of South Africa into independent Africa from its apartheid laager of isolation. While South Africa has made remarkable progress since 1994, not least in terms of economic growth, national integration, democratization at home, and reincorporation into African and world affairs abroad, social inequalities persist and are in fact deepening, and the dangerous and occasionally deadly myth of South African exceptionalism endures.

The South African poor are still awaiting the fruits of uhuru as the black middle classes expand and the white rich maintain their monopolies of wealth and privilege even if they are now joined by politically well-connected 'native' beneficiaries of black economic empowerment. In the meantime, South Africa historically constructed as a sub-imperial metropole ever since the mineral revolution of the late nineteenth century continues to attract labor migrants from the subregion and further afield. The postapartheid migrants are no longer chanelled predominantly to the declining mining industry, but find themselves increasingly competing for economic survival with South Africa's poor in the townships.

The demise of apartheid ended internal 'influx' controls into the previously designated 'white' cities and opened South Africa to new waves of African immigrants. Circumscribed by its conformities to neo-liberal economic policies on the one hand and its commitments to a Pan-African agenda on the other, the ANC government has thus far failed to stem domestic racial and social inequalities and develop a sound and sustainable immigration policy. This is the combustible brew that has blown up: the struggle for resources among the disaffected South African poor and the disenfranchised immigrants, whose very social and spatial intimacies engender the violent narcissisms of minor difference.

Whatever their debilitations and marginalizations from the postapartheid dispensation, the township poor have citizenship on their side, which they periodically wield violently to dispossess the immigrants, for petty primitive accumulation (342 foreign-owned businesses have been looted or destroyed), for national attention, to make claims for redress from the neo-liberal state. As is typical in such struggles, the former blame the latter of taking their jobs, opportunities, and women (the gendered inflexion of xenophobic bigotry), and the escalation of crime--never mind that levels of crime in South Africa are much higher than in the countries where most of the immigrants come from, itself another tragic legacy of apartheid.

But there is more to this depressing carnage of xenophobic violence than material conditions. Nor is South Africa unique in its eruptions of xenophobia in the Pan-African world, let alone the world at large. Remember the state-sponsored expulsions of 155,000-213,000 West Africans including 50,000 Nigerians from Ghana in 1969, 1.3 million Ghanaians from Nigeria between 1983-1985, the killings and mass expulsions in Libya in the 1980s and 1990s, the tit-for-tat expulsions of nearly 150,000 people between Eritrea and Ethiopia in the late 1990s as the two countries slid into a senseless war, and of tens of thousands from Cote d'Ivoire during its boom years. The list of xenophobic violence across Africa is a long and depressing one indeed.

One could of course blame the incongruity of Africa's porous national boundaries and the legacies of colonialism, the universal propensity of governments and the media to blame foreigners for domestic economic and social crises, and the rise of chauvinistic and explosive nationalisms in response to the stresses of neo-liberal globalization. In the case of Africa's former settler societies from Algeria to South Africa, via Kenya and Zimbabwe, there is an added dimension: the cruel bequest of deeply racialized and internalized superiority and inferiority complexes. The current xenophobic violence in South Africa is being meted out to what some in the country call "those Africans," or more popularly, the makwerekwere. None of the fifty people who have been killed is white. The anger is intra-racial, directed at other black Africans.

Pius Adesanmi discussed the social pathologization and discursive ridicule of the in an earlier blog on The Zeleza Post. African commentators and visitors to South Africa are often confounded by the pervasive sense of South African difference, of exceptionalism, the lingering racist apartheid myth that South Africa is an outpost of civilization, of modernity, on the 'dark continent'. Ignorance about other African countries is of course not peculiar to South Africa, nor is the sense of misguided national superiority. I have encountered it in many other countries in which I have lived in the Pan-African world from Zimbabwe to Jamaica to Kenya, not to mention Britain, Canada, and the United States. It is the deadly mantra of xenophobic nationalism: 'We are better than you, You are less than us'.

In all these cases, across the Pan-African world, the measures of the 'better than, less than' national discourses mutate and are articulated in peculiar local idioms, but they revolve around two axes: the relative levels of material development and the magnitude of the white presence. Thus, westerness and whiteness remain imprimaturs in the scale of human worthiness in the Pan-African world, the reason why diasporan Africans feel superior to continental Africans, why within the diaspora the light-skinned have historically enjoyed better opportunities than their darker skinned compatriots, why shades of blackness have become a shameful basis for distinguishing African immigrants among black South Africans, why the latter's xenophobic rage is not directed at white immigrants but at 'those Africans', the despised makwerekwere.

This is the racialized devaluation of black lives that we are witnessing in South Africa today in the xenophobic violence against African immigrants perpetrated by fellow Africans whose own lives were devalued during the long horrific days of racial segregation and apartheid. Racialized superiority and inferiority complexes have stalked the Pan-African world for decades, stoking the mistrust that sometimes degenerates into interpersonal and intracial animosity and even violence. This violence is the flipside of the collective Pan-Africanist struggles and ideals for the unity of African peoples and their collective liberation and empowerment. South Africans and all of us could benefit from a more systematic and sustained education about our shared pasts, present, and futures in a world that has devalued and continues to devalue our lives and humanity.

*Paul T Zeleza is editor of The Zeleza Post. This article was first published at

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