Kimberly Vrudny

Xenophobia / Xenophilia

In HIV/AIDS, Public Health, South Africa, Structural Drivers of the Pandemic, Xenophilia, Xenophobia on August 11, 2010 at 1:00 am

Last year, more than sixty people died as a result of xenophobia in South Africa. Typically, xenophobia refers to the unreasonable suspicion, distrust, or even hatred of foreigners. Although factors contributing to the xenophobic violence in South Africa are complex, it is clear in every report about it that tensions are running high because the country is experiencing unemployment rates nationwide of about 40%, a rate which soars above 70% in many so-called “coloured” and “black” townships established during apartheid, and in the informal settlements and shantytowns that continue to build up around them. Tensions erupted in 2008 when perceptions circulated that “foreigners” were taking jobs that could go to native-born citizens, creating a distrust that was fueled by accusations that drug trafficking was largely attributable to immigrants who, it was alleged, were bringing illegal substances across the border when they entered the country. These rumors caused immigrants in South Africa to become targets of attacks that captured the world’s attention in 2008.

In order to provide a sense of the scope and brutality of the attacks, consider an excerpt from this article published 19 May 2008 in the Mail & Guardian Online (Africa’s first internet-based news source begun in 1994, reputable internationally for quality reporting from inside Africa):

[P]olice recovered the hacked body parts of a Malawian national on a sandy road in Ramaphosa township and, near Primrose, one person with Mozambican identification papers in his pocket was found dead. Two other Mozambicans were seriously beaten.

In Zamimpilo, outside Riverlea on the West Rand, at least 50 shacks were burned. Foreign nationals in the area were taken to safety at a community centre.

In Kya Sands, an industrial area close to informal settlements, groups of people began throwing stones at each other after a community meeting, but the situation was brought under control, said police spokesperson Superintendent Lungelo Dlamini.

In the Jerusalem informal settlement, near Boksburg, police came under fire as they tried to stop a group of about 500 people from looting shops there.

Police in Cape Town were identifying possible flashpoints for xenophobic violence and would have units on standby, the city administration said on Monday.

These summary reflections by journalists for the Mail & Guardian about the week’s unrest, and the article in full, point to a further tragic dimension of the xenophobic violence in South Africa. The crimes are directed against those who are already suffering in townships and informal settlements where sometimes people are living in cardboard and tin-covered shacks built on nothing but dirt. An immigration status adds another degree of jeopardy to already jeopardized lives. Indeed, many of those who continue to flee here are leaving terrible and terrifying conditions, most arriving today from Zimbabwe and the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo). They come here hopeful that they might find the refuge to which their designation as refugees attests—an illusion that is often broken swiftly when they enter a country with high rates of unemployment. On top of this, they too read the chilling words of those arrested for conducting the attacks, and the attempt of those involved to justify their activities. One unemployed man, for example, from his jail cell after he was arrested for destroying a few shacks in the Gauteng Province (in which Johannesburg and Soweto are located), is reported to have said, “We will keep on going; [the police] can’t stop us. . . . Foreigners are taking our jobs and our wives.”

Imagine, then, the increased anxiety felt by those immigrants who come with an HIV-positive status, or who acquire HIV once they have crossed the border. Their costume, accent, and location may already “target” them as “foreign.” To add fuel to the fire, in societies where all sexual subjects are taboo, word about an HIV infection present in the body of a refugee can fan the flame of violence all too ready to erupt.

Indeed, the issue of stigma was an omnipresent reality during my time at the Scalabrini Centre. The staff discussed with me how their clients often felt vulnerable, such that even coming to the HIV support group was difficult for them. When I presented the project to the members of the support group and invited each one to participate, two women made reference to the stigma of an infection when they politely and understandably declined the offer. Although two of my subjects permitted me to photograph their faces, one kept hers hidden for fear of being identified in her community. And all three asked that their names be kept absolutely confidential. Though one mindlessly wrote it nevertheless in the journal entry, I have used Photoshop to erase it from the subject’s journal page on the still life in order to honor the subject’s request for some degree of anonymity.

Of course, xenophobia is not the only option. Jesus himself drew on the ancient laws in his own Jewish tradition when Matthew records him to say, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25:35-36). The tradition upon which he was drawing was written in the ancient Israelite Code of Law: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizens among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:35-36).

All of this is to say that the Judeo-Christian tradition advocates against xenophobia in preference for “xenophilia”—a love and a deep, abiding respect for the inherent dignity of the foreigner in our midst. Certainly political questions become rapidly complex as priorities are juggled with limited Rands, Dollars, and the rest to be allocated to relieve varying competing and significant needs—but as “People of the Book,” these verses should guide our deliberations. First and foremost, we are called to recognize the “strangers” in our presence as also created in the image of God (imago Dei), possessing by virtue of their very existence a dignity that is absolute—a dignity that is inviolable.

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