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Soweto, one of the largest informal settlements in South Africa Soweto, one of the largest informal settlements in South Africa PaulTrinity / Shutterstock.com
27 Mar
Klaus Dodds explores what language can tell us about geopolitical situations

Were you ever told by your parents that ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’?

In recent months, the South African slang word makwerekwere has become a powerful example of how words can, indeed, be very hurtful. For those caught up in its reach, it can attract deadly consequences. In its narrowest form, it serves as a pejorative description of black African migrants to South Africa. The targeting of migrant black Africans does not distinguish between those who might be refugees and asylum seekers, and those who could have arrived as legal or illegal immigrants. Sometimes other minority groups, such as migrant Bangladeshis, have been caught up in its violent grip. It is a blunderbuss of a word.

In recent months, there have been some shocking news stories involving the use of makwerekwere, and organisations such as the African Diaspora Forum have urged local politicians not to use or promote the term. This appeal came in the wake of a story which featured prominent political figures in Cape Province caught using it in a secretly recorded telephone conversation. But more damningly, there have been repeated stories of migrants being attacked and murdered in the informal settlements in and around Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Pretoria.

The geographies of the anti-migrant violence are pronounced. The principal targets have been Somali and Ethiopian migrants and their shops. In January this year, mob violence erupted after a Somali shopkeeper killed a young South African male while trying to defend his shop from looting. After the killing, angry crowds attacked foreign-owned businesses in Soweto. Shops were looted and burnt, and victims reported the police being slow to intervene. In the past, police officers have been accused of encouraging local community members to loot, burn, and attack foreign-born migrants. Victims have told the South African Human Rights Commission that legal redress is often not feasible because of the danger that it might pose to any returning families. Since 2002, it has been estimated by community groups that around 1,500 Somalis have been killed in South Africa.

The Soweto incident was not isolated. Since the emergence of a post-apartheid South Africa, the country has struggled to contain violent expressions of xenophobia. Indeed, successive governments have been reluctant to accept that a string of attacks against foreign migrants might be anything but ‘violent criminality’. No official statistics are kept on such assaults and it is often non-governmental organisations such as the Somali Community Board of South Africa that have taken it upon themselves to collect such data.

Critics contend that there might be sinister reasons why this is so, as local political figures and police forces struggle to reconcile the need to uphold the values and obligations of the 1996 South African Constitution with the desperate needs of black South African citizens living in areas that have not seen a great deal of positive change. In many parts of South Africa, poverty and poor infrastructure combine with high levels of youth unemployment. Keeping a semblance of everyday order can be demanding when some residents face very real struggles to survive.

The Somali community in South Africa is estimated to number 140,000 and has expanded after the collapse of Somalia in 1991. One area of interest to the community was the ownership and management of small convenience stores, locally known as Spazas. For many young Somalis, these provide an opportunity to find work in areas with high levels of unemployment, and are a pathway of entry into the business community. From the early 1990s onwards, Somali shopkeepers have attracted violent opposition from local communities, usually because of resentment at their relative wealth and status. But expressions of hatred towards foreigners has also been more wide-ranging, as Somalis and others have faced familiar accusations that they are harbingers of disease, and are guilty of taking employment opportunities away from local South Africans.

Some foreign-born, migrant shop-keepers have been targeted multiple times and their public testimonies make for terrifying reading. Others perished in a manner last seen during the apartheid days when vigilante justice resulted in people being ‘necklaced’: burnt to death by a petrol-filled tyre being set alight while attached to the victim. Disturbingly, some of the perpetrators of these violent incidents have never been brought before the South African courts. Infamously, the 2008 murder of Mozambique-born Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave never resulted in any prosecution, despite the publicity surrounding the attack and his death.

South African popular culture has produced incisive artistic engagements with xenophobia and violence. The South African-born director, Neill Blomkamp, was responsible for a science-fiction thriller called District 9. Set in Johannesburg, the film considers how ‘aliens’ are variously accommodated, tolerated and then attacked. The distinction between these states of existence is precarious and prone to changing ‘security atmospheres’. From being welcomed initially as vulnerable refugees, the ‘aliens’ housed in District 9 transmogrify in the human imagination into unwanted ‘prawns’ from which it then becomes easier to kill them. It does not require too much imagination to imagine how the film might have spoken to the xenophobic realities of post-apartheid South Africa.

Klaus Dodds is Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London and author of Geopolitics: A Very Short Introduction

This was published in the April 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.

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