Women and the xenophobia narrative in South Africa

  • 2015•08•27

    Gavaza Maluleke


    A vehicle supposedly belonging to a foreigner, after a night of violence. Nonhlelozenkosi Nsingo/Demotix. All rights reserved.

    It has been a couple of months since the last outbreak of xenophobic attacks targeting African foreign nationals occurred in South Africa. This latest attack, like the one that occurred in May 2008, resulted in many deaths and left thousands displaced as they fled from the violent attacks. The brutality attracted a great deal of media attention, which tended to assume that only two major xenophobic attacks have occurred in South Africa so far. However, there have been numerous attacks on African foreign nationals since the 1990s, with most of the attacks concentrated in the urban areas of Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban.

    Common to all these attacks is the narrative “they steal our jobs and our women”. This narrative, however, is nothing new, and has been used numerous times in nationalist discourses against immigrants in South-North (SN) migration. Here too a misleading impression arises that these challenges were due to visible differences between foreigner nationals and the locals. But little attention has been given to South-South (SS) migration, where such narratives are also prevalent.

    Any thinking about xenophobia and its impact on women’s lives also tends to focus on the extreme violence that it produces. But if the targeted ‘other’ in the South African context is African foreign nationals, the argument for visible differences between foreigners and locals as a mitigating factor does not hold much water. So it is also important to look at how other salient forms of xenophobia are experienced, and what such analysis can reveal about the actual situation of women in South Africa.

    “They steal our jobs and our women”

    Thousands in Durban hold peace march against xenophobia. Reinhardt Hartzenberg/Demotix. All rights reserved.

    From the onset, interesting questions about this narrative revolve around who is being addressed and by whom? Browsing through the pictures and reading the media reports, it is apparent that both men and women were victims of thesexenophobic attacks. However, foreign males seem to be the main audience that is being addressed, and in a way that renders the foreign women in this narrative invisible. This might be due to the fact that the majority of migrants in the region are proportionately male.

    However,  there has been a marked increase in female migration in the last decade. Most of the women who move to South Africa do so to join husbands who migrated here for work. They become victims of these attacks because their migration to South Africa to join their husbands represents the settling down of foreign men in South Africa. Foreign men are no longer seen as temporary visitors, and this is thought to have a serious and long-term impact on the host country. It follows that foreign African women are not seen as a threat until their presence is linked to foreign African men.

    These are not the only changes threatening the position of men in South African society. Since the legalization of same-sex marriages in South Africa in 2006, there has been a negative and often violent reaction towards black lesbians in the townships in the form of ‘corrective’ rape. The discernible link between xenophobic attacks and these corrective rapes, is that the perpetrators of this violence target those who threaten their position as men. South African women also participate in the attacks, but again only South African male voices and frustrations are heard in their coverage, while the women remain largely invisible and unheard. This pattern of male frustration has been on display in South Africa since the 1990s, with increased violence towards children and women in the form of rape, domestic violence as well as the ‘corrective’ rape of Black lesbians. All of this behaviour seems to raise serious issues pertaining to masculinity in South Africa.

    Women and nation building

    Zanele Muholi. Flickr/Thierry Ehrmann. Some rights reserved.

    Zanele Muholi. Flickr/Thierry Ehrmann. Some rights reserved.

    Charlotte Sutherland has argued that this sort of claim – “they steal our women”- points towards patriarchal undertones of anxiety about men’s ability to provide for their families. But there is a more general factor at play: the way South African society views women. Women in South Africa are seen as possessions to be used by men as they see fit. This too might explain why foreign African women are not visible to commentators: they are not seen as a threat until foreign African men are implicated in the story. The same assumptions seem to be at work in the violence towards black lesbians in the township. The idea behind “corrective” rape is that it must  ‘cure’ lesbians of their sexual orientation. Those who rape lesbians have both the right and the ability to affect this change.

    Such views not only strip women of their dignity, but also of their capacity as agents able to assert their sexual orientation, move to South Africa as individuals, or choose their own partners. Moreover, they suggest that women’s assertion of their sexual orientation or their acceptance of marriage with foreign men crosses unacceptable national boundaries as imagined by South African society. These women are seen as betraying their “nation” by not conforming to their roles.

    Meanwhile,  it is important to remember that there are South African men who assert their sexual orientation and there are those who are married to African foreign women and yet both these decisions do not provoke the same kind of reaction. This hypocrisy takes us back to colonial times where relationships between European women and local men were seen as threatening to the imperial order of things and yet relationships between European men and local women were at best tolerated.

    Nonetheless, it would be remiss to blame men alone for the production of such narratives. South African women are complicit in their production. As mentioned earlier, South African women support this narrative by engaging in the attacks of foreign nationals, and also by chastising local women married to foreign nationals. For many local women married to foreign nationals, xenophobia is a daily experience in which they worry about their foreign partners as they go off to work because the attacks can occur at any time. One woman taking her sick children to hospital was asked by the female nurses, ‘why are you giving these people residence papers’ which she felt was intended to degrade and discredit her choice of partner.

    These negative views also extend to women who decide to come out as lesbians. A female  government minister walked out of an exhibition by Zanele Muholi which featured nude photographs of lesbian couples arguing that, “It was immoral, offensive and going against nation-building.” All these examples demonstrate the ways in which women are viewed and treated, not just by men but by other women in South African society. Women are not seen as independent South Africans but as wives responsible for the building of the nation. Those who challenge this mission are punished for not conforming.


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    Women and the xenophobia narrative in South Africa by Gavaza Maluleke is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.