Scapegoating and xenophobia

Yesterday a friend asked me what I thought about the xenophobia which has been so prevalent in South African news this week. She asked me because I am foreign.

It is a hard question to answer. The stratification of South African society is perhaps most visible in this particular problem. No one is telling me to go home. I don’t feel unwelcome. This is a problem of the poor areas for the most part. Why?

There have been various commentaries this week which boil down to jealousy of the success of some foreigners when the locals are struggling. As someone pointed out, if it is this, then why just foreigners? Why are businesses of successful South Africans not targeted?

I find Girard’s scapegoat mechanism quite helpful here. When things are going wrong in a group, the group will try to solve the problem by finding a scapegoat. The scapegoat has got to be identifiable as ‘other’. So the socioeconomic troubles are blamed on the foreigners. The result – if we kill the foreigner our problems will go away.

It isn’t rational, but it is a powerful dynamic. Add to this the fact that an oppressed groupĀ are more likely to attack an even more marginalised group than to stand up to power and we have the perfect storm.

This is why I am not suffering at all from xenophobia – the people that I work with understand that I am not the problem. The people I associate with have the agency to stand up to power.

So the poor foreigners get beated, killed and chased away. The government stands idly by wringing its hands but failing to intervene, because if the people begin to realise that maybe the foreigners are not the real problem, the next focus is likely to be the powers that be.

As a white Zimbabwean – I will say that finding a scapegoat can be tremendously useful for those in power.


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