The Production of Collective Violence against African Migrants in Post-Apartheid South Africa

Research groups - Macro-Violence
Start of project: February 2020

In my PhD project I am analyzing the production of collective violence against African migrants and South African ethnic minority groups within post-apartheid South Africa. Since the demise of the apartheid regime in 1994, collective violence against African migrants, African nationals and South African minorities has become a common feature of the South African political landscape. The first time the problem of so called 'black-on-black racism' reached a wider audience was in May 2008 when the media circualted images of angry black South African crowds as they were attacking 'foreign' Africans as well as their businesses and belongings. After three weeks of nationwide attacking, killing, raping and looting, the army was deployed in order to quell the violence. After all, 62 people have died, 700 have been injured and hundreds of thousands have been displaced. It was only seven years later, in April 2015, that violence against African non-South Africans and South African minority groups has surfaced again: This time at least 7 people have been killed, several thousands have been displaced and more than 300 houses and business premises have been looted and/or destroyed. The last time such a high-scale violence broke out, was in September 2019, where 12 people have died and 50 – mainly African migrant businesses – have been looted and/or destroyed after several days of attacks in Pretoria and in the CBD of Johannesburg.

In my PhD project I use the three aforementioned cases of major collective violent attacks against African migrants, African nationals and South African minority groups in 2008, 2015 and 2019 in order to study the production of collective violence against African migrants and other „outsiders“ in post-apartheid South Africa. My aim is to provide a better understanding of the internal dynamics, the temporal and spatial rhythms, the trajectories and possible linkages both within and between these episodes of violent events. As a way to address both the form as well as the flow, the static as well as the restless side of these events, I draw on two sensitizing concepts: 'Morphology' and 'Rhythm'. While I use the concept of Morphology to look at the rather fixed and stable dimensions of the violence, the concept of Rhythm will be used to account for the moving, flying and spreading character of the violence. Morphology and Rhythm as two complementary heuristics are also helpful as a way to clarify and cluster some of my leading research questions:

Morphology: Who are the perpetrators, victims, spectators and affected persons in the drama of anti-African violence in the years of 2008, 2015 and 2019? Was the violence organized or did it erupt in a more spontaneous fashion or was it rather a mixture of both organization and spontaneity at the same time? Why is it that the violence has targeted certain categories of people time and again while others have never become the target of violent attacks at all? Why is there always a high percentage of South African victims among the killed people (in each case at least 30%) despite the fact that the violence itself claims to be against 'foreign nationals'? And about what kind of violence do we talk about after all? Why and how does the violence take the shape it actually has?

Rhythm: How do we make sense of the fact that the violence took place in 2008, 2015 and 2019 and not for example in 2010 when South Africa was hosting the soccer World Cup? Where does the violence occur? Are there certain spaces with a history of repeated attacks against foreigners and minority groups or spaces where the violence took a particular lethal form? How did the violence spread across time and space? Is it possible to identify specific locational clusters of violence? Or does the violence spread instead more randomly and equally in a kind of wildfire-way across the whole country? In either way, it is important to trace where and when the violence had begun, where and when it was most intense and when and why it had seemingly dissapeared from the surface for a while only to come up again in future times. And finally: What do we see if we compare the violent episodes of 2008, 2015 and 2019 with each other? Can we detect commonalities, interdependencies or some kind of linkages and connections between them? Are there recurring features or similar sequential patterns that we can find across all three violent attacks under consideration here? Or must we understand the violence in each of these instances as a wholly new and therefore unique phenomenon that has no resemblances to its predecessors?   

Methodical Procedure
In methodical terms the PhD project is a combination of several qualitative research techniques which can be roughly classified into the following two categories:

(a) Collection and Analysis of relevant existing Materials
In a first step I examine the existing scientific reseach literature and collect official opinion pieces and responses from the South African government, statements from different civil society actors as well as local, national and international media reports which focus on one or more of the violent attacks in 2008, 2015 and 2019. This procedure is complemented by a collection of myriad footage and mobile phone videos which were produced during the course of these violent events by persons who were physically present when the violence broke out.

(b) Fieldwork and on-site Interviews
Furthermore two field trips to Johannesburg are planned so as to visit some of the locations where collective violence against African migrants took place in 2008, 2015 and 2019. In this context it is also planned to conduct event-centered interviews with diverse stakeholders of the affected communites – ideally interviews should be held with victims, perpetratators, bystanders and spectators of the violence as well as with policemen and persons who are rather indirectly related to the violent attacks such as for example church officials, civil society actors and political representatives. In addition to that I am drawing on established contacts with South African scholars who have been doing research on the issue of anti-immigrant violence in South Africa for many years.

Research Contributions
Finally I want to sketch some of the posssible contributions of my PhD project to the existing landscape of social scientific research. The project is meant to make a contribution to the following areas:
    • Enrich the way of how we approach phenomena of collective violence methodologically

    • Complement and diversify existing research outputs in the field of xenophobic violence against African migrants in contemporary South Africa

    • Add new insights to existing theories of violent crowds and to the conceptualisation of nationalist and right-wing mobilisations across the world

    • Expand the academic field of populist and right-wing violence by a contribution from Africa, which…

    • might lead not only to some challenging insights for postcolonial theory, but also allows us to confront and question our commonly held knowledge about racism, xenophobia and ethnic violence with a perspective from the global South.