Written by Natasha Dyer
In 2015, I was back in South Africa, after two years living and working in the country. The newspapers were full of graphic pictures of men brandishing knives, hammers and clubs, with headlines blaring about the resurgence of xenophobic violence after 2008’s nationwide attacks against foreign nationals left 63 dead, hundreds injured, dozens raped and hundreds of thousands displaced.
I had so many questions. What and who exactly were behind these attacks? Which foreign nationals were being targeted? Why was violence flaring up again now? And why were only men in the pictures? What about the women affected by the violence?
Violence against women and girls in South Africa is an ever-present reality. The rates of female rape and sexual assault mostly against black women are some of the highest in the world. Over the last five years, the number of women murdered in the country has increased by 16%, while one in 13 adult women have experienced violence at home. Violence against women is generally under-reported, and LGBTI and gender non-conforming people face severe risk of violence and discrimination, including a pandemic of “corrective rape” violations against lesbian women. Both men and women were reported as victims in the xenophobic attacks of 2015; foreign nationals and South African wives of migrants.
This reality, coupled with the gruesome newspaper images, propelled me to ask questions of activists, scholars, politicians and civil society and scour debates online. Eventually, it led to starting a PhD at the University of Edinburgh this year. In May, I conducted preliminary research in Johannesburg, with South African women and African women of multiple nationalities. The project convinced me to broaden my doctoral study to compare critically with African female experiences in the UK, looking at the gendered manifestations of xenophobia in Johannesburg and London, two cities experiencing rising levels of anti-migrant abuse and gender disparities, while linked by histories of colonialism and complex patterns of migration. Gender-based violence is a phenomenon being increasingly understood and fought against, as the 16 days of activism against gender-based violence campaign shows.
Xenophobia and misogyny intertwined
Xenophobia is not new to either South Africa or the UK. Despite migrants constituting only 5% of South Africa’s population and 9% of Britain’s, foreign nationals are publicly blamed for almost every social issue. Since the start of South African democracy in 1994 and as recently as two weeks ago, politicians and the media have portrayed international migrants as “unwanted aliens”, negatively affecting businesses, acting in criminal ways and “stealing our jobs and our women”. In the UK, the wave of hostility leading up to the Brexit referendum result was propelled by divisive political rhetoric led by far-right figures such as Nigel Farage, warning that failure to deal effectively with immigration may lead to ‘cultural issues’, such as women being attacked by foreign nationals. These sentiments have built upon decades-long racism embedded in UK society and policy, most often expressed in debates over immigration controls and bolstered by a media narrative about migrants as ‘scroungers’.
Approximately half of migrants in both Johannesburg and London are women. Despite this, political and media debates often position women as silent victims, passive targets of spectacular xenophobic violence or vulnerable persons. Academic studies on xenophobia are mostly lacking in rigorous gender-based perspectives (see Morrice, 2016 and Sigsworth et al, 2008 for exceptions), despite the similarity between xenophobia and the battle for power inherent in misogyny, as noted by Helen de Cruz. In her new book DownGirl (2017), Kate Manne describes misogyny as “dependent on patriarchy – societal structures that demand that women cater primarily to men’s needs.” When women do not fit the demands of patriarchy – for example, by standing up for their rights or taking on leadership roles – backlash occurs in the form of verbal or physical abuse.
As de Cruz explains elsewhere, one can see a similar struggle for control in xenophobia worldwide. Instead of a representation of hatred between a country’s native population and its immigrants, xenophobia demonstrates a fight for control over identity, rights and resources. It is a manifestation of the institutionalised sense of entitlement generated in citizens born in a country. Immigrants are tolerated as long as they adhere to stringent political and legal rules, learn trivia about a country’s history to pass immigration tests and keep out of the way, even when they contribute to society or their safety is at risk. It occurs when immigrants fight against measures designed to control them or force them into positions of dependency and potential rejection. In African contexts, xenophobia is understood as the systematic construction of strangers as a threat to society, justifying their exclusion and sometimes their suppression.
My PhD compares how women of different socio-economic classes in London and Johannesburg experience ‘everyday’ forms of xenophobia and how this impacts upon their lives. More broadly, it looks at questions of access, race, identity and belonging in two countries where migrants and often women (and especially women of colour), are made to feel unwelcome. It creates a space to explore the multiple roles women play as would-be targets, observers, accomplices and instigators of xenophobia in day-to-day life.
Exploring conflict and violence through the arts
This work requires tools that can sensitively enable a multiplicity of voices to interact. They must facilitate the sharing of feelings and experiences, and challenge stereotypes associated with different identities. Creative, arts-based research approaches such as theatre, film, photography and walking can facilitate spaces for women’s stories to be told, shared and processed creatively, contributing to positive social change. Like the arts, conflict resolution is often approached experientially. The key to successful approaches is to create safe spaces that guarantee physical safety and a learning environment free from violence. In these forums, participants can communicate their fears, problems, feelings and frustrations.
Over a decade working on development projects across Africa, I have seen the usefulness of some of these methods first-hand. For example, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, I was introduced to peacebuilding NGO Search for Common Ground’s project using participatory theatre to help transform the way that people view conflict. In South Africa, I have met researchers and NGOs using the arts to work with marginalised women and their communities, such as Sonke Gender Justice’s community radio arts production to help educate women about surviving sexual assault. The African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS) at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg does excellent work on migration, identity and belonging, as well as supporting artists using multimedia to explore similar issues, such as Sydelle Willow Smith, whose most recent project investigates white South Africans exploring their past and present in the new post-apartheid society.
For research to have meaning and impact beyond the academy, cross-pollination between artists and academics exploring social issues is essential. It combines creative ways of learning and investigation with well-worn data-gathering tools, hopefully providing positive ways for those affected by conflict and violence to process their experiences, as well as new insights for academics, policy-makers and practitioners. Using a participatory approach in my research, I look to the female participants to lead the process, while learning from feminist scholars and experienced artists. My hope is that by enabling women of different socio-economic classes, races and nationalities to explore their feelings on identity and belonging through the arts, in two countries where debates on these issues have become so divided, it will generate new understandings of how to tackle xenophobia and its gendered dimensions. In places where migrants are at serious risk of deportation or violence and where gender-based violence or discrimination is ever-present, women need spaces to explore and share their thoughts and experiences creatively, helping them to make connections and generate answers to increasing social problems.
Natasha Dyer is a research and communications consultant in international development, currently pursuing a PhD at the Centre for African Studies, School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh. She has worked across Africa for over a decade, supporting organisations and governments to achieve gender equality, provide quality education and resolve conflict. Twitter handle: @nrlcadyer