Immigration and Domestic Politics in South Africa: Contradictions of the Rainbow Nation

By Johnson, Vernon D. | Ethnic Studies Review, January 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

Immigration and Domestic Politics in South Africa: Contradictions of the Rainbow Nation


Johnson, Vernon D., Ethnic Studies Review


The region of Southern Africa has been part of the global capitalist system since its inception in the late 15th century, when Portugal incorporated Angola and Mozambique into its empire. In 1652 the Dutch East India Company established a "refreshment station" at the Cape of Good Hope for ships travelling between Europe and the Far East.1 From that time the region has experienced several periods of deepening incorporation into the global system.

Since the dismantling of the system of white supremacy known as apartheid in 1994, The Republic of South Africa's historic position as the hub of the regional economy has continued, and today it is also vying for economic leadership of all of sub-Saharan Africa. A system of migratory labor which operated throughout Southern Africa was central to the developing of both mining and agriculture in South Africa. With the demise of apartheid, as the strongest economy on the continent, South Africa has now become a magnet for immigrants from all over Africa. Yet, as a country that went through a long struggle to end white supremacy and bring democratic rule, the post-apartheid South African government had the huge responsibilities of uplifting the Black majority from poverty and constructing a political mythology that would unite citizens of all races around that project. During the recent World Cup Soccer tournament, the country received a great deal of positive publicity for its pursuit of a "Rainbow Nation" embracing the identities of its most important constituent groups (Africans, Europeans, Coloureds, and Asians). The broad humanism symbolized by Nelson Mandela, that had characterized the anti-apartheid struggle, seemed to be on a firm footing in the post-apartheid era.

Contradicting this image, however, were the xenophobic attacks on African immigrants that occurred in May, 2008. During this tragic episode 62 people were killed, hundreds were injured and over 30,000 displaced from their homes amidst widespread looting and destruction of homes and businesses. And in July 2010, as the Western press waxed euphoric over the human and administrative successes of the World Cup2, renewed attacks on African immigrants immediately following the tournament were reported in the African and online media.3 These events raise questions regarding the limits of inclusivity for this nation which owes so much to the world for its ability to bring about political transformation. This article offers an analysis of immigration policy and politics in South Africa as they interface with the daunting socioeconomic problems inherited by the African National Congress government. With its role as a regional and continental economic hub, how are we to understand the xenophobia gripping South Africa? The article will address this question from a global-system perspective. Subsidiary questions to be addressed are how has South Africa been structured into the evolving world system been since the 17th century? What role has immigration played in the country's economic and political development? How do we explain post-apartheid waves of xenophobic attacks on African immigrants? What has been the response of government and progressive actors in civil society to xenophobia? What are the prospects for enlightened immigration policy as South Africa goes forward?

The Global System Paradigm

The analytical framework utilized here is indebted to the world-system paradigm developed most notably, by Oliver Cox4, Andre Gunder Frank5 and Immanuel Wallerstein.6 These scholars saw nation -states as part of an evolving world-system which was fundamentally capitalist. Their analyses were insightful, but they were criticized for being economic determinists. Led by Robert Cox a group of scholars (including this author) began to posit that there is a global system with several interconnected and overlapping spheres.7 In a vein very similar to Sklair, I argue that the global system is composed of three spheres: a global economy, which originated in the late 1 5th century, a global polity, or system of states, established after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, and a global civil society emerging during the British anti-slave trade movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. …

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