Honorary Research Fellow Seminar

Class, xenophobia and xenophilia: Migrant experience in Jo’burg’s diverse Cultural Time Zones

Presenter: Melissa Tandiwe Myambo

Respondent: Noëleen Murray

In 2008 and 2015, South Africa’s most deadly and violent xenophobic attacks erupted. Dozens of people were killed and thousands displaced. The dominant storyline in the media and the academy cast the figure of the migrant as the perpetual victim of xenophobia. There was not enough emphasis on nuancing that statement to indicate that it is not all migrants who run the risk of deadly xenophobia even if xenophobia is pervasive at all levels of South African society. Deadly attacks only took place in specific microspaces, or Cultural Time Zones (CTZs). Those living in the CTZ of the informal settlement were most vulnerable. Few migrants who live and work in economically privileged CTZs like the suburbs became victims of violence. In this paper, I attempt to examine the relationship between (micro)space and migrant experience. Through an analysis of Jo’burg as a cluster of radically different CTZs where language, skin colour, race/ethnicity, education, socio-economic class etc. function in different ways to impact the migrant experience, I try to uncover the nuanced reasons why working-class migrants who work and live in socio-economically deprived CTZs may experience intense xenophobia whilst middle-class professionals, especially those from Western countries, often enjoy high levels of xenophilia.

Wednesday 18 April 2018 / 14h00-15h30 Centre for Indian Studies in Africa, Seminar Room, 36 Jorissen Street, Braamfontein


Imagine if you migrate to a foreign country and move into a Cultural Time Zone such as this golf and residential estate:

Or imagine if you migrate into a Cultural Time Zone like an informal settlement or a township:

This paper represents one of my ongoing attempts to nuance the migrant experience in relationship to the microspaces, or Cultural Time Zones (CTZs), in which the migrant lives her life.

I came to realize the need for a more fine-grained, systematic approach to dissecting and analyzing national space through my study of frontier migrants leaving industrialized countries in North America, the European Union, the United Kingdom, Japan and South Korea etc. to live and work in the emerging market economies of China, India and South Africa in the era of post-Cold War globalization.  Frontier migration refers to the move of people, technology, capital and ideas from a more “developed” to a less “developed” economy.  In my ongoing fieldwork studying frontier migrants and comparing their lives with those of less privileged migrant populations, the need for a philosophy of space in relation to migrant identity (and vice versa) became clear.  Nowhere is this more starkly illustrated than in the divergent experiences of xenophobia and xenophilia for different types of migrants.

In 2008 and 2015, South Africa’s most deadly and violent xenophobic attacks erupted.  Dozens of people were killed and thousands displaced, mostly working-class African foreign nationals as well as some South Africans who got caught up in the anti-foreigner wave of violence for being too “dark,” failing to speak isiZulu or being from the Venda, Tsonga or Shangaan-speaking ethnic groups who are sometimes looked down upon.   It is a common stereotype in South Africa that those north of the border are much darker but this does not hold true since South Africa’s multi-ethnic black African population runs the gamut from pale yellow to deep brown.  However, because of this stereotype combined with South Africa’s apartheid legacy of racial capitalism, the xenophobic attacks are often viewed through a racial lens but race and can skin color cannot fully explain this violence because it is not just white foreigners whom are exempt: not all black foreigners suffer this extreme form of xenophobia.

Middle-class foreign African nationals do not typically experience violent xenophobia and the privileged frontier heritage migrants I interviewed who included African Americans, Afro-Germans, and Black British mostly tended to view their brown skin as a benefit in South Africa because in the middle-class CTZs they frequent, skin colour/race/ethnicity/nationality sometimes translate differently.  Why is it that not all migrants run the risk of deadly xenophobia even though xenophobic sentiment is pervasive across all South African socio-economic classes?  This is because deadly xenophobia is a socio-spatial phenomenon.

Deadly attacks only take place in specific CTZs.  Those living in the CTZ of the informal settlement are most vulnerable.  Migrants in economically privileged CTZs like the wealthy suburbs do not typically become victims of xenophobic violence.  Through an analysis of South African cities as a cluster of radically different CTZs where language, skin colour, race/ethnicity, education, socio-economic class etc. function in different ways to impact the migrant experience, I try to uncover the nuanced reasons why working-class migrants who work and live in socio-economically deprived CTZs may experience violent xenophobia whilst middle-class professionals, especially those from Western countries, often enjoy high levels of xenophilia.  This paper employs the philosophy of Cultural Time Zone theory to explore this paradox: why are some migrants in some CTZs welcomed warmly and why are other migrants in other CTZs shunned and sometimes even killed?

Xenophobia, it should be noted, is not a particularly South African problem, it is a problem in all immigrant-receiving nations.  In Europe, outbreaks of xenophobic violence are a common occurrence as is increasing Islamophobia against Muslims.  In the US, Donald Trump’s candidacy was rocket-boosted by his anti-Mexican prejudice but globally, as in South Africa, xenophobia is a socio-spatial phenomenon.  In other words, a Mexican migrant living in the CTZ of Manhattan’s West Village in diversity-rich New York City will normally face far less xenophobia than the same migrant living in some counties in Texas or some neighborhoods in Phoenix, Arizona.  Hence, while the Trump administration advocates a xenophobic national policy towards immigrants, not all migrants will necessarily experience xenophobic prejudice because the US is divided, like every country, by myriad (cultural, linguistic, ethnic, religious, socio-economic etc.) borders which split the nation’s macropsace into CTZs.  We all live our lives on a microscale in the CTZs we frequent in our daily lives and thus to understand whether the migrant will be treated with fear or fondness, we have to understand the CTZ she will occupy.

When scholars study transnational migration, however, they analyze it in terms of crossing national borders.  They approach migration through a national lens as the movement of a Mexican national to the US or a French citizen to Indonesia.  The presumption is that the migrant crosses one border at the port of entry and thus moves from one country to another.  What I argue in this paper is that a) every country is divided by multiple internal borders; b) nowhere are those multiple borders more visible than in the global(izing) city c) parts of global(izing) cities are more “global”/transnational than “local”/subnational which in turn impacts the migration experience; and d) migrants who occupy the city’s middle-class “global”/transnational microspaces are less likely to experience (deadly) xenophobia than migrants living in more working-class “local”/subnational microspaces.

Middle-class migrants who traverse the global(izing) city’s “global”/transnational CTZs like the gated community, the securitized office complex, the fancy mall, the elite gym, the international school, the hipster bar and the cappuccino-serving café may sometimes encounter xenophobic attitudes but they do not normally risk being beaten or killed because they are foreigners.  Working-class migrants who live in shanty towns, hustle a living on street corners, shop in “local” (open air) markets, socialize in “local” taverns and attend services in “local” places of worship run a higher risk of encountering anti-foreigner violence.

To understand the migrant’s experience in all its nuances, we need to ask her, “What CTZs do you live in?”