Xenophobia and Border Imperialism

To seriously respond to xenophobic violence, start with the deconstruction of border politics and acknowledging the colonial inheritance the border represents between countries.

Limpopo River, South African border with Zimbabwe

The recent wave of Afrophobic attacks on individuals deemed to be foreigners in downtown Durban and Johannesburg reminded me of my home Canada. We have been in a persistent state of Galtungian ‘negative peace’: a peace that forcefully rinses from present day policy the historical imperative for decolonization and reparative policymaking. The recurrence of xenophobic violence is a reminder that negative peace is in fact material and symbolic warfare that the most vulnerable are repeatedly forced to fight in complex and fractured ways.

Canada and South Africa are bound historically. Canada’s reservations systems were a source of inspiration for Apartheid’s architects.

I was born into a Canada that has yet to redress colonialism and enter into a thoughtful and necessary reckoning with the ever-present persistence of settler dominance. In the absence of a true reckoning, the country continues to suffer from the effects of revisionist history. This form of revisionist history is what Canadian artist Shad calls “soft collagen lips on race politics”. First Peoples continue to be forcefully and coercively disenfranchised while the voices and stories of settler populations of all colors and origins are used to pave success and progress narratives over the consistent calls for reparative justice.

The every day violence of the Canadian state is exacted directly and indirectly on First Peoples’ lives while enlisting settler and newcomers in the celebration of a national narrative that speaks of pride, progress, and prosperity.

A “border” is not, has never been, and can never be just a border in either country. In both instances borders were violently established along the lines of race and ethnicity for the purposes of colonial progress and imperial gain. The origins of our borders are violent, the history too deep, and the politics too pronounced. When we inherit the borders we inherit their history. Borders often have a much more complex function in the modern state.

In Undoing border Imperialism Harsha Walia writes “Border imperialism works to extend and externalize the universalization of western formations beyond its own boundaries through settler colonialism and military occupation, as well as through globalization of capitalism by imposing financial agreements and exploiting human and natural resources.” South Africa’s imperial history of racialized land dispossession was a precursor for the construction of a modern capitalist state as it was in Canada. By Walia’s account, borders etch this imperialism into the physical and psychological topography of a country. The Afrophobic attacks in South Africa rise out of bordered psychologies that pit economically displaced men and women constructed as “migrants” against historically dispossessed “nationals”.    

By legislatively and politically maintaining and protecting borders as they stand in South Africa and beyond we come to embody what these borders represented and continue to represent today. Dehumanization in the name of imperial prosperity and accumulation lie at the foundation of the modern South African and Canadian border and so they will continue to lie at the root of our psyches. The recent attacks in Durban and Johannesburg remind us that borders can occupy as much territory in our communal and personal psyches as they do physical territory. The recent attacks remind us that we can all be enlisted in protecting and fortifying the negative peace our borders perpetuate. Scapegoating, misdirected anger, political paralysis, and or simple disengagement serve a bordered world.

When the conflict subsides attention will turn to legislation and legalities but legislative reform alone will not deconstruct borders of the mind. This period calls on all of us living within the confines of borders both physical and psychological to assume the herculean task of unearthing the violent in the mundane. It is the only way to resect our collective willingness to accept negative peace as fact from our societal fabric. Beginning with the deconstruction of border politics and acknowledging the colonial inheritance the border represents is the beginning. As the UCT student #RhodesMustFall movement continues to envision new possibilities for the institution after Rhodes falling there is another structure that is as intimately tied to Rhodes legacy that must be deconstructed, and in time, symbolically fall.

Borders are the beginning.

Further Reading

A debased tradition

What continuities can be drawn from the murder of Ahmed Timol in apartheid Johannesburg to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis? Wamuwi Mbao unpacks the debased tradition of police murdering civilians.

Independence Day

The labor and political organizing of Somali immigrants in the US Midwest should inspire more Americans to join the broader movement for worker rights and racial equality.