n Stellenbosch Law Review = Stellenbosch Regstydskrif - Is xenophobia the right legal term of art? A Freudian and Kleinian response to Loren Landau on township violence in South Africa

Volume 22, Issue 2
  • ISSN : 1016-4359
  • E-ISSN: 1996-2193



The question that animates this paper is whether xenophobia is best understood in terms of the quasi-legal, quasi-constitutional, lexicon employed by members of our profession - and even our highest court - or whether some other explanation, that goes beyond our equality and dignity jurisprudence, would better assist us in understanding what is going on here in South Africa. To put it more pointedly, it may be that the quasi-legal, quasi-constitutional discourse that occupies members of our profession actually blocks a proper understanding of what is actually going on. What is going on? This article's two-fold thesis is hardly earth-shattering. First, following Freud, Ignatieff, Klein and Bion, I suggest that what we have experienced recently (and continue to experience) is just another manifestation of what has been described by Freud and Ignatieff, as the narcissism of minor difference, and by Klein and Bion as a group dynamic that reflects a paranoid-schizoid position. Second, I suggest that these well-developed psychoanalytic insights provide a more compelling explanation (than the label 'xenophobia') for the all-too-human toxic mix of self-love and aggression that has resulted in a minor form of ethnic cleansing in South Africa. This minor form of ethnic cleansing occurs and recurs because of (a) rather dire economic and social conditions in present day South Africa and (b) a political vacuum in which - in the absence of the state - petty politicians or just plain old thugs are able to manipulate members of extremely poor communities to act out their anxiety and rage in death and destruction. Only once those two lines of thought are connected will we be better able to understand and, hopefully, to avoid such incidents in the future. Legal mechanisms, as the responses of the SAHRC and the Constitutional Court have shown, have had limited positive effect. We can only begin to resolve the problem of township violence if government leaders listen to the disenfranchised and then deliver on our basic law's promise of adequate shelter, food, water, education, employment and healthcare. Until the tens of millions of disenfranchised South Africans feel "at home in the world", symptoms of such alienation, such as xenophobic attacks, are unlikely to disappear.

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