The Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy (ISGAP) together with the University of the Free State (UFS) hosted a webinar on “The Politics of Othering and Discrimination” last month. The webinar was presented by 5 speakers who presented various papers on race, xenophobia, gender-based violence, antisemitism and other critical global issues and their backgrounds and the effect in South Africa. The moderator of the webinar was Vuyolwethu Xulu from the University of the Witwatersrand. He is also a Research fellow at ISGAP.
The webinar happened to take place just after the George Floyd trial was concluded as police officer, Derek Chauvin, was found guilty of murder. The death of Floyd sparked outrage around the globe which gave new energy to movements such as #BlackLivesMatter.
Making others the enemy as a form of identity
A senior lecturer from UFS’s Department of Political Studies and Governance, Dr Bianca Naude, presented a paper entitled “An Unbearable Likeness of Being: Ontological Insecurity and the Creation of Enemy Others.”
“We tend to think of identity in terms of likeness or sameness, what we are like or who we are like. Likeness or sameness also draws borders or boundaries that exclude certain things. By defining ourselves in terms of what we are like, we are also identifying ourselves against those things,” said Dr Naude.
Dr Naude further contended “Otherness is an essential ingredient of identity. Identity makes it possible for us to exist in the first instance. There is a need for people to be different in order to define themselves,” added Dr Naude.
Dr Naude also said that most conflicts or aggression in society are exacerbated by the existence of non-likeness. She argues that it is unlikely for groups of individuals to engage in violence when they see each other as human beings.
She made reference to the Rwandan genocide carried out by Hutu extremists, which claimed more than 800 000 lives in 1994, the massacre of countless people under the brutal apartheid regime in South Africa, and 11 million people who died during the Holocaust in Eastern Europe.
Gender and identity and gender-based violence
Wits University’s Professor Margot Rubin from the School of Architecture and Planning presented a topic on “Thinking Through Othering: Gender and Identity”.
Professor Rubin emphasized that women manage crises much better than men, she gave an example of how women leaders handled the coronavirus crisis.
“Germany, Taiwan, New Zealand, Iceland, Finland, Norway, and Denmark are led by women and remain to be the countries with the best coronavirus response compared to countries led by men like the USA, Russia or South Africa,” said Professor Rubin.
She argued that women were more decisive, honest and had adopted the use of technology to fight coronavirus in countries where they are leading. The best example is that of Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg, who held a press conference where only kids were allowed, and she answered every question from the kids.
Women’s leadership style tends to be more collaborative and empathetic.
Professor Rubin concluded her talk by saying “Men in South Africa have lost their position of being providers and this has led to crises of gender-based violence, rape, and domestic abuse,” added Professor Rubin.
She was referring to skyrocketing levels of gender-based violence in South Africa which takes different forms from rape to femicide, domestic violence to sexual harassment, and many others.
President Cyril Ramaphosa last year declared gender-based violence as a second pandemic after coronavirus. There have been calls from every corner of the society condemning acts of violence against women and children but it seems the call is falling on deaf ears.
UFS’s Head of the Department of Political Studies and Governance, Dr Hussein Solomon, presented a detailed paper on “Exploring Xenophobia in the Rainbow Nation”.
Contrary to popular belief, the first recorded incident of xenophobic attack in South Africa took place in 1982 at Gazankulu, this is according to Dr Solomon.
The most reported incident of xenophobic attacks in South Africa happened in 2008 during Thabo Mbeki’s presidency where a couple of people lost their lives while the majority of people were displaced.
This came after South Africans took to the streets a call to foreign nationals to leave the country as they claimed that most jobs were reserved for them as a result of cheap labour.
According to Dr Solomon, a Human Science Research Council (HSRC) survey suggests that many South Africans are in favour of more restrictive laws against foreign nationals. It further suggests that only 20% of South Africans are open to immigration.
“While xenophobia is a global phenomenon, it takes a different form in South Africa. It is difficult to understand as the economy of South Africa was built on the back of migrants. Moreover, Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries not only gave refuge to the freedom fighters (ANC and PAC), but were also subjected to attacks from the then apartheid South Africa,” said Dr Solomon.
He added “Research conducted on migrant entrepreneurs in Gauteng demonstrated that small, medium and micro enterprises and hawking operations create an average of 3 jobs per business, which directly challenges the view that immigrants, particularly street traders, reduce the number of jobs for South Africans.”
Over 500 people have been killed since 2008, foreign nationals become easy targets especially by politicians. Former Health Gauteng MEC Qedani Mahlangu and Minister Aaron Motsoaledi blamed foreign nationals for the distressed system of health both in Gauteng and around the country.
Responding to the remarks by ANC government officials blaming plummeting service delivery on foreign nationals, Savo Heleta of the Nelson Mandela University noted “Why would politicians choose to face the rightful anger of millions of poor and hopeless South Africans, when they can revert to anti-migrant rhetoric and shift the blame to those who have no voice?”
Dr Solomon, in his closing remarks, said “xenophobia goes rampant where poverty exists. The shrinking South African economy makes it possible to witness more xenophobic attacks in the future,” Dr Solomon added.
“Race Discourse: The Academic and Public Divide”
Independent African analysts and podcaster, Mightie Jamie presented a paper on racial discourse. He chose this topic as he had noticed that there was a divide between discourse within academic circles and discourse on social media and within personal interactions, around issues of race and racism.
Jamie said that this discussion was happening just as the Derek Chauvin verdict had been delivered, and that the context is that there is anxiety and has been a lot of polarization on the discussion of race.
“There are two scenarios wherein we are having a divide in the discourse on race. Scenario number one is the discrediting of legitimate academic discourse on race happening in public forums. Scenario number two is the discrediting of legitimate public voices on racial discourse in academic circles,” Jamie added.
He spoke about the importance of critical race theory that he contended that was undermined by prominent figures who are doing a pedestrian engagement with the content, rather than a thoroughly academic approach like scholars who contributed to the body of work.
Antisemitism and the Reactionary Historic Revision of Apartheid and the People’s Struggle
Dr Charles Asher Small became an activist in the 1980s after learning that South Africa was still an apartheid state. He took a decision to be part of the freedom struggle, and became the chairperson of the ANC solidarity committee of Canada, and managed to visit South Africa in the 1980s and 1990s. Dr Small is the director of ISGAP and research scholar at St Antony’s College.
“I couldn’t believe it, that in my lifetime, a regime that was based on racism that was reminiscent of the Nazi era that still existed in my time shocked me” said Dr Small of the moment he found out in a lecture that the apartheid regime in South Africa was still firmly entrenched. He continued “I grew up in Montreal in a Jewish community that had a disproportionate amount of Holocaust survivors. My grandparents and their generation were fortunate enough to come to Canada as refugees and many of our extended family were murdered and certainly displaced in the Holocaust. And I grew up in a community that believed ‘Never Again’, and I was the first generation of young Jewish students that were able to have access to universities and to a future through study if we worked, which my grandparents and even my parents did not enjoy.”
He described how this experience led him down the path of becoming very active in the anti-apartheid movement and how honoured he felt to be a part of this discussion, in a free South Africa. He added that at the same time, however, his colleagues, comrades and the notion of apartheid in 2021, have been hijacked by people who are demonising the Jewish people, demonising the State of Israel and demonising Zionism and are at the forefront of contemporary antisemitism.
“Antisemitism, in the words of Professor Robert Wistrich and others, is a form of hatred which is inherently genocidal” explained Dr Small, “As colonialists left Europe to conquer parts of the world, and to classify people according to racist / sub-human categories, antisemitism was at the forefront. The foundations of racism and colonialism came out of the European experience and came out of its perspective and view of ‘the Jew’… and of ‘the Other’.”
Dr Small stated that in his view, the quintessential ‘Other’ in European civilization, is ‘the Jew’.
Antisemitism in three-phases: religion, race, and the demonisation of who Jews are as people
He breaks down antisemitism into three-phases: religion, later race, and now the demonisation of who Jews are as people.
When it came to religion, the Jews were ‘the Other’. They were seen as the stubborn ‘Other’ that did not accept the Christian notion of the Messiah, and still held onto their culture and heritage and their world view. Dr Small further stated that what made this antisemitism genocidal is that the notion was not only a problem as far as the individual goes, but Jews were essentially seen as holding up the redemption of the world.
Later, when the world view shifted from religion to notions of biology, race, science and eugenics, Dr Small said that the Jewish nation was considered a poisoning race, a dirty race, one that was poisoning the purity of a white Aryan nation and race. Unlike the religious form of antisemitism, where Jews had the option to convert and “be saved”, race is something that is inherent and cannot be changed. And so it was that racist antisemitism was a notion that Jews had to be exterminated. Jews where them either exiled or destroyed.
Dr Small noted that in apartheid South Africa, both these forms of antisemitism existed.
“But,” added Dr Small, “to demonise the Jewish people, to demonise the re-establishment, not the establishment, but the re-establishment, of the Jewish homeland of Israel, that this form of demonisation and antisemitism is not only tolerated, but I would say in liberal, progressive circles it’s actually encouraged.”
Dr Small added that the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement, which is at the forefront of progressive struggles against perceived fascism, call for the elimination of the State of Israel, and that this is the contemporary, dominant form of antisemitism – advocating for the dismantling and elimination of the Jewish State.
He noted that the Black Lives Matter movement has used the BDS movement by presenting the Jewish nation as white elitists, even going as far as to spread the notion that Jews were training American cops to shoot and kill young African-Americans, further dehumanizing Jewish people and the State of Israel.
Dr Small described how the founders of the Muslim Brotherhood and how the Iranian Revolutionary Regime literally take European antisemitism and fascism, using the Protocols of the Elders of Zion – which is the foundation of 19th and 20th century antisemitism and speaks of a cabal, a Jewish conspiracy to control the world. He said “If you look at the writings of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas Charter, they literally lift, plagiarise, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and this plays a critical role in the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood – this old, European, genocidal antisemitism, fused with a very narrow notion of Islam. So I’m not speaking about Islam or Muslims, this is a very important distinction, but the reactionary social movement of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Iranian Regime.”
With regards to respecting the ‘Other’, Dr Small said that French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas famously stated that the moment when you see your face in the face of the other, that is when you become human. He said “We need the ‘Other’ to be human.”
By Kenneth Mokgatlhe and Sharon Salomon