Xenophobic Violence and Struggle Discourse in South Africa

Philippa Kerr, Kevin Durrheim, John Dixon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

29 Citations (Scopus)


This paper argues that xenophobia in South Africa is entangled in discourses of liberation struggle, which are often used to justify anti-foreigner violence. We first examine some existing academic explanations for xenophobia, namely internalised racism, poverty/inequality, nationalism, and township and informal settlement politics. To avoid deterministically explaining xenophobia as ‘caused’ by any of these factors, however, we introduce a concept from social psychology, the concept of ‘working models of contact’. These are common frames of reference in which contact between groups is understood in terms of shared meanings and values. Xenophobic violence is not caused but instantiated in ways that are explained and justified according to particular understandings of the meaning of the ‘citizen-foreigner’ relationship. We then review three case studies of xenophobic violence whose perpetrators constructed a model of contact in which African ‘foreigners’ were undermining the struggles of South Africans in various socio-economic contexts. We also examine three cases where xenophobic violence was actively discouraged by invoking an inclusive rather than divisive form of struggle discourse. Thus the nature of the struggle itself becomes contested. We conclude by considering some dilemmatic implications that our analysis provokes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)995-1011
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Asian and African Studies
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2019
Externally publishedYes


  • South Africa
  • Xenophobia
  • anti-xenophobia
  • determinism
  • struggle
  • working models of contact

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Development


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