Xenophobic attitudes, gender and sexuality

'Foreigners are stealing our women', was one of the justifications provided for the xenophobic attacks on foreigners in South Africa last year. A small pilot study revealed strong xenophobic hostility towards foreigners and uncovered disturbing patterns in male thinking about gender and human rights. Nadia Sanger reports.

The pilot study was conducted in Du Noon informal settlement in Cape Town late last year. It involved four focus-group interviews, two consisting of 13 local women and 11 local men, respectively, and two consisting of 13 migrant men and 7 migrant women. The study took into account that violence is often perpetrated by men - whether sexual violence against women and children, or violence against other men. It investigated how ‘male power' operates within a patriarchal society and the role that gender and sexuality play in xenophobic attitudes.

The focus-group interviews concentrated on the connection between xenophobic attitudes and actions associated with gender, particularly ideas about masculinity, femininity and the relationships between migrant and South African women and men. The preliminary findings highlight some of the themes that emerged from the interviews.

'Different in mind'

The South African women who were part of the pilot study overwhelmingly articulated that foreign men were more respectful of women, and were willing to take on the responsibility of South African women's children, grandmothers and families, and the maintenance of their houses: ‘Even if they are boarding they take care of the broken things like doors; they fix those things.'

Similarly, male migrants stated unequivocally that, unlike local men, they treated women respectfully, and took ‘care of them': ‘Foreigners don't beat women. We are caring. We look after you like an egg'; ‘We buy you clothes to make you nice because you are a queen.'

Both South African and migrant women appeared to agree with these sentiments, the former stating that local men ‘are very jealous - they will beat you if you are even talking to men, whether he is local or a foreigner'. Female migrants echoed this statement, claiming that they had witnessed local men beating and kicking local women, sometimes ‘with a bottle of beer'.

Foreigners and the use of 'magic'

But South African men had the opposite view. They asserted that male migrants treat local women with disrespect, physically abuse them; ‘use them as strippers'; ‘employ them to sell drugs in clubs'; ‘get involved in sexual relationships with young small girls'; ‘use [local] girls as slaves'; and ‘use [their] girls as prostitutes at the age of 14 to 16 years'.

Male migrants use 'magic' to 'boost their manhood' and to protect themselves from being caught by the police.

And male migrants use ‘magic' to ‘boost their manhood' and to protect themselves from being caught by the police when using local women as drug dealers, strippers and prostitutes. The local men seemed to lament this ‘magical' control migrant men appeared to have over the local women, claiming that migrant men were ‘taking over [our] women and now there is no respect from [our] local sisters and children'.

And they complained that male migrants were leaving women with kids with no support, and linked the loss of ‘their women' to the influx of ‘foreigners' who were being employed, resulting in the apparent loss of jobs for South African men.

To them, the consequent inability to financially provide for ‘their' women meant that they were ‘no longer providers to [their] families - our dignity is gone'. Essentially, then, South African men felt that their ‘daughters, wives and children are having relationships with foreign men because they have money and provide'.

South African males felt that they were undermined by male migrants who ‘treat them like animals'; use English as a means to demoralise them, and ‘never listen and obey [the] rules [they] set as a community so that [they] can find ways of working together'. One male participant unequivocally stated that ‘we really do not like them and trust them'.

Women's rights 'emasculate' all men

Local men narrated how they felt emasculated due to an apparent espousal of women's rights in South Africa, claiming that the government was ‘oppressing men's rights'. Consequently, they complained of a lack of respect by their wives and girlfriends, who were believed to have more rights than they have, which affected how they were able to ‘discipline' them: ‘In the past I used to sort my family - whether I was beating her, it's the way I solve my house problem.'

This was exacerbated by government ‘interference' in family life through the setting up of constitutional courts, hampering the ways in which men could control their wives and families; control they felt was an entitlement built through lobola processes and negotiations.

Male migrants stated unequivocally that, unlike local men, they treated women respectfully and ‘took care of them'.

These kinds of beliefs were not restricted to South African men. Male migrants similarly believed that South African women were ‘allowed' too much equality. They spoke of local women's independence, autonomy, lack of respect for men and revengeful tactics. According to female migrants: ‘In my country, my dad can beat my mum, but she won't go to the police. Here, in South Africa, it's 50/50, women will call the police.'

While male migrants articulated that they found Xhosa women desirable, they found them to be ‘disobedient', a feeling shared by local men. Hence, migrant men would have sex with these women, but would not be willing to marry them, echoing notions of the virgin/whore dichotomy, which feminists have been discussing for decades: only virgins are viewed as desirable and worthy of heterosexual marriage. If no longer virgins, women are viewed as ‘dirty', ‘abhorrent', ‘used goods' and not worthy of heterosexual marriage.

'Othering' and heterosexual femininity

Male migrants also articulated stereotypical notions of local femininity, which were linked to ideas around the ‘dirty vagina': ‘Local women don't shower or bath; [they are] not clean. [Girls must be taught] to clean the sex.'

And despite male migrant's sexual desire for local women, they simultaneously articulated that South African women were promiscuous: ‘Too many South African women have HIV, so I'm scared.'

But when South African men were asked if they would have an intimate relationship with ‘foreign' women, they had a similar response: ‘They do not wash. As a man, I can only wash once, but a woman should wash twice. The foreigner women do not like water - they smell.'

These kinds of utterances by both local men and immigrants echo popular (heterosexist) beliefs that men are rough, and women are clean and pure. So, while foreigners are regarded with hostility, there are particular ways both groups regard black femininity and heterosexuality.

Money and belonging: transactional relations

There appeared to be some rationale for relationships between local women and migrant men, from both sides. For reasons related to survival, access to money appeared to be central to women's choice in a male partner, with a South African woman stating that migrant men ‘know that we need money - they bribe us with money'.

But it also became clear that male migrants exchanged women's apparent desire for money for a sense of belonging in Du Noon, and in South Africa more broadly, and this played a significant role in developing intimate relationships. Consider one male migrant's view: ‘To know the country, I have to get a woman here, to become a citizen. For security, protection and guidance from local women. She will defend me.'

There is clearly a need for more research extending beyond Du Noon, Cape Town, to the rest of South Africa, and perhaps the rest of Africa. But this study showed that notions of masculinity and femininity underlie perceptions that contribute to xenophobic fear and hostility. Identifying some of these perceptions will help to shape the kinds of research and preventative strategies we need to put in place when dealing with xenophobic attitudes.

Dr Nadia Sanger is a chief researcher in the programme on Democracy and Governance.