Is Refugee Scapegoating Just a Reflection of Government Capacity?

We returned from our fieldwork to South Africa amidst the unfolding of a global pandemic. Now, confined to our homes, we continue to furiously transcribe our interview transcripts, type our notes, and mull over the implications of themes that emerged from our interviews. The covid-19 crisis here in the US actually brings some of those themes strikingly to light. We are witnessing the buffer from certain economic, social, educational, political, and public health fallout that privilege and class afford particular groups. The structural inequality latent in our society has moved more starkly into the foreground as we consider the disproportionate toll that covid-19 is having on the health of minorities in the US, the educational gap experienced by students unable to access internet to continue socially-distanced education, the true meaning of a living wage for those who are now essential workers risking their lives every day to keep our grocery stores and other critical sectors functioning, among other previously overlooked issues bubbling to the surface of our society.


In Cape Town, we witnessed much of the same inequality gaps, often manifesting in anti-immigrant sentiment simply as a means of scapegoating when the government was unable to meet the extremely high needs of its citizens. It didn’t take a pandemic for South Africa to confront its continued structural inequalities, remnants of colonialism and apartheid in the country.


Monument to South Africa's Apartheid-era Race Classification Board

As we drove around between different housing areas, each separated by large industrial areas or other non-residential zones to reinforce the discipline of segregated geography, we saw the contrast of those living in townships like Khayelitsha, Delft, and Dunoon with those living in middle-class and affluent “white” areas.


We witnessed and heard accounts of people moving out of the historically black townships and into middle-class areas (sometimes within those townships), but we also hear organizations—from legal to service providers—explain how structural inequality persists in access to the best education, resulting in significantly more limited opportunities for many of the students in townships. With constrained resources—including books, teachers, and other supplies—schools in the poorest areas that see an influx of migrants arrive are the least equipped to handle the extra perceived burden on their system. Refugees and migrants with appropriate documentation can enter the public school system, but migrants without documentation are left outside of formal education structures. This puts them outside even the substandard educational opportunities provided to the poorest schools in the city.


The story isn’t all bad. There are migrant initiatives in the townships working to create preschools and pipelines into the public school systems for migrants. During our interviews, we heard about how they provide endorsement documents and teach local languages, sometimes offering places in their classrooms for locals and migrants to learn together, in order to facilitate migrants entering their schools. Some of these migrant children have become so renowned for their hard work and good grades, they are sought after by local schools to boost overall student test scores.


This is just one example of some of the contradictory narratives we heard from local stakeholders in Cape Town about refugees and other migrants. Of course, integrating people from all over the world into a city and country that are already burdened by the legacies of apartheid’s race inequalities is a complex, multi-layered issue. By the accounts we heard during our fieldwork, migrants add a lot of positive value to the city and people of Cape Town (more on that over the course of several blogs as we unpack this idea), and this is clearer in South Africa than any of our other case sites. At the same time, when the local or state government fails to meet the urgent need of those South Africans suffering under the strain of extreme structural inequalities and few economic opportunities, the blame often falls to refugees and migrants, leading to xenophobic attacks or general ill-will towards the many migrants who live in the country seeking a better life for themselves. Though, as one of our colleagues in South Africa pointed out, the country suffers from generalized violence (consider South Africa’s murder rate of 36.4 people per 100,000 inhabitants compared to 5.9 in the US), making it difficult to know whether some migrant attacks are simply incidents of violence or purposefully anti-immigrant.


As we move forward in our project, we are asking ourselves if refugee and migrant scapegoating for government inadequacies reveals a proxy measure for how to understand if a city/region/country has surpassed its ability to absorb new migration. We are also looking at how to measure and understand the baseline, underlying structural inequalities that existed in the country before the migration event to understand how countries like South Africa, struggling to adjust to a world post-apartheid, gets stuck in perpetual emergency response because they were never able to catch up to the needs of their own citizens, let alone an incoming population.


Over the next series of blog posts about our fieldwork in South Africa, we will explore these and other topics that help us understand how cities and regions cope with stressors and absorb crisis.

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