South African communities have experienced levels of antipathy towards foreign migrants
since the transition to democracy in 1994. This incipient hostility erupted into widespread
violence in May 2008, where 62 foreign nationals were killed, around 700 injured, and an
estimated 35 000 foreigners were driven from their homes. What has been termed
xenophobia has simmered in communities around South Africa since then, occasionally
escalating to levels where it threatens to approach the scale of the 2008 violence, such as
the violence against foreigners that occurred in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal in January
and April of 2015 respectively.
Most studies that explore xenophobia in South Africa focus on offering explanations for the
eruption of overt violence against foreigners and identifying specific triggers for this
violence. A reified notion of xenophobia is taken for granted and the violence itself is
problematised rather than the construction of meaning that precedes it. While the label
of xenophobia may provide an accurate description of the symptoms of this social malaise,
there are risks that it may obscure the problems that lie behind the violence or over-simplify
This study proceeded from a postfoundational, social constructionist epistemology, and
utilised a Narrative research approach to listen to the stories of people living in a rural and
an urban community in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa between 2013 and 2015.
The aim of the research was to understand how meaning was being constructed with
regard to foreigners in order to develop insights into possibilities for shaping the creation of
new meaning. Stories from within the context were listened to, described, and then
interpretations were made and developed with co-researchers. These stories were
explored in order to discover how they reflected dominant Discourses in South Africa, and
how these Discourses were being harnessed in leadership discourse, the media, and in
people’s stories to produce certain meanings in relation to foreigners. Of the various
discourses that exist, I was particularly curious about the role that ubuntu, a traditional
African social value, was playing in shaping social relationships within this context. Ubuntu
was frequently mentioned in public discourse as a solution to the violence, along with the
argument that the violence indicated a lack of ubuntu.
A transversal interdisciplinary conversation was initiated by asking scholars from the fields
of Political Science, Psychology, and Organisational Psychology to reflect on a transcript of one of the interviews. This is followed by an interdisciplinary literature review. Insights on
prejudice from Social Psychology, on conflict from Organisational Psychology, and the
post-Marxist political theory of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe offer valuable
perspectives on the violence against foreigners in South Africa.
Meaning with regard to foreigners was produced through the confluence of multiple stories,
rather than through any particular story. Borrowing the notion of transversality from Calvin
Schrag, I propose that it is in a transversal arrangement of stories that new meanings
emerge. The points at which narratives overlap and intersect are able to both modify the
meanings of the intersecting narratives and create new meanings that arise from a
combination or even a conflation of stories. I proposed the term ‘transversal narrativity” to
describe this creation of new meanings at the intersection of various narratives.