This article examines the recurrence of xenophobic attacks in 2011 in the light of the events of May 2008. Using archives and secondary data, examining slogans and discourses heard at the time and reﬂecting on the author’s own involvement as an activist alongside foreign residents displaced by the 2008 attacks, it is argued that the xenophobic attacks demonstrated a shift in the national subjectivity or conception of citizenship, from an inclusive notion implying participation in the future South African society to a dialectical representation of nationals against foreigners. It is further argued that, in its mismanagement of the 2008 crisis, the South African government contributed to the emergence of such attitudes and did nothing to stop the violence; hence its repetition. The notion of human rights that has emerged in South Africa is one of the keys to an understanding of the representations at stake: whereas human rights used to be a universal and founding notion in post-apartheid South Africa, they are now seen as a national privilege regarding access to basic needs. The article shows that the humanitarian management of the May 2008 crisis by the South African Government contributed considerably to obscuring the notion of ‘human rights’. In order to oppose such a dangerous policy, there is an urgent need to revive the political debate in South Africa.
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