Skip to main content Skip to main navigation menu Skip to site footer

"Xenophobia" in South Africa: Order, Chaos, and the Moral Economy of Witchcraft

By Jason Hickel

Cite As:
Hickel, Jason. 2014. “"Xenophobia" in South Africa: Order, Chaos, and the Moral Economy of Witchcraft.” Cultural Anthropology 29, no. 1: 103–127.


This article explores the violent, anti-immigrant riots that swept through informal settlements in South Africa in 2008, during which more than sixty foreigners were killed and more than one hundred thousand displaced. In the first part of the paper, I draw on research conducted in informal settlements around the city of Durban to argue that many people’s perceptions of foreigners are informed by ideas about witches and witchcraft, which articulate with widespread anxieties about rising unemployment, housing shortages, and a general crisis of social reproduction. These ideas provide a semiotic environment in which anti-immigrant violence becomes thinkable. In the second part of the paper, I argue that these ethnographic data help us interrogate existing theories of xenophobic violence, which tend to see it as a reaction to the cultural confusion and social anomie that globalization allegedly triggers. This dominant approach relies on assumptions about order and chaos that are native to Euro-American culture and thus do not necessarily apply cross-culturally. I show that these assumptions have a long and troubling history in South Africa, where colonial administrators and mid-century social scientists drew on them in their attempts to manage African populations.


globalization; violence; race; cultural analysis; anthropological theory