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Xenophobia in SA: The politics of naming, national contract, and the invention of the foreign other

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Xenophobia in South Africa: The politics of naming, national contract, and the invention of the foreign other

by Dr William Jethro Mpofu PhD in Decolonial Studies (Philosophy, Communication, Politics), Masters in Media and Communication Science, Masters in Political Studies, Post-Graduate Diploma in Media Studies & Honours in African Literature


That the hatred and violent attacks of black Africans from other countries in South Africa is xenophobia might be a simplification and a politics of naming that conceals the racist, classist, and world-systemic origins of the problem. The term xenophobia might conceal rather than reveal the modern and colonial history of the hatred and violation of the foreign other that takes place within such a nation-state as post-apartheid South Africa, which is haunted by the racism and coloniality of the World System, whose legal and political sensibility structures its polity and economy. This essay describes the National Contract that beholds post-apartheid South Africa to a modern and colonial World System which excludes and includes people along the lines of race and the social classifications that come with it. How nations and their states invent themselves and construct and produce the foreign other is discussed to flesh out how the nationalism and patriotism that criminalise the foreign other are rooted in the colonial unconscious of the nation-state and the World System. Xenophobic hatred and violence might be spectacular in South Africa but are not uniquely South African. All nation-states – as artefacts and properties of the modern colonial World System – are racist, nationalist, classist and xenophobic. The hatred and violent attacks of black foreign nationals from other countries in South Africa cannot be understood or challenged without engagement with the racism and coloniality of the nation-state as an artefact of the World System.

Keywords: Xenophobia, Politics of Naming, National Contract, World System, Nation-State, South Africa


The foreign other as the outsider to the nation and the other to the state is a true reject of the power that Immanuel Wallerstein (2004) has called, the “World System”. In the World System – that is, an organisation of nation-states punctuated by geographical maps of countries and legal borders of states that produce local citizens and alien subjects – nationality and citizenship have achieved tyrannical currency. Nationality and citizenship have become the talisman of being human and belonging in the nation-state. It is of analytical importance, in this essay, to look at the nation-state as but a unit within the World System, which is the ultimate organising idea that shapes the workings of the economies and polities of nation-states.

In such a typical nation-state as South Africa, where the foreign other is a double-outsider that suffers identarian exclusion by the nation and legal exclusion from citizenship by the state, the foreign other is produced into a candidate for multiple forms of hate and violence that, at their zenith, lead to beatings, immolation, and other diabolical forms of murder. Even such a rigorous parliamentary democracy and celebrated Constitution as South Africa’s are not equipped with enough legal and political resources to protect the foreign other.

The foreign other in South Africa does not only endure inequality in a land of storied inequality, but also exists under conditions that birth the experience of unequality itself. Unequality as a violence describes the foreign other as located outside the order of equality and inequality but down under the radar of the law, order, and social justice. The condition of the foreign other in the nation-state is darker, in the experiences it produces, than what Giorgio Agamben (2008) called the “state of exception”, where the other is ejected from the sphere of the protection of the law and exposed to the elements of the “state of nature”, which may be worse than the punishments of the beasts in the animal kingdom. It is not only extremely cold and extremely hot outside the arms of the laws of nations and their states, but it is also bloody and, actually, deathly for the foreign other as the imperilled of modernity and the coloniality that accompanies it.

One can claim that nation-states, as organised and structured by the World System, are formed against the foreign other, who is positioned as an intolerable and nonsensical outsider. Even democracy, which is understood as the refuge, if not an orphanage, of the oppressed and the excluded of the world does not sufficiently accommodate or protect the foreign other.

The limits of democracy as a furniture of western modernity, imposed together with the nation-state on the Global South, are tested and exhausted in the excluded condition of the foreign other. Achille Mbembe (2021) was concerned with the foreign other as the excluded, even in supposedly democratic nation-states that have easily become societies of enmity:

Perhaps it has always been this way. Perhaps democracies have always constituted communities of kindred folk, societies of separation based on identity and on an exclusion of difference. It could be that they have always had slaves, a set of people who, for whatever reason, are regarded as foreigners, members of a surplus population, undesirables whom one hopes to be rid of, and who, as such, must be left completely or partially without rights (Mbembe, 2021:20).

Displacement and dispossession, the deprivation of place and denial of possessions, come to be the place and the possession of the foreign other, who becomes a powerless object. As a powerless object, the foreign other becomes an item subject to powerful observations and descriptions by scholars, journalists, politicians, activists, and some right-wing anti-immigrant movements like the Operation Dudula movement in South Africa. Never is the foreign other a subject to the observers, sympathetic or hostile, but is always an object to be observed, discussed and displayed.

In the punchy essay of 1943, We Refugees, Hannah Arendt is concerned with the painful objecthood of the foreign other in the shape of the refugees who, in their search for subjecthood, call themselves otherwise because “in the first place, we don’t like to be called refugees, we ourselves call each other newcomers or immigrants” (Arendt, 2009:264). The foreign others, by-products of the workings of the nation-state within the World System, do not see themselves the way they are seen, named and described by the privileged others. They seek to reject their production, their being a product of the observation and naming industry of curious scholars, dutiful journalists, powerful politicians and angry anti-immigrant activists who want them gone at best and dead at worst.

In this essay I seek to ponder not just the pain of the foreign other but their legal and political paradox. The paradox being that the nation-states of the World System that fear and hate the foreign other, and brutalise them, cannot exist without them; and the foreign other would not exist if it was not for the nation-states as an industry that creates insiders and their outsiders, geographically, legally and politically.

It is neither an exaggeration nor a simplification, but it is a veracity that there would be no foreigners if there were no nations and no states. The existence, legal and political reality of nation-states, necessitates the existence of the foreign other, who might in one be nationless and stateless, a national and a citizen of nowhere and, therefore, a child of everywhere. As such, the foreign other might be the true citizen of another, an alternative world system, even if it is for now a decolonial fantasy of a world without nations and a world that is innocent of the colonial crime of borders.

As an artefact of the modern colonial World System, which was imposed on the Global South at the pain of genocides and epistemicides of conquest, the nation-state is a crime scene if not a cemetery for the foreign other. Recurrent eruptions of xenophobic protests and violence in South Africa speak to a growing national and state habit of systematically punishing the foreign other. As much as this is true, it is also true that South Africa might be presenting spectacles of violence against the foreign other, but the hatred and exclusion of the foreign other takes place in other African countries.

South Africa’s attractive economy, vivid polity, and exemplary democracy have made the country a compelling destination for the foreign other. As such, South Africa is a fitting location for a study of how the World System and its nation-states invents and governs the foreign other who is produced into what Frantz Fanon (1963) called, “the wretched of the earth” – that is, the oppressed of all oppressed.

Xenophobia: The Politics of Naming

What I refer to as the politics of naming concerning what is understood as xenophobia in South Africa, is that the term xenophobia is used to conceal the true nature of the hatred and violence against black Africans from other countries. I have made the observation that, in actuality, what is circulated in journalistic and scholarly literature as xenophobia in South Africa is systemic and structural racism that is rooted in the colonial and apartheid history (Mpofu, 2020) of South Africa and other nation-states.

It is my observation that the term xenophobia, as it denotes the fear and also hatred of foreign others by native nationals of South Africa, tends to conceal rather than reveal the systemic and structural constructs of racism at a world and local scale. These constructs produce and locate black Africans of other countries in South Africa as alien and foreign others who are on the receiving end of nationalist and, ultimately, racist passions of hatred and violence.

I note that in a country which has not fully recovered from the homeland racist nationalism that placed black natives of South Africa according to geographical and ethnic lines, the black Africans from other countries take the place of racialised and excluded outsiders, who become candidates for hatred, discrimination and violation. In that way, what is termed xenophobia is, in my view, actually racism and the coloniality of being and belonging that accompanies it.

In the South African academy and media, and in political circles, frequent eruptions of protests and violence against black Africans from other countries are referred to, not only as xenophobia, but also “Afrophobia” and “black-on-black violence”. The terms, collectively, construct and distribute the unfortunate impression that black South Africans in their national exceptionalism, fear and hate black Africans from other countries. Afrophobia and black-on-black violence refer to black people of South Africa as low-end brutes who hate others and themselves. The terms xenophobia, Afrophobia and black-on-black violence tend to apportion the blame for violence to the victims, who, in my view, are black people, nationals and foreign others – the systematic and structural rejects of the World System.

The construction and production of foreign others within such nation-states as South Africa plays out within their borders, but actually emerges from the World System as the producer and organiser of the nation-states themselves. As understood by Charles Mills (1997:1), “white supremacy is the unnamed political system that has made the modern world what it is today”. White-skinned people are the ultimate citizens and nationals of the World System and tend to be welcome in most nation-states, including South Africa. This observation may be confirmed by the fact that there have not been xenophobic protests and attacks against white-skinned foreign nationals in South Africa. It has also happened that some black South Africans have been attacked and some killed after being mistaken for Africans from other countries in the continent. It is white-skinned people, foreigners and nationals of South Africa who seem to be systemically and structurally insulated from xenophobic violence, protected by the cover of white supremacy, which is the currency of being and belonging in the World System and its nation-states. What W.E.B. Du Bois (1903) described as the pathetic “souls of black folk” was not a reference only to black descendants of slaves in the United States of America, but also to black people at a world scale who are foreigners even within their own continent and nation-states. For instance, that black South African nationals remain marginalised from the mainstream post-apartheid economy is a truism that is in the public domain. In other words, black South Africans might be a political majority in terms of their population, but they remain an economic minority in their peripherisation from the mainstream economy, despite their nationality and citizenship. Where black nationals are economically marginal as they are in South Africa, it stands to reason that foreign black nationals would become the marginals of all marginalised, excluded and loathed. The marginality and exclusion of black South Africans from the mainstream post-apartheid economy led then Vice President, Thabo Mbeki (1998) to conclude that South Africa was “two nations, the one black and the other white”. In Mbeki’s understanding, white people in South Africa belonged to their own economic and social nation from which black people were excluded. The economic and social nation of their own that black people in South Africa inhabit is specifically poor and characterised with stiff competition for life opportunities and resources. In that competition, black Africans from other countries occupy the position of aliens, enemies and other undesirables. What is important to observe is that white South African nationals and white foreign nationals generally remain protected from xenophobic violence by their skin colour and social class, which positions them as the favoured and privileged of the World System, whose logic is white supremacy and racism. In that way, class and race, as social markers and classifiers intersect to exclude blacks in general and black foreign nationals specifically from the South African economy and polity. It is my observation and also argument that what appears to be xenophobia punishing and excluding black Africans from other countries in South Africa, is actually racism (Mpofu, 2020). It takes a decolonial and wider understanding of what racism is to illuminate that the violence against foreign nationals in South Africa is based on racism, which is not only a heritage of the apartheid era but a logic of the World System that governs all nation-states, systemically and structurally.

Ramon Grosfoguel provides that expanded and deeper understanding of what racism is and how it works. It is noted that: “Racism is a global hierarchy of superiority and inferiority along the line of the human that has been politically and economically produced and reproduced for centuries . . . The hierarchy of superiority and inferiority along the lines of the human can be constructed through diverse racial markers. Racism can be marked by colour, ethnicity, language, culture and/or religion” (Grosfoguel, 2016 :10).

If indeed colour, ethnicity, language and culture are racial markers that can be used to include and exclude one by the other, then it is convincing that black Africans from other countries are victims more of racism than xenophobia in South Africa. In other words, xenophobia, especially in the South African context, is a tributary of the larger systemic and structural problem of racism and the white supremacy that accompanies it in the World System. Unbeknown to them, the black and poor South Africans who choose to attack black Africans from other countries are being vehicles and conductors of white supremacy and racism, which socially manifest as the hatred and fear of foreign nationals in the streets of South Africa.

The National Contract in South Africa

Contract theory is not only real, but it also continues to widen and deepen in the way in which it illuminates how power works and organises the powerless. From its genealogies and provenances in western philosophy, where philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau adumbrated on it, contract theory has been enriched by decolonial thinkers who continue to deploy it to shine light on the dark corners where power hides its multiple violences.

Concerning post-apartheid South Africa and the coloniality that haunts the polity and the economy, Melissa Steyn (2012) explicates an “ignorance contract”, where some guilty white perpetrators and beneficiaries of apartheid entertained deliberate forgetfulness and ignorance of the evil of racist rule. They entertain the ignorance so powerfully that Steyn wonders why one can never meet a white South African who owns up to having perpetrated, supported or benefitted from apartheid. From that, one can observe how power uses its privilege to ignore and to creatively forget its violences and plead innocence. In other words, power has the privilege to unknow its crimes and evils by politically contracting itself to convenient and comforting ignorance.

British feminist, Carole Pateman (1998) described the “sexual contract”, where the idea of the social contract that is supposed to be foundational to liberal democracy actually conceals a “patriarchal pact that establishes men’s sex right over women” and by extension non-gender conforming peoples in the modern colonial world system. Hidden behind the enchanting modernising and liberating gestures of the social contract is patriarchy, which advances male and heteronormative supremacy. What Pateman achieves is to unmask the logic of patriarchy and sexism, which is systematically and structurally hidden behind the rhetoric of the social contract, much the same way the rhetoric of democracy and constitutionalism of nation-states tends to hide the logic of inequality, racism and other violences. The hate and attacks of foreign others from Africa in South Africa happen as the country’s Constitution is globally celebrated and vivid parliamentary democracy admired as exemplary.

From the vantage point of political philosophy, examining the World System, Charles Mills (1997:1) observes in western philosophy “no mention of the basic political system that has shaped the world for the past several hundred years”, and that “this omission is not accidental”. The omission of white supremacy and racism as organising ideas of western and colonial modernity constitutes a kind of “ignorance contract”, where racial power and privilege are comfortable concealing rather than revealing their violences. The gravamen is that “white supremacy, both local and global, exists and has existed for many years; the conceptual claim – white supremacy should be thought of as itself a political system, white supremacy can illuminatingly be theorised as based on a contract between whites, a Racial Contract” (Mills, 1997:7).

As a political system, the Racial Contract does not only bind whites, socially and politically, but it forcibly presses its signature on non-whites who are on the receiving end of white supremacy. As such, in nation-state settings such as South Africa, post-apartheid South Africa specifically, the racial contract holds the distribution of power with the many-fingered grip of the octopus. It is for that reason that the celebrated South African Constitution and the storied parliamentary democracy of the Republic do not seem to have sufficient legal and political resources to protect the poor majority blacks who are black foreign nationals from other African countries.

From how the Racial Contract envelopes the nation-states within the white supremacist and modern colonial World System, I observe a National Contract where nationalism and patriotism as ideologies and passions are not innocent of racism. The national who becomes a xenophobe pretends and may actually believe that he, she or they are a dutiful patriot charged with the love and duty to cleanse the nation and the country of foreign intruders. That national believes in and fortifies colonial homelands and colonial borders. The xenophobe is at once a racist who cements the bricks of colonial and racist infrastructures of the nation-state, which is a province of the World System. In that way, nationalism as an ideology of power, being and belonging to a nation, tends to escalate or degenerate into the racism that gave birth to it in the very first place.

Frantz Fanon (1963) worked hard to illuminate the degeneration of nationalism in the case of West Africa where: “National consciousness, instead of being the all-embracing crystallisation of the innermost hopes of the whole people, instead of being the immediate and most obvious result of the mobilisation of the people, will be in any case only an empty shell, a crude and fragile travesty of what it might have been”. As if writing about present-day South Africa, Fanon noted how “from nationalism we have passed to ultra-nationalism and finally racism” and “these foreigners are called on to leave and their shops are burned and their street stalls are wrecked” (Fanon, 1963).

My observation is that the nationalist road, as a passionate and ideological road, leads back to the Racial Contract. The nation-state carries a nationalist and racist birthmark from its violent birth and growth in Europe, where it was colonially transported to be imposed on Africa. As I argue below, the national, in pursuing nationalism and advancing the patriotism to the nation-state, always runs the risk of degenerating into hate and violence against the foreign other who is the systemic and structural other to the World System. Political commitment to the nation-state and its demands on the outsider to the national maps and borders, leads to the Racial Contract, which puts whites at the top of the pyramid of being and belonging in the nation-state and its source, the World System.

The causalities of frequent and often diabolical attacks of black Africans from other African countries in South Africa have been explored by scholars, journalists and politicians, in the main. Some have blamed poverty, where South Africans in the scramble for scarce life opportunities tend to hate and attack poor black foreign nationals, who are understood to be parasites on the scanty national cake. Others have blamed black foreign nationals for bringing crime, disease and violence to South Africa – which is mistakenly understood to be an exceptional country, a piece of Europe in Africa – which must be protected from the pollution from other African countries that black foreign nationals bring into the Republic.

Black foreign nationals have been accused of taking away not only scarce jobs from South Africans, but also “our women”, who foreigners snatch from the nationals, as if women in South Africa are essentially the entitled property of any South African man. I note the possible credibility of some of these “popular” understandings of the causalities of hatred and fear of black foreign nationals in South Africa, but I insist that the National Contract in its rootedness in the Racial Contract that governs the modern and colonial World System turns some South Africans into xenophobes.

In his Reflections on xenophobic violence in South Africa, Michael Neocosmos dismisses the primacy of most of these causalities and blames a “political discourse” that is “the result of political ideologies and consciousnesses” that impassion some South Africans into fear and hatred of black foreign nationals from elsewhere in Africa. To blame is “a state discourse of xenophobia, a discourse of South African exceptionalism and conceptions of citizenship founded exclusively on indigeneity” (Neocosmos, 2008:587).

The political ideologies and consciousnesses that possess the state and the nation in South Africa are, in my view, passions of the Racial Contract that produce and shape the National Contract, which weaponises borders, nationality and citizenship against the foreign other. In other words, the foreign other is invented racially by the nation-state and is then criminalised as a loathed enemy that is a candidate for hate, insult, assault and murder.

The Invention of the Foreign Other

By being and belonging to a modern World System, the nation-state as a domain of power that is housed within a country, carries the memory and sensibility of modernity and coloniality. Regarding post-apartheid South Africa, for instance, Peter Hudson (2013) describes the state as a carrier of the “colonial unconscious” in that the history of apartheid, racism and coloniality haunts the institutions and structures of power in the Republic.

That apartheid classified South Africans into races and ethnicities and settled them in homelands, with white people at the centre and black people in the periphery, cannot be ignored in observing how black Africans from other countries are treated in the country. Black Africans from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Nigeria and other African countries have no homeland to go back to in the history of South Africa, hence the perpetual populist demand that they should go back to their countries. What is simplistically called xenophobia in South Africa is that apartheid “colonial” and racist unconscious that is also a homeland mentality and political sensibility. It demands as apartheid did that black South Africans themselves, and black Africans, go back where they belong in the homelands.

What Neocosmos (2008) describes is a South African state and nation that, because of its history of excluding the racial and the ethnic other from the centre of the polity and the economy, cannot help itself from fearing and hating the foreign other. In that way, the South African nation-state is sold and bought to the Racial Contract, which classifies, settles and excludes along the lines of race and the ethnicities that it constructs and circulates.

There is more to the assertion by Greg Mills (2011:402) that in the modern world “nations are constructed around a common hatred of their neighbours and a common misunderstanding of their own past”. In its self-understanding as a nation-state, South Africa might be systemically and structurally possessed with a mythologisation of the foreign other as an alien and a pollutant to be gotten rid of. That mythologisation of the foreigner might be accompanied by the imagination of South Africa as pure, different and exceptional from other African countries. In that nations are “imagined communities”, Benedict Anderson (1983) clarifies that nations and their states, such as South Africa, work with the imagination of themselves against an imagination of others as outsiders to be managed in or managed out.

Nation-states, such as post-apartheid South Africa, are fertile grounds that systematically give birth to what Mahmood Mamdani (1996) called “citizens” and their “subjects”. The foreign others are constructed, given birth to, by the nation-state as not only subjects but actually objects that are outsiders to the nation, the state, and the country as a geographical entity with its forbidding maps and borders to keep the outsider outside. The passports and permits that are demanded from the foreign others are actually not for helping them “pass the port” of borders or “permitting” them to stay in the country, but rather, they are signatures and monuments to their objectification.

The foreign others as imagined and invented by the nation-state and its political imaginary appear as refugees, immigrants, illegal and undocumented travellers and settlers, summarised in the name of foreigners. The foreign others create in the nation-state what Slavoj Zizek (2017) calls a “double blackmail”, where those who are against them and want them out have convincing reasons, and those who sympathise with them and want them documented and permitted to stay also have their compelling reasons, while their condition of exclusion and oppression remains unchanged.

Being the foreign other does not only have race to it, but it also has class. It is for that reason the true foreign other is always the poor black African that is a border jumper, an economic refugee, political exile or fugitive from somewhere else in Africa. Xenophobic violence in its diabolical expression pits black poor South Africans against black poor Africans from elsewhere. The educated, professional and monied African from elsewhere enjoys documentation, permanent residence, naturalisation and citizenship. That classy black African becomes more national than some poor South African nationals and benefits from the systemic and structural xenophilia of the state that is reserved for the white persons or those blacks who have been washed white by money.

It is in that way that in the nation-state of the World System, nationality and citizenship can actually be sold and bought as a commodity that some can afford while others cannot. The true foreign other in such a nation-state as post-apartheid South Africa is black and poor, excluded and unwanted, a wretched of the earth. The foreign others are colonial subjects that are excluded along the lines of race, class, nationality and ethnicity first in the World System, and next in the nation-state as a legal and political unit that is located in the geographical location called a country, such as South Africa.


It is my observation, argument and conclusion that what we simplistically call xenophobia, in the media and the academy, is actually a political ideology and passion that combines ideas of race and class. It is a combination of ideas and practices that target the black and the poor for exclusion and for attack. Even the terms “Afrophobia”, “black-on-black violence”, and black on “black hatred” do not capture that at the bottom of violent attacks on black and poor foreign others in South Africa there is racism in its full intersection with classism.

I can argue here that those that pass the test of race and class in South Africa, even if they are foreigners, are safe from what we call xenophobia. If what we call xenophobia, in the media and the academy, is actually the fear and hatred of foreigners, then the fortune of white skin colour and possession of big money can wash away being a foreigner and buy nationality in South Africa. As such, what we call xenophobia, the fear and hatred of foreigners, in the media and the academy, is a misleading misrepresentation and simplification of terms.

In confronting what we simplistically call xenophobia, we are faced with race in its intersection with class, and in its working with the ideology of nationalism in one nation-state that is housed in one country, South Africa. Colonial borders, state laws, and institutions, political parties, and government, and the population of South Africa are systematically and structurally thrown into a historical and political theatre where the invented foreign others have violence and exclusions performed and deployed against them.


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This report has been published by the Inclusive Society Institute

The Inclusive Society Institute (ISI) is an autonomous and independent institution that functions independently from any other entity. It is founded for the purpose of supporting and further deepening multi-party democracy. The ISI’s work is motivated by its desire to achieve non-racialism, non-sexism, social justice and cohesion, economic development and equality in South Africa, through a value system that embodies the social and national democratic principles associated with a developmental state. It recognises that a well-functioning democracy requires well-functioning political formations that are suitably equipped and capacitated. It further acknowledges that South Africa is inextricably linked to the ever transforming and interdependent global world, which necessitates international and multilateral cooperation. As such, the ISI also seeks to achieve its ideals at a global level through cooperation with like-minded parties and organs of civil society who share its basic values. In South Africa, ISI’s ideological positioning is aligned with that of the current ruling party and others in broader society with similar ideals.

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