Drugs and the Politics of Difference in South African Cities

Friday, January 3, 2014: 2:30 PM
Embassy Room (Omni Shoreham)
Charles H. Ambler, University of Texas at El Paso
In recent years the poorer, mostly black townships of South African cities have erupted
repeatedly in xenophobic violence, directed in particular at the large numbers of  imbabweans and “Nigerians that have settled in South Africa. Although the causes of this violence are complex, urban South Africans often expressed their antipathy to  oreigners by leveling accusations of drug trafficking, drug use and attendant criminality. Recent anti-drug crusades in South African cities have likewise often taken on a pronounced anti-foreign tone and drugs have served as a discursive tool to define, racialize, and even pathologize immigrants. This phenomenon is often directly linked to the rapid rise of migration of people from other parts of Africa to South Africa since white rule ended in 1994. Yet just as the structure of South African cities and South African urban life and culture have remained in fundamental respects rooted in
a history of oppression associated with racial oppression and apartheid, drug trading and drug use have also been at the center of South Africa’s urban history. During the past century, as South Africa rapidly urbanized and as the South African state systematically put in place an urban structure defined by racial hierarchy, the contours of ethnic, racial and gender difference have repeatedly played out in relationship to legal and illegal trades in drugs (especially but not exclusively alcohol) and popular understandings of difference have been expressed in the context of drug cultures. This paper explores that history of drug trade and use and drug suppression in South Africa during the last century, focusing on the shifting boundaries between legal and illegal trades and the relationship of that boundary to evolving ideas of difference.
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