There is a difference between a nation that upholds the ideals of cultural and ethnic pluralism (diversity) vs. assimilation (integration). Sometimes, nations do not know which of the two they truly uphold and value – not just in principle but in practice too.
A nation that upholds the ideals of cultural and ethnic pluralism is one which demonstrates tolerance and acceptance of cultural difference. It views these differences as intrinsically valuable and not only valuable in so far as these differences can be exploited for the advancement of that nation. People are not seen as a means to an end – but are appreciated for their differences and are not ‘othered’ on the basis of those differences.
I believe that both South Africa and the United States of America fall into this category, purely based on the ideals to which they “claim” to uphold and value. This is upheld in our Constitutions, in our laws and foundations upon which we have built our new order. However, in practice, the complete opposite is true – at least, in recent years.
On the other hand, a nation that upholds the ideals of assimilation is one which values people of other cultures in so far as they are able to be assimilated into the dominant culture, beliefs, practices etc. This perspective does not value cultural or ethnic differences intrinsically but values them on the basis of their adaptability to the norm and in reference to how far they have come in terms of “integrating” into the new society.
This is the ideal which is gaining popularity in both the USA and in South Africa recently. The anti-immigration policies and prejudiced attitudes towards (particularly poor) immigrants demonstrate this absence of value for pluralism where it is seen to not be beneficial or profitable for the dominant group. The value of diversity is not regarded as something valuable in itself but must also have instrumental value. Hence arguments against immigrants are closely tied to the materialist notion around the economic burden of taking in more people onto the system (not society, the system).
In South Africa, these attitudes of upholding assimilation are not exclusively reserved for immigrants, but can be seen within the different cultures within South Africa. Most provinces and residential areas are still divided across racial, socio-economic and cultural lines. Acceptance into those communities is often withheld unless one learns the dominant language, or partakes in the practices and beliefs of that community otherwise a degree of intolerance and discrimination, even violence, ensues as seen with the xenophobic attacks.
Some of the most prominent contributing factors to xenophobia include a perceived threat to the cohesion and safety of a shared identity such as nationality or ethnicity, competition for scarce resources such as low wage jobs, housing or in the tragically misogynistic paradigm – women. One of the often ignored causes for xenophobia is also psychologically repressed emotions and frustrations which are projected onto immigrants which include inferiority complexes, desperation, isolatedness, and neglect. It may much easier for people to punish others for sharing these experiences and expecting sympathy and even assistance from those citizens who are already crippled by these similar issues, therefore, treating immigrants with hostility because of this is one of the ways in which people can misplace the anger and frustrations stemming from those issues onto the person who mirrors it to them.