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Keywords:

  • humanitarianism;
  • social movements;
  • refugees;
  • xenophobic violence;
  • politics;
  • bare life;
  • South Africa

ABSTRACT

In this article, I investigate responses to the humanitarian crisis that emerged following the May 2008 xenophobic violence against South African nonnationals that resulted in 62 deaths and the displacement of well over 30,000 people. I focus specifically on how a South African AIDS activist movement, the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and its partners, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF—Doctors Without Borders) and the AIDS Law Project (ALP), translated a particular style and strategy of AIDS activism into legal, medical, humanitarian, and political responses to the massive population displacement. The TAC provided relief to displaced people in the form of basic needs, such as food, clothes, and blankets, as well as legal aid, and it engaged in activism that promoted the rights of the refugees. I investigate how the ideas and practices of global agencies such as the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) were deployed and reinterpreted by TAC activists. I also examine how TAC activists involved in assisting the refugees drew on a global humanitarian assemblage of categories, legal definitions, norms and standards, and procedures and technologies that went beyond the simple management of “bare life.” TAC's shift from fighting for antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) to fighting for refugees' rights reveals a “politics of life” that spans multiple issues, networks, and constituencies. It is also a politics that, at times, strategically deploys standardized bureaucratic logics and biopolitical techniques of humanitarian aid.