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Xenophobia in South Africa

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Xenophobia in South Africa

Prior to 1994, immigrants from elsewhere faced discrimination and even violence in South Africa, though much of that risk stemmed from the institutionalised racism of the time due to apartheid. After democratisation in 1994, contrary to expectations, the incidence of xenophobia increased.[1] Between 2000 and March 2008, at least 67 people died in what were identified as xenophobic attacks. In May 2008, a series of riots left 62 people dead; although 21 of those killed were South African citizens. The attacks were apparently motivated by xenophobia.[2] In 2015, another nationwide spike in xenophobic attacks against immigrants in general prompted a number of foreign governments to begin repatriating their citizens.[3]

Xenophobia in South Africa before 2012

Prejudice against East and Southern European immigrants

Restrictions on immigration can be traced back to the Union of South Africa, with the different states adopting different policies on foreigners. A prejudice against immigrants from eastern and southern Europe (measured against the welcome of those from western and northern Europe) has been documented.

Attacks against Mozambican and Congolese immigrants

Between 1984 and the end of hostilities in that country an estimated 50,000 to 350,000 Mozambicans fled to South Africa. While never granted refugee status they were technically allowed to settle in the bantustans or black homelands created by the apartheid government. The reality was more varied, with the homeland of Lebowa banning Mozambican settlers outright while Gazankulu welcomed the refugees with support in the form of land and equipment. Those in Gazankulu, however, found themselves confined to the homeland and liable for deportation should they enter South Africa proper, and evidence exists that their hosts denied them access to economic resource.[4]

Unrest and civil war likewise saw large numbers of Congolese immigrate to South Africa, many illegally, in 1993 and 1997. Subsequent studies found indications of xenophobic attitudes towards these refugees, typified by their being denied access to the primary healthcare to which they were technically entitled.[4]

Xenophobia in South Africa after 1994

Despite a lack of directly comparable data, xenophobia in South Africa is perceived to have significantly increased after the installation of a democratic government in 1994.[5] According to a 2004 study published by the Southern African Migration Project (SAMP):

The ANC government – in its attempts to overcome the divides of the past and build new forms of social cohesion... embarked on an aggressive and inclusive nation-building project. One unanticipated by-product of this project has been a growth in intolerance towards outsiders... Violence against foreign citizens and African refugees has become increasingly common and communities are divided by hostility and suspicion.[6]

The study was based on a citizen survey across member states of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and found South Africans expressing the harshest anti-foreigner sentiment, with 21% of South Africans in favour of a complete ban on entry by foreigners and 64% in favour of strict limitations on the numbers allowed. By contrast, the next-highest proportion of respondents in favour of a total ban on foreigners were in neighbouring Namibia and Botswana, at 10%.

Foreigners and the South African Police Service

Burundian refugee afraid of re-integration into South African society living rough, 2009

A 2004 study by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) of attitudes among police officers in the Johannesburg area found that 87% of respondents believed that most undocumented immigrants in Johannesburg are involved in crime, despite there being no statistical evidence to substantiate the perception. Such views combined with the vulnerability of illegal aliens led to abuse, including violence and extortion, some analysts argued.[7]

In a March 2007 meeting with home affairs minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula a representative of Burundian refugees in Durban claimed immigrants could not rely on police for protection but instead found police mistreating them, stealing from them and making unfounded allegations that they sell drugs.[8] Two years earlier, at a similar meeting in Johannesburg, Mapisa-Nqakula had admitted that refugees and asylum seekers were mistreated by police with xenophobic attitudes.[9]

Violence before May 2008

According to a 1998 Human Rights Watch report immigrants from Malawi, Zimbabwe and Mozambique living in the Alexandra township were "physically assaulted over a period of several weeks in January 1995, as armed gangs identified suspected undocumented migrants and marched them to the police station in an attempt to 'clean' the township of foreigners."[10][11] The campaign, known as "Buyelekhaya" (go back home), blamed foreigners for crime, unemployment and sexual attacks.[12]

In September 1998 a Mozambican and two Senegalese were thrown out of a train. The assault was carried out by a group returning from a rally that blamed foreigners for unemployment, crime and spreading AIDS.[13]

In 2000 seven foreigners were killed on the Cape Flats over a five-week period in what police described as xenophobic murders possibly motivated by the fear that outsiders would claim property belonging to locals.[14]

In October 2001 residents of the Zandspruit informal settlement gave Zimbabweans 10 days to leave the area. When the foreigners failed to leave voluntarily they were forcefully evicted and their shacks were burned down and looted. Community members said they were angry that Zimbabweans were employed while locals remained jobless and blamed the foreigners for a number of crimes. No injuries were reported among the Zimbabweans.[15]

In the last week of 2005 and first week of 2006 at least four people, including two Zimbabweans, died in the Olievenhoutbosch settlement after foreigners were blamed for the death of a local man. Shacks belonging to foreigners were set alight and locals demanded that police remove all immigrants from the area.[16]

In August 2006 Somali refugees appealed for protection after 21 Somali traders were killed in July of that year and 26 more in August. The immigrants believed the murders to be motivated by xenophobia, although police rejected the assertion of a concerted campaign to drive Somali traders out of townships in the Western Cape.[17]

Attacks on foreign nationals increased markedly in late 2007[5] and it is believed that there were at least a dozen attacks between January and May 2008.[18] The most severe incidents occurred on 8 January 2008 when two Somali shop owners were murdered in the Eastern Cape towns of Jeffreys Bay and East London and in March 2008 when seven people were killed including Zimbabweans, Pakistanis and a Somali after their shops and shacks were set alight in Atteridgeville near Pretoria.[18]

May 2008 riots

2008 South Africa riots
Part of the history of South Africa

Map of South Africa
Date May 2008
Location Gauteng, Durban,
South Africa
Result 62 people dead, several hundred injured, voluntary deportation of immigrants to home countries, destruction of immigrant-owned property

Spread of violence

On 12 May 2008 a series of riots started in the township of Alexandra (in the north-eastern part of Johannesburg) when locals attacked migrants from Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe, killing two people and injuring 40 others.[5][19] Some attackers were reported to have been singing Jacob Zuma's campaign song Umshini Wami (Zulu: "Bring Me My Machine Gun").[20]

In the following weeks the violence spread, first to other settlements in the Gauteng Province, then to the coastal cities of Durban[21] and Cape Town.[5]

Attacks were also reported in parts of the Southern Cape,[22] Mpumalanga,[23] the North West and Free State.[24]

Popular opposition to xenophobia

In Pallo Jordan argues that "Active grass-roots interventions contained the last wave of xenophobia".[26]


A report by the Human Sciences Research Council identified four broad causes for the violence:

  • relative deprivation, specifically intense competition for jobs, commodities and housing;
  • group processes, including psychological categorisation processes that are nationalistic rather than superordinate[27]
  • South African exceptionalism, or a feeling of superiority in relation to other Africans; and
  • exclusive citizenship, or a form of nationalism that excludes others.[28]

A subsequent report, Towards Tolerance, Law and Dignity: Addressing Violence against Foreign Nationals in South Africa commissioned by the [30] Local leadership could be illegitimate and often violent when emerging from either a political vacuum or fierce competition, the report said, and such leaders enhanced their authority by reinforcing resentment towards foreigners.[31]


1 400 suspects were arrested in connection with the violence. Nine months after the attacks 128 individuals had been convicted and 30 found not guilty in 105 concluded court cases. 208 cases had been withdrawn and 156 were still being heard.[32]

One year after the attacks prosecutors said that 137 people had been convicted, 182 cases had been withdrawn because witnesses or complainants had left the country, 51 cases were underway or ready for trial and 82 had been referred for further investigation.[33]

In May 2009, one year after the attacks the [34]

Refugee camps and reintegration question

UNHCR tents at a refugee camp on Olifantsfontein, Midrand, Johannesburg

After being housed in temporary places of safety (including police stations and community halls) for three weeks, those who fled the violence were moved into specially established temporary camps.[35] Conditions in some camps were condemned on the grounds of location and infrastructure,[36] highlighting their temporary nature.

The South African government initially adopted a policy of quickly reintegrating refugees into the communities they originally fled[37] and subsequently set a deadline in July 2008, by which time refugees would be expected to return to their communities or countries of origin.[38] After an apparent policy shift the government vowed that there would be no forced reintegration of refugees[39] and that the victims would not be deported, even if they were found to be illegal immigrants.[40]

In May 2009, one year after the attacks, the City of Cape Town said it would apply for an eviction order to force 461 remaining refugees to leave two refugee camps in that city.[41]

Domestic political reaction

On 21 May, then-President Thabo Mbeki approved a request from the SAPS for deployment of armed forces against the attacks in Gauteng.[42] It is the first time that the South African government has ordered troops out to the streets in order to quell unrest since the end of apartheid in 1994.[43]

Several political parties blamed each other, and sometimes other influences, for the attacks. The Gauteng provincial branch of the ANC has alleged that the violence is politically motivated by a "third hand" that is primarily targeting the ANC for the 2009 general elections.[44] Both the Minister of Intelligence, Ronnie Kasrils, and the director general of the National Intelligence Agency, Manala Manzini, backed the Gauteng ANC's allegations that the anti-immigrant violence is politically motivated and targeted at the ANC.[44] Referring to published allegations by one rioter that he was being paid to commit violent acts against immigrants, Manzini said that the violence was being stoked primarily within hostel facilities by a third party with financial incentives.

Helen Zille, leader of the official opposition party the Democratic Alliance (DA), pointed to instances of crowds of rioters singing "Umshini wami", a song associated then-president of the ANC Jacob Zuma,[45] and noted that the rioters also hailed from the rank and file of the ANC Youth League. She alleged that Zuma had promised years before to his supporters to take measures against the immigration of foreign nationals to South Africa and that Zuma's most recent condemnation of the riots and distancing from the anti-immigration platform was not enough of a serious initiative against the participation of fellow party members in the violence.[46] Both Zille and the parliamentary leader of the DA, Sandra Botha, slammed the ANC for shifting the blame concerning the violence to a "third hand", which is often taken in South African post-apartheid political discourse as a reference to pro-apartheid or allegedly pro-apartheid organisations.

Zuma, in turn, condemned both the attacks and the Mbeki government's response to the attacks; Zuma also lamented the usage of his trademark song Umshini wami by the rioters.[45] Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe called for the creation of local committees to combat violence against foreigners.[47][48]

Zille was also criticised by Finance Minister Trevor Manuel for being quoted in the Cape Argus as saying that foreigners were responsible for a bulk of the drug trade in South Africa.[49]

In KwaZulu-Natal province, Bheki Cele, provincial community safety minister, blamed the Inkatha Freedom Party, a nationalist Zulu political party, for stoking and capitalising on the violence in Durban.[50] Both Cele and premier S'bu Ndebele claimed that IFP members had attacked a tavern that catered to Nigerian immigrants en route to a party meeting. The IFP, which is based primarily in the predominantly ethnically-Zulu KwaZulu-Natal province, rejected the statements, and had, on 20 May, engaged in an anti-xenophobia meeting with the ANC.[51]

Grassroots social movements came out strongly against the 2008 xenophobic attacks calling them pogroms promoted by government and political parties.[52] Some have claimed that local politicians and police have sanctioned the attacks.[53] They have also called for the closure of the Lindela Repatriation Centre which is seen as an example of the negative way the South African government treats African foreigners.[54] [55]

International reaction

The attacks were condemned by a wide variety of organisations and government leaders throughout Africa and the rest of the world.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees expressed concerns about the violence and urged the South African government to cease deportation of Zimbabwean nationals and also to allow the refugees and asylum seekers to regularise their stay in the country.[56]

Malawi began repatriation of some of its nationals in South Africa. The Mozambican government sponsored a repatriation drive that saw the registration of at least 3 275 individuals.[57]

Attacks in 2009–12

Anti-xenophobia walk on Mandela Day 2010, Cape Town

In late May 2009, reports emerged regarding a possible resurgence of xenophobic related activity and the organising of attacks in the Western Cape. Reports of threats and secret meetings by local businessmen surfaced in [59][60]

In 2010 the press carried numerous articles claiming that there would be massive planned xenophobic violence at the end of the 2010 Football World Cup. However this did not happen.[61]

In July 2012 there were new attacks in parts of Cape Town and in Botshabelo in the Free State.[62]

"Fortress South Africa"

South Africa's borders have been remilitarized. According to Christopher McMichael:

"This shared state-corporate project of building up a ‘fortress South Africa’ also reveals a deeply entrenched seam of xenophobia, in which undocumented migrants and refugees from African countries are painted as a security risk akin to terrorism and organised crime. Parliamentary discussions on border security are rife with claims that foreign nationals are attempting to drain social grants and economic opportunities from citizens. The packaging of illegal immigration as a national security threat, which often relies on unsubstantiated claims about the inherent criminality of foreign nationals, provides an official gloss on deeply entrenched governmental xenophobia, in which African immigrants are targets for regular harassment, rounding up and extortion by the police. This normalisation of immigrants as figures of resentment may also fuel outbreaks of xenophobic violence."[63]

Attacks in 2013–15

Attacks against Somali entrepreneurs

Anti-xenophobia poster, Harold Cressy High School, Cape Town 2014

On 30 May 2013, 25-year-old Abdi Nasir Mahmoud Good, was stoned to death. The violence was captured on a mobile phone and shared on the Internet.[64]

Three Somali shopkeepers had been killed in June 2013 and the Somali government requested the South African authorities to do more to protect their nationals. Among those murdered were two brothers who were allegedly hacked to death.[65] The attacks led to public outcry and worldwide protests by the Somali diaspora, in Cape Town,[66] London[67] and Minneapolis.[68]

South African Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane expressed the government's "strongest condemnation" of the violence which has recently seen looting and the death of a Somali shopkeeper.[66] Somali Prime Minister Abdi Farah Shirdon has expressed concern for the safety of Somalis in South Africa, calling on the government there to intervene to stop violence against Somali people after deadly attacks in Pretoria and Port Elizabeth.[69]

On 7 June 2014, a Somali national, in his 50s, was reportedly stoned to death and two others were seriously injured when the angry mob of locals attacked their shop in extension 6 late on Saturday. Three more Somalis were wounded from gunshots and shops were looted.[70]

After another round of xenophobic violence against Somali entrepreneurs in April 2015, Somalia's government announced that it would evacuate its citizens from South Africa.[71]

April 2015 attacks

March against xenophobia, Johannesburg, 23 April 2015

In April 2015, there was an upsurge in xenophobic attacks throughout the country. The attacks started in Durban and spread to Johannesburg. Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini has been accused of fuelling the attacks by saying that foreigners should "go back to their countries".[3][72]

Locals looted foreigners' shops and attacked immigrants in general, forcing hundreds to relocate to police stations across the country. The Malawian authorities subsequently began repatriating their nationals, and a number of other foreign governments also announced that they would evacuate their citizens.[3] More than 300 people were arrested.[72] Four suspects were arrested within days of the publication of photographs in the 19 April edition of The Sunday Times of the murder of Mozambican street vendor Emmanuel Sithole in Alexandra township the previous day.[73][74][75] Sithole's name is not included in the official list of seven victims killed in the April 2015 attacks, including an Ethiopian, a Mozambican, a Bangladeshi, a Zimbabwean and three South Africans who were all killed in KwaZulu-Natal.[76]

On 23 April several thousand demonstrators marched through central Johannesburg to protest against a spate of deadly attacks on immigrants. They sang songs denouncing xenophobia and carried banners that read "We are all Africans" as migrant workers crowded balconies, shouting their support.[77]

October 2015 Attacks

In October 2015 there were sustained xenophobic attacks in Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape. It as reported than more than 500 people were displaced and more than 300 shops and homes looted and, in some cases, destroyed altogether.,[78][79]


South African Small Business Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu said that foreign business owners cannot expect to co-exist peacefully with local business owners unless they share their trade secrets. According to Zulu, foreign business owners had an advantage over South African business owners due to marginalization under apartheid. "They cannot barricade themselves in and not share their practices with local business owners," Zulu said.[80] The comments were met with widespread criticism.[81][82][83]

An inquiry by the Competition Commission – the country’s anti-trust regulator, has indicated that a difference in performance between foreign and local business owners has created a perception that foreigners are more successful than locals. While there is nothing wrong with examining the dynamics of competition, the insinuation that foreign business owners were to blame for the decline of South African-owned small business was worrying.[84]

Vanya Gastrow, a researcher from the African Centre for Migration in Johannesburg, published a case study on the economics of small traders in South Africa. The study titled “Somalinomics”, outlined the trade practices of Somali traders in South Africa. According to Gastrow, most small foreign retailers set a low mark-up to make a high turnover, they locate their businesses highly trafficked pedestrians areas, they open early and close late and have a wider product range.[85]


  1. ^ From 'Foreign Natives' to 'Native Foreigners': Explaining Xenophobia in Post-Apartheid South Africa, Michael Neocosmos, CODESRIA, Dakar, 2010
  2. ^ See L.B. Landau (ed), 2011. Exorcising the Demons Within: Xenophobia, Violence and Statecraft in Contemporary South Africa. Johannesburg: Wits University Press; Tokyo: United Nations University Press.
  3. ^ a b c
  4. ^ a b
  5. ^ a b c d e From 'Foreign Natives' to 'Native Foreigners': Explaining Xenophobia in Post-Apartheid South Africa, Michael Neocosmos, CODESRIA, Dakar, 2010
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^
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  14. ^
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  16. ^
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  18. ^ a b
  19. ^
  20. ^
  21. ^
  22. ^
  23. ^
  24. ^
  25. ^ "We are Gauteng People" Challenging the politics of xenophobia in Khutsong, South Africa, Seminar Presentation, Joshua Kirshner, 23 February 2011, Rhodes University
  26. ^
  27. ^ Kamau, C. & Rutland, A. (2008) A quasi-experiment on the effects of superordinate categorization on liking of people from other nations. Psychology and Developing Societies, 20(2), 183–208.
  28. ^
  29. ^
  30. ^
  31. ^
  32. ^
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  44. ^ a b
  45. ^ a b
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  50. ^
  51. ^
  52. ^
  53. ^
  54. ^
  55. ^
  56. ^
  57. ^
  58. ^
  59. ^
  60. ^
  61. ^ To Be Betrayed By Your Brother, Rosaleen Ortiz, City University of New York, 2010
  62. ^ Xenophobia bomb going off while the government dithers, Editorial at The Times, 13 July 2012
  63. ^ The re-militarisation of South Africa’s borders, Christopher McMichael, Open Democracy, July 2012
  64. ^
  65. ^
  66. ^ a b
  67. ^
  68. ^
  69. ^
  70. ^
  71. ^
  72. ^ a b
  73. ^
  74. ^
  75. ^
  76. ^
  77. ^
  78. ^ Xenophobia in Grahamstown: 'We are not leaving!', KJ VAN RENSBURG, F MTHONTI & M ERSKOG, The Daily Maverick, 29 October 2015
  79. ^ Where poverty meets xenophobia: Grahamstown, a city in crisis, Paddy O'Halloran, The Daily Maverick, 27 October 2015
  80. ^
  81. ^
  82. ^
  83. ^
  84. ^
  85. ^

External links

  • IOL – Xenophobia Special Report
  • M&G – Xenophobia Special Report
  • NEWS24 – Xenophobia Special Report
  • The Times – Xenophobia Special Report
  • Who to Blame and What's to Gain? Reflections on Space, State, and Violence in Kenya and South Africa – Report and AnalysisAfrica Spectrum
  • Boston Globe Photo Essay
  • Article on the Pogroms in Indian Journal
  • Abahlali baseMjondoloStatement on the attacks by the South African shack dwellers' movement
  • Foreign Natives to Native Foreigners: explaining xenophobia in contemporary South Africa', Michael Neocosmos, Codesria, Dakar, 2010
  • Journalists who documented the death of Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave help repatriate his body
  • Helene Strauss's "Cinema of social recuperation: Xenophobic violence and migrant subjectivity in contemporary South Africa." Article on Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave and Adze Ugah's 'The Burning Man.'
  • Reports on Xenophobia from the Forced Migration Studies Programme at Wits University in Johannesburg
  • A collection of articles and essays by civil society on the May 2008 Xenophobic attacks
  • Ndlovu-Gatsheni: Africa for Africans or Africa for "Natives" Only? "New Nationalism" and Nativism in Zimbabwe and South AfricaAfrica Spectrum, Vol 44, No 1 (2009)
  • Rights at Risk: Refugees in the New South Africa, Honors Scholar Program Dissertation, University of Connecticut (2008).
  • "A Tale of Two Townships: Political Opportunity, Violent and Non-Violent Local Control in South Africa", Alex Park's paper exploring causal factors of the 2008 violence
  • "Broke-on-Broke Violence": What the U.S. press got wrong about South Africa's xenophobic riots, By Kerry Chance, Slate Magazine, 20 June 2008
  • The spatial politics of xenophobia: everyday practices of Congolese migrants in Johannesburg, by Jennifer Greenburg, Transformation, 2010
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