Xenophobic Violence in South Africa


As recently as February 2017, a group of anti-immigrant protesters in Pretoria, South Africa set out to protest the presence of immigrants from other parts of Africa like Nigeria, Somalia, and Zimbabwe. This protest led to the looting and ransacking of stores owned by immigrants. Between February 5 and 18, Nigerian buildings, properties, and places of worship were destroyed in a wave of xenophobic attacks in South Africa. This was not the first incidence of xenophobic violence in South Africa’s history. Indeed, much of the xenophobic violence can be rather quotidian in nature—an attack on a shopkeeper may be recorded by the police as just a regular robbery, for instance—and collecting accurate data on this kind of violence can be problematic. Yet it is no secret that there has been a surge in xenophobic violence since the transition to democratic governance in 1994. How then can one explain its occurrence and cause?

Hostile rhetoric and violence against immigrants shouldn’t come as a surprise to many especially given the global temperature regarding nationalism and a dislike for the other more recently. Increasing intolerance of non-citizens is no surprise in a world that includes constant demands for leaders to put their countries first, executive orders prohibiting citizens of certain countries and members of certain religions, citizens voting to leave the European Union, and plans to literally build walls to keep others out. However, xenophobia didn’t just suddenly emerge in South Africa. Past events in history have paved the way for this sort of violence. Newly democratized in 1994, the African National Congress (ANC), the ruling party of post-apartheid South Africa, employed an intensive nation-building agenda in a bid to build cohesion and overcome cleavages from the past. This quest for national identity was successful. In 2011, 61.7 percent of South Africa would rather identify as South Africans than with their ethnic groups. However, this kind of staunch nationalism can consequentially lead to more hostility towards outsiders. Thus, violence against refugees and foreigners in South Africa reoccurs every year like clockwork and has even surged in the past few years.

Because of South Africa’s liberal asylum policy and better standards of living than other African countries, one can see why it’s the choice of refuge for immigrants. South Africa is often seen as a safe haven for immigrants, refugees seeking asylum, and many Africans seeking better opportunities away from their home countries ridden with wars, famine or economic upheavals. In a public opinion survey of South Africa Citizens, 4 in 10 South Africans still think foreigners should not be allowed to live in South Africa. Immigration is constantly a huge challenge for the country. In 2015, an Afro-barometer survey found that more than 1 in 5 South Africans would like the government to deport all foreigners. It is all the more unfortunate that people seeking better opportunities are faced with such violence and discrimination.

Xenophobic violence against immigrants can be explained by structural and rational approaches. Structural approaches explain this phenomenon through large systems, institutions, and structures of society, while rational approaches endorse individual maximization and/or individuals weighing the costs and benefits of a circumstance. Structural reasons, like the history of violence in South Africa, poverty, economic inequality, rising unemployment and poor public service delivery may contribute to this xenophobia. Unemployment levels in South Africa continue to surge, with about a 26 percent unemployment rate. Some experts believe foreigners are just scapegoats for the grievances of South Africans, despite the fact that many immigrants actually contribute to the economy through small business and in-demand skills.

Unusually, the unemployment rate for international migrants was much lower than others in a 2012 report by the Migrating for Work Research Consortium (MiWORC). However, they also found that people born outside the country were far less likely to be employees than those born in South Africa; international migrants are more likely to run their own businesses and thus contribute to the economy. Further, people born in other countries “were far less likely than those born in South Africa to be employed by government.” And those employed are often employed without good benefits and formal contracts. The history of violence in the country cannot be overlooked as well. After years of the apartheid struggle, South Africa still struggles with violence and has one of the highest crime rates in the world. Citizens blame foreigners for these crimes; citing Nigerians as the perpetrators of drug crimes and prostitution. Yet foreigners are victims of a substantial amount of these crimes.

A second approach for explaining this violence is the rational explanation, which suggests that political leaders incite this uproar in citizens as a strategy for political gain. One such example of political leaders inciting division is Johannesburg’s Mayor who has made controversial comments linking immigrants to criminals and asking them to leave the city.  In the same fashion, Zulu King Zwelithini asked foreigners to “pack their bags and go” as they are stealing South African jobs. Not long after Zwelithini’s divisive comments and rhetoric, violence against immigrants in Durban erupted.

Interestingly, this xenophobic violence is often not colorblind and usually targets black foreigners and immigrants. White migrants are safe. They are often seen as beneficial to the economy, while their black counterparts are often subject to hackneyed stereotypes and prejudices. Given the aforementioned explanations, one would expect hostility and violence to be targeted towards all immigrants and not a specific sub-type. This might suggest an alternative reason, worthy of further research on the causes of xenophobic violence.

Unfortunately, the South African government isn’t doing enough to stop xenophobic violence. Few political leaders including the President have spoken out against it, and no one has been convicted of xenophobic attacks, including an incident in 2008 which led to the death of more than 60 people. Some African countries are calling for their nationals to return home, but this is seldom a solution. Instead, political leaders need to continually and consistently condemn such vicious attacks and hostility against immigrants. The police must arrest and punish offenders. Foreign ministries in South Africa and Nigeria are reportedly working together on an “early warning system” to track xenophobic attacks and prevent them. This is definitely a good start, as forums including representatives of both countries will meet every three months, but there also needs to be better records of foreign-born individuals and protection for such people. More needs to be done to ensure the proper well-being of those who have been victims of such malicious attacks. Although citizens’ grievance due to socioeconomic problems is never an excuse for violence, the government must do more to improve the economy and raise the standard of living for its citizens.

Image Source: KokoFeed.