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South Africa: Politicians Scapegoating Immigrants

AfricaFocus Bulletin
April 9, 2019 (190409)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

In what became a debate amongst a small group of residents [in Alexandra], another resident Kabelo Tsotetsi, defended immigrants, saying they were starting their own businesses and not taking jobs from South Africans. Tsotetsi said: “Our government doesn’t make it easy for foreigners to live here, they don’t get help. They come from countries where they are severely oppressed and they come here and face the same struggles as us. We are all Africans fighting for our dignity.” - GroundUp, April 3, 2019

Such debates could undoubtedly be paralleled in many other countries, in Africa and around the world. But whether the tensions escalate to harassment or even violence depends in large part on the actions of politicians and other community leaders. Such political mobilization in South Africa, Jean Pierre Misago found in an empirical survey of incidents from 1994 to 2018, consistently provided the trigger for violence. And comments by politicians are again stirring up resentment in the lead up to national elections in May.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains several articles on recent incidents in South Africa, including one drawing on parallel cases in West Africa from decades earlier.

Another AfricaFocus Bulletin sent out today, and available on the web at, highlights recent data on the large proportion of African migrants who choose to move to other countries in the continent rather than more distant destinations.

Also of interest:

BBC News, "How Common are Xenophobic Attacks," April 7, 2019

Shola Lawal, “GHANA MUST GO: The ugly history of Africa’s most famous bag,” Mail & Guardian, April 5, 2019

Bheki C. Simelane, “Xenophobia, crime and poverty trigger anger in Alexandra,” Daily Maverick, 3 April 2019

Paddy Harper, “Resolute in the face of xenophobia,” Mail & Guardian, 5 Apr 2019

Jean Pierre Misago, “Political Mobilisation as the Trigger of Xenophobic Violence in Post-Apartheid South Africa,” International Journal of Conflict and Violence, 2019

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on migration, visit

On South Africa in particular, see,,,, and

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++

Xenophobic attacks in South Africa ahead of elections

South Africa’s election season rhetoric has sparked fresh xenophobic attacks on African migrants

By Lynsey Chutel

April 2, 2019

Quartz Africa - Direct URL:

Xenophobic violence has erupted in South Africa again, in a cycle that is now being fueled by politicians ramping up anti-immigrant rhetoric in a country where foreigners are easy targets.

Last week, Malawians living among South Africans in a squatter camp on the outskirts of Durban were attacked by their neighbors. More than 100 crowded into a police station for protection and were eventually housed in a tent in an open field. Unconfirmed reports said two people were killed.

The latest attacks were vigilantes who were said to have found a Malawian man with stolen goods. Over several days, Malawians in the settlement were targeted as retribution. Calm was restored by Apr. 1, after South Africans officials intervened, the local Islamic Society and other NGOs negotiated and the Malawian community of Durban had to write a letter apologizing on behalf of one man, according to a statement from the mayor’s office. No arrests were made.

Elias Twaibu barely survived the 2015 attacks in Durban in which several people were killed. The 30-year-old went back home to Malawi, but that country’s economic straits drove him back to South Africa, where was again attacked last week.

“Coming back to a country that stripped me of my dignity became my only option,” he told the Sunday Tribune, Durban’s local weekly. “I was so desperate and impoverished that I came back here. It’s a decision I truly regret making.”

The attacks aren’t usually targeted against one nationality, with Somalis, Congolese, Mozambicans, Nigerians and Zimbabweans all bearing the brunt throughout the last decade of anti-immigrant violence.

The 2015 attacks were fueled by comments made by Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini as he flexed his political muscles. This time, the thread may not seem as direct, but the attacks come after weeks of anti-immigrant rhetoric by South African politicians. On Monday (Apr. 1), president Cyril Ramaphosa condemned the attacks, reminding South Africans that they owe their African neighbors a debt of gratitude for their support during the struggle against apartheid. Yet, just days earlier, Ramaphosa himself scapegoated foreigners while on the campaign trail.

“Everybody just arrives in our townships and rural areas and set up businesses without licenses and permits. We are going to bring this to an end,” he said at a rally.

Despite recurrent xenophobic attacks in South Africa, the opposition from civil society has also been strong. Credit: Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (

As the ANC government struggles to provide basic services, they have blamed foreigners for burdening the public service. In November last year, health minister Aaron Motsoaledi said the health service was collapsing in part due to “the weight that foreign nationals are bringing to the country.” He defended his comments, saying it had “nothing to do with xenophobia, it’s a reality.”

That’s the same line taken up by the official opposition, the Democratic Alliance. “Securing our borders,” has become a key part of their election manifesto, blaming the ANC for “failing” immigration policies. They’ve linked immigration to their main campaigning points, job creation and crime.

“Johannesburg attracts more than 3,000 people every month and not all of those people are registered,” said DA leader Mmusi Maimane, calling for more secure borders and taxes on foreign-owned businesses. It’s worth noting that Maimane and the DA’s policy zero in on inner-city Johannesburg and Pretoria, home to many African immigrants, and not Cape Town, a DA stronghold and a favorite of expats, code for white immigrants.

“The biggest challenge is that people don’t have work here,” he added. “The other issue that is becoming problematic is that our citizens don’t feel safe.”

It’s an immigration strategy Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba has employed more blatantly and much longer, blaming foreigners for urban decay. When finally providing low-income housing, Mashaba ensured that they were only to be occupied by South Africans, potentially splitting up mixed families. Smaller parties who want to be noticed have adopted the same prejudice as policy.

In 2008, more than 60 people were killed in attacks on foreigners, and since then this violence has never quite disappeared. Fuelled by economic insecurity, these attacks are mostly perpetrated by black South Africans target African migrants, the vulnerable attacking the most vulnerable. That this hatred is now being picked up by politicians is cynical, and terrifying.

Immigrants robbed and forced to sleep outside in Durban

Victims of latest xenophobic violence blame electioneering by politicians

GroundUp, 28 March 2019 By Musa Binda – Direct URL:

About 100 immigrants, mostly from Malawi, are currently having to sleep in an open space near Sydenham police station in Durban. Xenophobic attackers have driven them away from the homes they were renting.

Dozens of people, mostly from Malawi, are sleeping outside in Sydenham, Durban. Credit: Musa Binda

The displaced foreign nationals blame government officials for the ongoing attacks. They told GroundUp that politicians on the campaign trail have been using fear of immigrants to drum up support, for example by promising to tighten borders after the upcoming election to control the number of immigrants entering the country.

“This sends South Africans a message that we are not welcome. And the only way they can communicate that is by attacking us,” said a man who asked not to be named.

He said the recent attacks started in Kenville when a group of about 100 people stormed several tuckshops owned by Somalians and started looting on Sunday night. He said that a woman who was trying to run away from the attackers by walking on a building roof fell off and died.

“In an attempt to retaliate, the Somalians shot at the crowd and one person was killed while two others were rushed to hospital for medical attention. It got ugly as several shops were looted and burnt. The attacks then moved to Burnwood,” said the man.

To verify the man’s story, we spoke to the police. SAPS spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Thulani Zwane said a case of murder and and an inquest docket were being investigated by Sydenham and Greenwood Park police stations. He said several other cases of public violence, arson, damage to property and looting were opened “as chaos led to the looting of foreign-owned tuck shops, torching of their cars and houses”. He said police were monitoring the situation.

Miriam Mussa, a Malawian immigrant, is currently sleeping in the open with her toddler daughter. “It was about 1am on Monday when we were forced out of our rented rooms. I was with my baby and my husband. Even though they did not hurt us after seeing that we had a small baby, they allowed us to leave with only the clothes we were wearing. We watched them as they took out all our furniture,” she said.

She said that her family has been sleeping for two days in the open, and her daughter has become sick. “I think it’s because she is too weak to withstand the kind of cold we are exposed to. It could also be caused by the fact that we are starving here,” said Mussa, who came to South Africa three years ago to look for a job. She found one as a domestic worker in the area.

Another Malawian, John Valleta, said the attackers told them that they were angry because foreign nationals were taking their jobs. “They said we were a bad influence on the employers because we accept cheap labour yet we accept long hours and loads of work. They said for this reason employers preferred employing foreigners and that angers South Africans because it left them with no jobs. They wanted us to go back to our countries and they were going to make that happen the hard way.”

He claimed that during the attacks scores of immigrant men were injured because the attackers beat them. He said despite sleeping in the open they still felt less safe because they don’t know what the attackers are planning next.

Ethekwini Municipality Deputy Mayor Fawzia Pier visited the displaced people and promised that better shelter was being arranged. Pier said that a meeting with residents was being planned.

Alexandra shut down as residents take to the streets

by Zoë Postman

GroundUp, 3 April 2019

Thousands of residents of Alexandra in Johannesburg shut down the township on Wednesday morning, demanding that Mayor Herman Mashaba address them on solutions to problems with overcrowding, water and electricity.

Residents started blockading streets in Alexandra with burning tyres and garbage at about 5am. Protesters marched down London road, moving towards the N3 highway, and ended up near the Marlboro Gautrain station where they expected to be addressed by Mashaba.

Mashaba sent Yao-Heng Michael Sun, Mayco Member for Public Safety, to address the crowd but they would not allow him to speak. They insisted on being addressed by Mashaba.

According to the 2011 census, about 180,000 people live in Alexandra. The township is close to Sandton, one of the most affluent suburbs in Johannesburg.

Protesters said Alexandra was being neglected and they would not vote in the upcoming elections if the City of Johannesburg did not address the issues they faced.

Resident Thabisile Ndaba, who was born in Alexandra and has lived there all her life, said the constant building of new shacks had resulted in overpopulation.

“When you open your window, there’s a new shack. When you open your door, there’s a new shack…We are not against any foreigners or fighting with anyone. We just want the City to stop the building of new shacks because this situation is out of hand. Some people are even building shacks on the pavements where people have to walk.” she said.

As a result of the overpopulation, Ndaba said, basic services such as water and electricity were stretched thin and the residents of Alexandra were suffering the consequences. She said the City should build more flats and houses so that people would stop erecting new shacks.

But another resident, Judy Makwana, said she wanted foreign nationals to leave the country because they were “taking jobs” from South Africans.

“We want our children to get work, that’s why I’m here. I’m fighting for my kids,” said Makwana.

She accused the City of treating immigrants better than South Africans and said she would not vote in the forthcoming elections.

She said immigrants “live in nice houses while our grannies live in one room shacks with five other people”.

In what became a debate amongst a small group of residents, another resident Kabelo Tsotetsi, defended immigrants, saying they were starting their own businesses and not taking jobs from South Africans.

Tsotetsi said: “Our government doesn’t make it easy for foreigners to live here, they don’t get help. They come from countries where they are severely oppressed and they come here and face the same struggles as us. We are all Africans fighting for our dignity.”

He said people should be looking to government for answers on why it had failed its people instead of finding reasons to blame each other.

How not to handle migration in South Africa: Lessons from West Africa

by Mukoni Ratshitanga, 02/04/2019

Mukoni Ratshitanga is head of content at POWER 98.7.

With the ANC and DA entering the sensitive migration issue via an election campaign, there is a very real danger that the situation might one day spiral out beyond their control, writes Mukoni Ratshitanga.

Former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo has proffered advice to African political parties and citizens on the thorny issue of migration across the continent.

In an exclusive interview on POWER 98.7, Obasanjo said: "Migration is something that must be handled with dexterity, with responsibility and with sensitivity on the continent of Africa."

He appealed to political parties who are apprehensive of migrants to "think again". The elderly African statesman, who was in South Africa last week to attend the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Solidarity Conference on Western Sahara, said: "What you think you will gain in terms of jobs for your people by keeping other people from other countries away will amount to nothing."

Nigeria-Ghana experience

Referring to the January 1983 Executive Ordinance by the then Nigerian president, the recently deceased Shehu Shagari, which expelled over two million – most of them Ghanaian citizens – from Nigeria, Obasanjo said: "We tried it in Nigeria; it didn't work." …

The Shagari Ordinance came against the backdrop of a cocktail of socio-economic fortunes and misfortunes rooted in the complex West African and African history. The years 1973 – 1981 witnessed a rise in the oil price – Nigeria's main source of revenue – which enabled the state to make significant investments in public works and light industries. This pull-factor brought greater numbers of migrants from neighbouring countries into Nigeria, a process further propelled by the 1973 and 1974 drought in the Sahel region.

Things would predictably take a different turn by the early 1980s. The oil price fell sharply in 1981, the Nigerian economy declined, along with industrial investment, while urban unemployment – affecting two thirds of urban workers – rose. Worse still, widespread corruption during the period of the Shagari government only served to aggravate the situation.

An International Monetary Fund (IMF) Structural Adjustment Programme which imposed unpopular cuts in social expenditure followed in 1983, an election year in Nigeria. The confluence of negative socio-economic circumstances impacted on the political sphere, drawing into the potent mix, migrants who, until then, had not featured prominently in the Nigerian public discourse.

On January 17, 1983, the Nigerian government ordered all unskilled and undocumented migrants to leave the country within 14 days. They were accused of taking away jobs from citizens, engaging in crime and other forms of deviant social conduct, while allegations of conspiracy to register migrants as voters in the general election of August that year were levelled against the opposition.

Shagari would win the elections by a comfortable margin of four million votes more than the second most popular contestant, Obafemi Awolowo.

What goes around comes around: the 1969 Ghanaian expulsion of Nigerians

Fourteen years earlier in 1969, the Ghana government had expelled 150 000 Nigerians who had lived in Ghana for decades, eking out a livelihood as traders, workers, farmers and other professions.

At the time, the Ghanaian economy was cocoa-dependent, and the commodity provided for over 70% of foreign exchange earnings. The 20 years from 1950 – 1970 witnessed a continuous decline in the world cocoa price which had dropped by 75% by 1969.

A pattern emerges here: the greater the economic hardship, the louder the anti-immigrant decibels become. Nigerian academics Johnson Aremu and Adeyinka Ajayi would later note, in a paper published in 2014 that, "With Ghana's continued economic misfortunes, the Government and popular press really had no difficulty turning to aliens as scapegoats for their malaise. "The expulsion order may also be seen as an attempt by [Prime Minister] Kofi Busia to win the confidence of the masses and restore the legitimacy of his government. Since government was losing its grip on the economic survival of the country, Busia and his cabinet members were left with little or no choice than to seek solace in sending away non-nationals as a way of appeasing the anger of the masses."

Enemies of Africa

Last week, President Obasanjo had strong words for those who hold and propagate anti-immigrant positions. "Anybody who is a party to it," he said, "I would say he's an enemy of Africa. And if any political party is doing that, I would say, they should think again." He stressed that he, as a matter of principle, would never be party to "stopping any African from moving freely within Africa. I will never be a party to it."

He said that law enforcement agencies of immigrant recipient countries should address measures against criminal conduct among immigrants rather than tarnish everyone with the same brush. "If they are criminals, of course you shouldn't allow criminals."

He implored political parties to understand that migration is an age-old phenomenon which pre-dates the formation of the nation state. "Migration is what has kept the world going. And I believe that nothing should stop [it]" adding that "migrants have a lot to offer" to host countries.

Migrants, the 2019 general election and Pan Africanism

For the very first time since 1994, this year the immigrant question is serving as an election issue.

It entered the electoral terrain in dramatic fashion when, in November last year, City of Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba, generated a little storm in a tea cup; 'arresting' a man for carrying a cow head destined for dismembering and eventual sale in the informal market. Endorsing his boss' 'arrest,' David Tembe, the chief of the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department (JMPD) claimed that the man was an undocumented migrant. Mashaba boldly claimed that his intervention was a preventative measure against the Ebola disease, suggesting that Africans from beyond our borders are nothing but mobile carriers of disease!

But the entire spectacle was suspect. It bore the hallmarks of the launch of a choreographed anti-African immigrant electoral platform by Mashaba's party, the Democratic Alliance (DA). For while Mashaba was shopping for publicity and applause by targeting a lone informal trader in the streets of Johannesburg and making emotive and offensive statements about other Africans, DA Member of Parliament Jacques Julius was simultaneously engaged in his own lengthy Twitter campaign along the South African and Mozambican border, demanding that the government "Secure[s] Our Borders".

A coincidence? I have my doubts.

There followed by a plethora of potentially inflammatory public statements by politicians from across the political divide about the burden placed on the country's fiscus by immigrants, the supposed unfair competition they brought to local small business owners and other remarks that provoke bigoted discourse in the public space.

In fact, to be fair to the DA, the most virulent charge against migrants was led by Safety and Security Deputy Minister Bongani Mkongi at a press conference in July 14, 2017. To illustrate the gravity of his stance, it is best to quote him in full: "The question arises and we must investigate also what the law of South Africa is saying, how can a city in South Africa be 80% foreign nationals. That is dangerous. That in Hillbrow and the surrounding areas, South Africans have surrendered their own city. The nation should discuss that particular question.

"We are surrendering our land and it is not xenophobia to talk [the] truth. We fought for this land from a white minority. We cannot surrender it to the foreign nationals. That is a matter of principle. We fought for this country, not only for us, for the generations of South Africans.

"I want to ask the nation South Africa and the so-called human rights activists and organisations what must the police do when they are shot at by criminals? Must they sing 'Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika or must they return fire? We are losing police officers day in and day out but we are protecting criminals who are terrorising our people. We are 52 million people. If each and every of us can be a police officer and fight against crime we will squeeze crime in South Africa."

Framing the discussion this way is most unhelpful for obvious reasons, the most glaring being the use of statistics which no one knows the source from whence they are drawn. Most importantly, we close room for appreciating the benefit that South Africa receives from immigrant labour, skilled and unskilled, professionals like doctors employed in the South African public health system and the private sector, academics and others as well as the cross-cultural pollination every society requires for its own evolution and development.

With these two major parties entering the sensitive migration issue via an election campaign, and so many high-ranking politicians speaking emotively in a manner that scapegoats migrants for our abiding structural socio-economic challenges, there is a very real danger that the situation might one day spiral out beyond their control, with catastrophic consequences for the human beings involved and for our country's relations with the rest of the African continent and the world.

The irony of history is that it is the DA, a liberal party with very little commitment to the continent of Africa, which, in the context of a difficult election for the ANC, baited the ANC, a Pan African formation, to enter the immigrant question with haste, resorting to potentially dangerous populism. The unavoidable question the ANC needs to ponder over is whether it has lost its Pan African vision and what the implications are for South Africa's relations with the rest of the continent.

It is vitally important not to lose sight of the social and economic justice imperatives at play here. The inequitable distribution of resources within and between countries is one of the drivers of migration within and beyond the continent. It also foments the resentments that lead to hostility towards migrants. It is not enough or acceptable to replace such a considered approach with simplistic and populist high-pitched shrills bemoaning the presence of migrants.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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