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South Africa: Xenophobia, Deep Roots, Today´s Crisis

AfricaFocus Bulletin
September 12, 2019 (2019-09-12)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

“In the early years after I got 'home,' it took me some time to figure out how to respond to the idea that Africa was a place that began beyond South Africa's borders. I was surprised to learn that the countries where I had lived -- the ones that had nurtured my soul in the long years of exile -- were actually no places at all in the minds of some of my compatriots. … Though they thought themselves to be very different, it seemed to me that whites and blacks in South Africa were disappointingly similar when it came to their views on 'Africa.' … This warped idea of Africa was at the heart of the idea of South Africa itself. Just as whiteness means nothing until it is contrasted with blackness as savagery, South African-ness relies heavily on the construction of Africa as a place of dysfunction, chaos and violence in order to define itself as functional, orderly, efficient and civilised.” - Sisonke Msimang

As Daniel Magaziner wrote in South Africa´s Business Day on September 9, the current xenophobic violence in South Africa is hardly unique to that country, citing the similar violent rhetoric and actions that have marked the United States as well. Increasing inequality paired with the willingness of politicians to incite or tacitly tolerate hate speech and hate crimes are indeed features in many countries around the world. Magaziner notes that “In the wake of such horror it is not surprising to see politicians and regular people cry, rend their garments and insist that ´this is not who we are.´ But I am not sure. I think maybe it is.”

In both the United States and South Africa, as arguably in many other countries, confronting anti-immigrant mobilization requires not only appeals to unity but also confronting deeply embedded assumptions about national history and national identity.

While this AfricaFocus Bulletin contains links (at the end), to current news and analysis of the latest violence, I decided to prioritize reprinting the 2014 essay by Sisonke Msimang, originally published by, for its eloquent posing of questions still unanswered. Also included are one article and additional links featuring recent public opinion surveys by South Africa´s Human Sciences Research Council.

Another AfricaFocus Bulletin sent out today and available at contains the full text of the speech by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on xenophobia and gender-based violence, as well as several other related links.

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on South Africa, visit

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on migration, visit

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

Belonging--why South Africans refuse to let Africa in

Sisonke Msimang

October 22, 2014 refuse-to-let-africa

[Sisonke Msimang writes about money, power and sex. She lives in Johannesburg.]

Any African who has ever tried to visit South Africa will know that the country is not an easy entry destination. South African embassies across the continent are almost as difficult to access as those of the UK and the United States. They are characterised by long queues, inordinate amounts of paperwork, and officials who manage to be simultaneously rude and lethargic. It should come as no surprise then that South Africa's new Minister of Home Affairs has announced the proposed establishment of a Border Management Agency for the country. In his words the new agency "will be central to securing all land, air and maritime ports of entry and support the efforts of the South African National Defence force to address the threats posed to, and the porousness of, our borderline."

Political observers of South Africa will understand that this is bureaucratic speak to dress up the fact that insularity will continue to be the country's guiding ethos in its social, cultural and political dealings with the rest of the continent.

Perhaps I am particularly attuned to this because of my upbringing. I am South African but grew up in exile. That is to say I was raised in the Africa that is not South Africa; that place of fantasy and nightmare that exists beyond the Limpopo. When I first came home in the mid 1990s, in those early months as I was learning to adjust to life in South Africa, I was often struck by the odd way in which the term 'Africa,' was deployed by both white and black South Africans.

Because I speak in the fancy curly tones of someone who has been educated overseas, I was often asked where I was from. I would explain that I was born to South African parents outside the country and that I had lived in Zambia and Kenya and Canada and that my family also lived in Ethiopia. Invariably, the listener would nod sympathetically until the meaning of what I was saying sank in. 'Oh.' Then there would be a sharp intake of breath and a sort of horrified fascination would take hold. "So you grew up in Africa." The Africa was enunciated carefully, the last syllable drawn out and slightly raised as though the statement were actually a question. Then the inevitable, softly sighed, "Shame."

In the early years after I got 'home,' it took me some time to figure out how to respond to the idea that Africa was a place that began beyond South Africa's borders. I was surprised to learn that the countries where I had lived -- the ones that had nurtured my soul in the long years of exile -- were actually no places at all in the minds of some of my compatriots. They weren't geographies with their own histories and cultures and complexities. They were dark landscapes, Conradian and densely forested. Zambia and Kenya and Ethiopia might as well have been Venus and Mars and Jupiter. They were undefined and undefined-able. They were snake-filled thickets; impenetrable brush and war and famine and ever-present tribal danger.

Though they thought themselves to be very different, it seemed to me that whites and blacks in South Africa were disappointingly similar when it came to their views on 'Africa.' At first I blamed the most obvious culprit: apartheid. The ideology of the National Party was profoundly insular, based on inspiring everyone in the country to be fearful of the other. With the naiveté and arrogance of the young, I thought that a few lessons in African history might help to disabuse the Rainbow Nation of the notion that our country was apart from Africa. I made it my mission to inform everyone I came across that culturally, politically and historically we could call ourselves nothing if not Africans.

What I did not fully understand at that stage was that it would take more than a few lectures by an earnest 'returnee,' to deal with this issue. This warped idea of Africa was at the heart of the idea of South Africa itself. Just as whiteness means nothing until it is contrasted with blackness as savagery, South African-ness relies heavily on the construction of Africa as a place of dysfunction, chaos and violence in order to define itself as functional, orderly, efficient and civilised.

As such, the apartheid state was at pains to keep its borders closed. The savages at the country's doorstep were a convenient bogeyman. Whites were told that if the country's black neighbours were let in, they would surely unite with the indigenous population and slit the throats of whites. By the same token, black people were told that the Africans beyond South Africa's borders lived like animals; they were ruled by despots and governed by black magic.

When apartheid ended, the fear of African voodoo throat slitting should have ended with it. Indeed on the face of things, the fear of 'Africa,' has abated and has been replaced by the language of investment. South African capital has 'opened up' to the rest of the continent and so fear has been taken over by self-interest and new forms of extraction.

In the parlance of South Africans, our businesses have 'gone into Africa.' Like the frontiersmen who conquered the bush before them they have been quick to talk about 'investment and opportunity' to define our country's relationship with the continent. The pre-1994 hostility towards 'Africa' has been replaced by a paternalism that is equally disconcerting. Africa needs economic saviours and white South African 'technical skills' are just the prescription.

Amongst many black South Africans, the script is frightfully similar. The recent collapse of TB Joshua's church in Nigeria, in which scores of South Africans lost their lives, has highlighted how little the narrative has changed in the minds of many South Africans. Many have called in to radio shows and social media asking, what the pilgrims were doing looking for God in such a God forsaken place?

In the democratic era we have converted the hatred of Africa into a crude sort of exceptionalist chauvinism. South Africans are quick to assert that they don't dislike 'Africans.' It's just that we are unique. Our history and society are too different from theirs to allow for meaningful comparisons. See -- we are even lighter in complexion than them and we have different features. I have heard the refrain too many times, 'We don't really look like Africans.' Never mind the reality that black South Africans come in all shades from the deepest of browns to the fairest of yellows.

This idea that South Africans are so singular in our experience; that apartheid was such a unique experience that it makes us different from everyone else in the world, and especially from other Africans, is an important aspect of understanding the South African approach to immigration.

As long-time researcher Nahla Vahlji has noted, "the fostering of nationalism produces an equal and parallel phenomenon: that of an affiliation amongst citizens in contrast and opposition to what is 'outside' that national identity." In other words, South Africans may not always like each other across so-called racial lines, but they have a kinship that is based on their connection to the apartheid project. Outsiders -- those who didn't go through the torture of the regime -- are juxtaposed against insiders. In other words foreigners are foreign precisely because they can not understand the pain of apartheid, because most South Africans now claim to have been victims of the system. Whether white or black, the trauma of living through apartheid is seen as such a defining experience that it becomes exclusionary; it has made a nation of us.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) which sought to uncover the truth behind certain atrocities that took place under apartheid, was also an attempt to make a nation out of us. While it won international acclaim as a model for settling disputes that was as concerned with traditional notions of justice as it was with healing the wounds of the past, there were many people inside South Africa who were sceptical of its mission. As Premesh Lalu and Brendan Harris suggested as the Commission was starting its work in the mid 1990s, the desire for the TRC to create the narrative of a new nation led to a selection of "elements of the past which create no controversy, which create a good start, for a new nation where race and economic inequality are a serious problem, and where the balance of social forces is still extremely fragile."

This is as true today as it was then. Attending the hearings was crucial for me as a young person yearning to better understand my country, but I am objective enough to understand that one of the consequences using the TRC as the basis for forging a national identity is that 'others' -- the people who were not here in the bad old days -- have found it difficult to find their place in South Africa. Aided and abetted by the TRC and the discursive rainbow nation project, South Africans have failed to create a frame for belonging that transcends the experience of apartheid.

Twenty years into the 'new' dispensation, many South Africans still view people who weren't there and therefore who did not physically share in the pain of apartheid as 'aliens.' The darker-hued these aliens are, the less likely South Africans are to accept them. Even when black African 'foreigners' attain citizenship or permanent residence, even when their children are enrolled in South African schools, they remain strangers to us because they weren't caught up in our grand narrative as belligerents in the war that was apartheid.

While it is easy to locate the roots of xenophobia in our colonial and apartheid history, it is also becoming clear that our present leaders do not understand how to press the reset button in order to remake our country in the image of its future self. They have not been able to outline a vision for the new South Africa that is inclusive of the millions of African people who live here and who are 'foreign' but indispensable to our society for cultural, economic and political reasons.

America -- with all its problems -- offers us the model of an immigrant nation whose very conception relied on the idea of the 'new' world where justice and freedom were possible. Much can be said about how that narrative ignores those who were brought to the country as slave cargo. It is patently clear that America has also denied the founding acts of genocide that decimated the people of the First Nations who lived there before the settlers arrived. Indeed, one could argue that while oppression and murder begat the United States of America, the country's founding myth is an inclusive one, a story of freedom and the right to life. In South Africa murder and oppression also birthed a new nation, but the founding myth of our post 1994 country has remained insular and exclusive, a story of freedom and the right to life for South Africans.

The South African state has always been strongly invested in seeing itself as an island of morality and order in a cesspool of black filth. The notion of South Africa's apartness from Africa is deeply embedded in the psyche that 'new' South Africans inherited in 1994 but it goes back decades. For example, the 1937 Aliens Act sought to attract desirable immigrants, whom it defined in the law as those of 'European' heritage who would be easily assimilable in the white population of the country.' This law stayed on the books until 1991, when the National Party, in its dying days, sought to protect itself from the foreseeable 'deluge' of communist and/or barbaric Africans. The Aliens Control Act (1991) removed the offensive reference to 'Europeans' but it kept the rest of the architecture of exclusion intact.

March against xenophobia, Newtown, South Africa, 2015. Photo credit: GCIS.

As a result, when the new South Africa was born the old state remained firmly in place, continuing to guard the border from the threats just across the Limpopo, as it always had. It was a decade before the Bill on International Migration came into force in 2003 and it too retained critical elements of the old outlook.

The ANC politicians running the country somehow began to buy into the idea that immigrants posed a threat to security. Immigration continued to be seen as a containment strategy rather than as a path to economic growth. As President Jacob Zuma tightens his grip on the security sector, and extends the power and reach of the security cluster in all areas of governance, this attitude seems to be hardening rather than softening.

None of South Africa's current crop of political leaders seem to be asking the kinds of questions that will begin to resolve the question the role that immigration can and should play in the building of our new nation. South Africa's political leadership sees Africa in one of two ways: either as a market for South African goods, differentiated only to the extent that Africans can be sold our products; or as a threat, part of a deluge of the poor and unwashed who take 'our jobs and our women.'

No one in government today seems to understand that postapartheid South Africa continues to be the site of multiple African imaginations. One cannot deal with 'Africa' without dealing with the subjectivity of what South Africa meant to Africa historically, and the disappointment that a free South Africa has signified in the last decade.

So much of the pan-Africanist project -- even with its failings -- has been about an imagined Africa in which the shackles of colonialism have been thrown off. South Africa has always been an iconic symbol in that imaginary. Robben Island and Nelson Mandela, the burning streets of Soweto, Steve Biko's bloodied, broken body: these images did not just belong to us alone. They brought pain and grief to a continent whose march towards self-determination included us, even when our liberation seemed far, far away. With the invention of the 'new' South Africa the crucial importance of African visions for us have taken a back seat. South Africans have refused to admit that we are a crucial aspect of the African project of self-determination. In failing to see ourselves in this manner, we have denied ourselves the opportunity to be propelled -- transported even -- by the dreams of our continent.

What would South Africa be like without the 'foreign' academics who teach mathematics and history on our campuses? How differently might our students think without their deep and critical insights about us and the place we occupy in the world? How might we understand our location and our political geography differently if 'foreigners' were not here offering us different ways of wearing and inhabiting blackness? What would our society look like without the tax paying 'foreigners' whose children make our schools richer and more diverse? What would inner city Johannesburg smell like without coffee ceremonies and egusi soup? What would Cape Town's Greenmarket square be without the Zimbabwean and Congolese taxi drivers who literally make the city go?

In an era in which borders are coming down and becoming more porous to encourage trade and contact, South Africa is introducing layers of red tape to the process of moving in and out of the country. The outsider has never been more repulsive or threatening than s/he is now. This is precisely why Gigaba's announcement of the Border Management Agency is so worrisome. Yet it was couched in careful language. Ever mindful of the xenophobic reputation that South Africa has in the rest of the continent, Gigaba asserts, "We value the contributions of fellow Africans from across the continent living in South Africa and that is why we have continued to support the AU and SADC initiatives to free human movement; but [my emphasis] this cannot happen haphazardly, unilaterally or to the exclusion of security concerns."

Ah, there it is! The image of Africa and 'Africans' as haphazard, disorderly and ultimately threatening is in stark contrast to South Africa and South Africans as organised, efficient and (ahem) peace- loving. The subtext of Gigaba's statement is that South Africans require protection from 'foreigners' who are hell bent on imposing their chaos and violence on us.

Nowhere has post-apartheid policy suffered from the lack of imagination more acutely than in the area of immigration. Before they took power, many in the ANC worried about the ways in which the old agendas of the apartheid regime state would assert themselves even under a black government. They understood that there was a real danger of the apartheid mentality capturing the new bureaucrats. Despite these initial fears, the new leaders completely under-estimated the extent to which running the state would succeed in dulling the imaginations of the new public servants and burying their intellect under mountains of forms and rules and processes. They also didn't understand that xenophobia would be so firmly lodged in the soul of the country, that it would be one of the few phenomena would unite blacks and whites.

South Africa's massive immigration fail is a tragedy for all kinds of reasons. At the most basic level, the horrific levels of violence and intimidation that many African migrants to South Africa face on a daily basis represent an on-going travesty of justice. Yet in a far more complex and nuanced way, South Africa's rejection of its African identity is a tragedy of another sort. All great societies are melanges, a delicious brew of art and culture and intellect. They draw the best from near and far and make them their own. By denying the contribution of Africa to its DNA, South Africa forgoes the opportunity to be a richer, smarter, more cosmopolitan and interesting society than it currently is.

In spite of ourselves South Africans still have a chance to open our arms to the rest of the continent. The window of opportunity for allowing our guests to truly belong to us as they have always allowed us to belong to them is still open. I fear however, that the window is closing fast.


Why do people attack foreigners living in South Africa?: Asking ordinary South Africans

Steven Gordon

HSRC Review, September 2018.

A new study from the Human Sciences Research Council contributes to our public debate on anti-immigrant violence by looking at the opinions of ordinary South Africans. Using public opinion data, Dr Steven Gordon looks at which explanations for anti-immigrant violence are most popular amongst the country’s adult population. By understanding how the public views this important question, we can better comprehend which xenophobia prevention mechanisms would be most acceptable to the general population.

The South African Constitution is regarded as one of the most progressive in the world. One of its central features is the recognition of the right of all citizens to certain socio-economic rights including basic housing, healthcare, education, food, water, and social security. Including socio-economic rights in the Constitution has direct, practical implications for government, which is expected to fulfil these rights through concrete action. It is crucial that government’s progress in delivering on these expectations is monitored.

The HSRC’s South African Social Attitude Survey (SASAS) series is a useful tool to measure the extent to which South Africans are satisfied with their socio-economic circumstances, but the series does not measure the extent to which government has complied with its obligation to progressively realise socio-economic rights. Such a measurement would require insight into the national budget and what portion of the budget the state dedicates to socio-economic goods. However, how South Africans perceive their circumstances matter and it provides valuable insight into how government has fared in providing basic goods such as water, sanitation, housing and electricity.

Anti-immigrant violence is one of the major problems facing South Africa. This type of hate crime discourages long-term integration of international migrants and acts as a barrier to otherwise economically beneficial population movement. It also sours the country’s international relationships on the African continent.

Relations between South Africa and Nigeria (one of the region’s largest economies) have, for example, deteriorated because of recent episodes of anti-immigrant attacks. Since the early 1990s, state officials, legislators and policymakers in South Africa have debated the causes of anti-immigrant violence. There are a thousand different opinions on what causes such hostility and some politicians (like former President Jacob Zuma) have even suggested that this problem does not exist.

Getting an unbiased survey answer

Data from the South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS) 2017 was used for this study. A repeated cross-sectional survey series, SASAS is specially designed to be nationally representative of all persons 16 years and older in the country. Survey teams visited households in all nine provinces and the sample size was 3,098. Fieldworkers informed respondents that they were going to be asked: “some questions about people from other countries coming to live in South Africa”. Respondents were then asked the following: “There are many opinions about why people take violent action against foreigners living in South Africa. Please tell me the MAIN REASON why you think this happens.” This question was open-ended which allowed respondents to answer in their own words. This encouraged respondents to give an unbiased answer.

The response

Using SASAS, I identified main causes of xenophobic violence given by the public. These explanations are depicted in Table 1 across economic groups. Here, I use the well-known Living Standard Measure: Low (1-4), Medium (5-6) and High (7-10). Almost every person interviewed was able to offer an explanation for why people attack foreigners in South Africa. Only a small minority (5%) described such violence as irrational, illogical or unknowable. An even smaller portion (2%) of the public rejected the premise of the question and said that attacks against foreigners were ‘just the work of criminals’. Before the different reasons are discussed in more detail, it is important to note that when talking about international migrants, respondents made little distinction between different types of foreigners. Most made general reference to this group and only a relatively small proportion cited specific types (e.g. undocumented) of foreigners.

The financial explanation

The most popular explanation given for attacks against international migrants concerned the negative financial effect that immigrants had on South African society. About a third (30%) of the public identified the labour market threat posed by foreigners as the main reason for anti-immigrant violence. The other main economic causes identified by the general public were: (i) the unfair business practices of foreign-owned shops and small businesses; and (ii) immigrants use up resources (such as housing). It is interesting to note that poor people were not more likely to give economic reasons than the wealthy.

Criminal activity

The criminal threat posed by international immigrants was the second most frequently mentioned cause of anti-immigrant violence. Almost a third (30%) of the adult population said that the violence occurred because communities were responding to the criminal activities of international migrants. Many people attributed the violence to foreigners’ involvement in illegal drug trafficking specifically. Poor people were found to be particularly likely to give illicit drug trading by foreigners as a main cause. About 5% of adults identified other threats from foreigners as the main reason for the attacks. These threats included disease, sexual exploitation of women and children as well as a general sense that immigrants wanted to ‘take over the country’.


Overall, 70% of the general public identified the threat posed by immigrants as the main explanation for anti-immigrant violence in South Africa. Looking at the minority that named a non-threat explanation for the violence, we found that few identified individual prejudice or misinformation spread about international migrants as a reason for anti-immigrant violence. Remarkably, the most frequent non-threat explanation for violence was jealousy. Approximately 10% of the population told fieldworkers that envy of the success or ingenuity of foreigners had caused this kind of hate crime. People who responded in this way tended to tell fieldworkers that South Africans were lazy when compared to international migrants.


Most South Africans have a strong opinion about why anti-immigrant violence occurs in the country. Reviewing the responses given to fieldworkers, it is apparent that the majority of reasons provided by the general population concern the harmful conduct of international migrants. There is no evidence to support the belief that South Africa’s international migrant community is, however, a significant cause of crime or unemployment in the country. Indeed, as former President Jacob Zuma has himself acknowledged, many in the migrant community “contribute to the economy of the country positively”. Current Minister of Home Affairs Malusi Gigaba has himself said that it is wrong to claim that all foreigners are drug dealers or human traffickers.

If a progressive solution to anti-immigrant violence is to be found, then there is a need to persuade the general population to support a different interpretation of the causes of anti-immigrant violence. Only with public support can anti-xenophobia advocates end hate crime against immigrants in South Africa. Government and activists need to change the way ordinary people think about this type of hate crime.

Additional articles based on HSRC survey

“How should xenophobic hate crime be addressed? Asking ordinary people for solutions”
HSRC, 6 August 2019 hate-crime

Steven Gordon, “What research reveals about drivers of anti- immigrant hate crime in South Africa”
The Conversation, September 6, 2019


Additional Sources

News stories on the xenophobic attacks in South Africa have been plentiful. For coverage by Google news worldwide visit Coverage on South Africa news sites can be found at, and coverage on Nigerian websites at

For a series of stories that go beyond the news to sharp analysis and first-hand coverage, the South African site New Frame stands out:

Commentaries in The Daily Maverick can be found at

On the relationship of South Africa to other African countries, three commentaries that are particularly worth reading are:

Nnimmo Bassey, “Xenophobia and the New Apartheid,” September 4, 2019 apartheid/

Tafi Mhaka & Suraya Dadoo, “South Africa is becoming a pariah in Africa,” September 10, 2019 africa-190909145153827.html

Nanjala Nyabola, “Failed decolonisation of South African cities fuels violence,” September 11, 2019 south-african-cities-leads-violence-190910123546431.html

For an in-depth analyses of South African public opinion on xenophobia, see the 2013 and 2014 monographs from the Southern African Migration Project (SAMP): Migration Policy Series 63 and 66, under the titles Soft Targets and Xenophobic Violence in South Africa.

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