Xenophobia in South Africa: Wikis


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Prior to 1994 immigrants from elsewhere in Africa faced discrimination and even violence in South Africa, though much of that risk stemmed from the institutionalised racism of the time rather than xenophobia. Post 1994 and democratisation, and contrary to expectations, the incidence of xenophobia increased. Between 2000 and March 2008 at least 67 people died in what was 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.


Recent history of xenophobia in South Africa

European immigration

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. In the Cape Colony the Cape Immigration Act (No 30) of 1906 set as requirement the ability to complete an application form in a European language (including Yiddish) and proof of £20 as visible means of support.[1]

Mozambiqan and Congolese immigrants before 1994

Between 1984 and the end of hostilities in that country an estimated 250 000 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.[2]

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.[2]

Xenophobia post 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. 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."[3]

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

A 2004 study by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) or 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.[4]

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.[5] 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.[6]

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."[7][8] The campaign, known as "Buyelekhaya" (go back home), blamed foreigners for crime, unemployment and sexual attacks.[9]

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.[10]

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.[11]

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.[12]

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.[13]

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.[14]

Attacks on foreign nationals increased markedly in late 2007 and it is believed that there have been at least a dozen attacks since the start of 2008.[15] The most severe incidents occurred on January 8, 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.[15]

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

May 2008 pogroms

Spread of violence

On May 12, 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.[16]

In the following weeks the violence spread, first to other settlements in the Gauteng Province, then to the coastal cities of Durban[17] and Cape Town.

Attacks were also reported in parts of the Southern Cape,[18] Mpumalanga,[19] the North West and Free State[20].


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

  • relative deprivation, specifically intense competition for jobs, commodities and housing;
  • group processes, including psychological categorization processes that are nationalistic rather than superordinate[21]
  • South African exceptionalism, or a feeling of superiority in relation to other Africans; and
  • exclusive citizenship, or a form of nationalism that excludes others.[22]

A subsequent report, Towards Tolerance, Law, and Dignity: Addressing Violence against Foreign Nationals in South Africa, commissioned by the International Organisation for Migration found that poor service delivery or an influx of foreigners may have played a contributing role, but blamed township politics for the attacks.[23] It also found that community leadership was potentially lucrative for unemployed people, and that such leaders organised the attacks.[24] 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.[25]


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.[26]

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 trail and 82 had been referred for further investigation.[27]

In May 2009, one year after the attacks the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa (Cormsa) said that foreigners remained under threat of violence and that little had been done to address the causes of the attacks. The organisation complained of a lack of accountability for those responsible for public violence, insufficient investigations into the instigators and the lack of a public government inquiry.[28]

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.[29] Conditions in some camps were condemned on the grounds of location and infrastructure[30], highlighting their temporary nature.

The South African government initially adopted a policy of quickly reintegrating refugees into the communities they originally fled[31] and subsequently set a deadline in July 2008, by which time refugees would be expected to return to their communities or countries of origin.[32] After an apparent policy shift the government vowed that there would be no forced reintegration of refugees[33] and that the victims would not be deported, even if they were found to be illegal immigrants.[34]

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.[35]

Domestic political reaction

On May 21, then-President Thabo Mbeki approved a request from the SAPS for deployment of armed forces against the attacks in Gauteng[36]. 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[37].

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[38]. 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[38]. 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[39], 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[40]. 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 organizations.

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[39]. Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe called for the creation of local committees to combat violence against foreigners[41][42].

Zille was also criticized 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[43].

In theKwaZulu-Natal province, Bheki Cele, provincial community safety minister, blamed the Inkatha Freedom Party, a nationalist Zulu political party, for stoking and capitalizing on the violence in Durban[44]. 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 predominately ethnically-Zulu KwaZulu-Natal province, rejected the statements, and had, on May 20, engaged in an anti-xenophobia meeting with the ANC[45].

Civil society and South Africa's social movements have come out strongly against the 2008 xenophobic attacks calling them pogroms promoted by government and political parties.[46] Some have claimed that local politicians and police have sanctioned the attacks.[47] 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.[48]. [49].

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 regularize their stay in the country[50].

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.[51].

New attacks in 2009

In late May 2009, reports emerged regarding a resurgence of xenophobic related activity and the organising pogroms in the Western Cape. Reports of threats and secret meetings by local businessmen have surfaced in Gugulethu, Khayelitsha and Philippi. Samora Machel in Philippi has once again emerging as a flash-point.[52]. In Gugulethu, reports have emerged of secret meetings by local businessmen discussing what to do about Somali shopkeepers. The Anti-Eviction Campaign has brought these issues to the open by organising a series of anti-xenophobia meetings attempting to find the root cause of the crisis.[53][54]


  1. ^ Audie Klotz. "International Relations and Migration in Southern Africa". Institute for Security Studies: African Security Review Vol 6 no 3, 1997. http://www.iss.co.za/PUBS/ASR/6No3/Klotz.html. Retrieved 8 September 2008.  
  2. ^ a b Jonny Steinberg. "ISS Monograph No 117: Mozambican and Congolese Refugees in South Africa: A mixed reception" (PDF). Institute for Security Studies. http://www.iss.co.za/dynamic/administration/file_manager/file_links/117FULL.PDF. Retrieved 5 September 2008.  
  3. ^ Jonathan Crush and Wade Pendleton. "South African Migration Project 30: Regionalizing Xenophobia? Citizen Attitudes to Immigration and refugee policy in Southern Africa". Institute for Democracy in South Africa. http://www.idasa.org.za/gbOutputFiles.asp?WriteContent=Y&RID=2108. Retrieved 5 September 2008.  
  4. ^ Themba Masuku. "Targeting Foreigners: Xenophobia among Johannesburg’s police". Institute for Security Studies (Crime Quarterly No 15, 2006). http://www.iss.co.za/pubs/CrimeQ/No.15/Masuku.html. Retrieved 6 September 2008.  
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  10. ^ Nahla Valji. "Creating the Nation: The Rise of Violent Xenophobia in the New South Africa" (PDF). Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation. http://www.csvr.org.za/docs/foreigners/riseofviolent.pdf. Retrieved 8 September 2008.  
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  13. ^ "36 arrested after 2 more die in Tshwane ‘foreigner’ riots". Cape Argus. http://www.capeargus.co.za/index.php?fSectionId=49&fArticleId=3054634. Retrieved 6 September 2008.  
  14. ^ "Somali's turn to HRC as murder toll soars". Independent Online. http://www.iol.co.za/index.php?set_id=1&click_id=15&art_id=vn20060825131506666C924904. Retrieved 6 September 2008.  
  15. ^ a b "Recent attacks tip of xenophobic iceberg". TheTimes.co.za. http://www.thetimes.co.za/PrintEdition/News/Article.aspx?id=768363. Retrieved May 19, 2008.  
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  17. ^ "South Africa attacks reach Durban". BBC. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/7412128.stm. Retrieved 2008-05-21.  
  18. ^ "Cape mounts relief effort as xenophobia spreads". SABC. http://www.sabcnews.com/south_africa/general/0,2172,170109,00.html. Retrieved May 23, 2008.  
  19. ^ "Violence spills into Mpumalanga". The Times. http://www.thetimes.co.za/News/Article.aspx?id=770646. Retrieved May 21, 2008.  
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  21. ^ 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. http://pds.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/20/2/183
  22. ^ "Violence and xenophobia in South Africa: Developing consensus, moving to action". Human Science Research Council. http://www.hsrc.ac.za/Document-2994.phtml. Retrieved 30 October 2008.  
  23. ^ "Politics played part in xenophobic chaos". The Times. http://www.thetimes.co.za/News/Article.aspx?id=957231. Retrieved 2009-03-15.  
  24. ^ "Local leaders 'incited xenophobia'". News24. http://www.news24.com/News24/South_Africa/News/0,,2-7-1442_2483726,00.html. Retrieved 15-03-2209.  
  25. ^ "Power struggles blamed for the xeno violence". The Daily Dispatch. http://www.dispatch.co.za/article.aspx?id=300333. Retrieved 2009-03-15.  
  26. ^ "Xenophobia cases must be finalised". The Times. http://www.thetimes.co.za/News/Article.aspx?id=944860. Retrieved 2009-03-15.  
  27. ^ "Anniversary of xeno attacks". The Times. http://www.thetimes.co.za/News/Article.aspx?id=996722. Retrieved 2009-05-11.  
  28. ^ "Xenophobic violence has ended but foreigners still feel unsafe". Business Day. http://www.businessday.co.za/articles/topstories.aspx?ID=BD4A997010. Retrieved 2009-05-11.  
  29. ^ "Foreigners displaced by violence in South Africa move into temporary camps". The Canadian Press. http://canadianpress.google.com/article/ALeqM5ibeZeGJbRIF2sQiMsqquz3WRICMw. Retrieved June 30, 2008.  
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  32. ^ "Go home or go back: Home Affairs". The Times (SA). http://www.thetimes.co.za/SpecialReports/Xenophobia/Article.aspx?id=780888. Retrieved June 30, 2008.  
  33. ^ "No ‘forced reintegration’ for immigrants". The Times (SA). http://www.thetimes.co.za/SpecialReports/Xenophobia/Article.aspx?id=781999. Retrieved June 30, 2008.  
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  35. ^ "Cape Town wants to evict refugees". The Times. http://www.thetimes.co.za/News/Article.aspx?id=996699. Retrieved 2009-05-11.  
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  49. ^ "On the Pogroms in South Africa". Interactivist. http://info.interactivist.net/node/11095.  
  50. ^ "UNHCR Concerned About Violence Against Immigrants in South Africa". Voice of America. http://voanews.com/english/2008-05-23-voa40.cfm. Retrieved May 24, 2008.  
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  54. ^ "Traders threatened". Sowetan. http://www.sowetan.co.za/News/Article.aspx?id=1008791.  

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