Xenophobia in South Africa
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Prior to 1994, immigrants from elsewhere faced discrimination and even violence in South Africa. After majority rule in 1994, contrary to expectations, the incidence of xenophobia increased. Between 2000 and March 2008, at least 67 people died in what were identified as xenophobic attacks. In May 2008, a series of attacks left 62 people dead; although 21 of those killed were South African citizens. The attacks were motivated by xenophobia. In 2015, another nationwide spike in xenophobic attacks against immigrants in general prompted a number of foreign governments to begin repatriating their citizens. A Pew Research poll conducted in 2018 showed that 62% of South Africans viewed immigrants as a burden on society by taking jobs and social benefits and that 61% of South Africans thought that immigrants were more responsible for crime than other groups. Between 2010 and 2017 the immigrant community in South Africa increased from 2 million people to 4 million people. The proportion of South Africa's total population that is foreign born increased from 2.8% in 2005 to 7% in 2019, according to the United Nations International Organization for Migration, in spite of widespread xenophobia in the country. This made South Africa the largest recipient of immigrants on the African continent in 2019.
Xenophobia in South Africa before 1994
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 during the apartheid system. 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 officially enter South Africa, and evidence exists that their hosts denied them access to economic resources.
Unrest and civil war likewise saw large numbers of Congolese people emigrate to South Africa, many illegally, in 1993 and 1997. Subsequent studies found indications of xenophobic attitudes towards these refugees, typified by them being denied access to the primary healthcare to which they were technically entitled.
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 election of a Black majority 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.
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-immigrant sentiment, with 21% of South Africans in favour of a complete ban on foreign entry and 64% in favour of strict limitations on the numbers permitted. By contrast, the next-highest proportion of respondents in favour of a complete ban on immigration 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) of attitudes amongst 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.
In a March 2007 meeting with Home Affairs Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, a representative of Burundian refugees in Durban; claimed that immigrants could not rely on police for protection, but instead found police mistreating them, stealing from them and making unconfirmed allegations that they sell drugs. 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.
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." The campaign, known as "Buyelekhaya" (go back home), blamed foreigners for crime, unemployment and sexual attacks.
In September 1998, a Mozambican national and two Senegalese citizens 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 the spread of AIDS.
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.
In October 2001, residents of the Zandspruit informal settlement gave Zimbabwean citizens ten 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 whilst locals remained jobless and blamed the foreigners for a number of crimes. No injuries were reported amongst the affected Zimbabweans.
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.
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.
Attacks on foreign nationals increased markedly in late-2007 and it is believed that there were at least a dozen attacks between January and May 2008. 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, then in March 2008 when seven people were killed including Zimbabweans, Pakistanis and a Somali national after their shops and shacks were set alight in Atteridgeville near Pretoria.
May 2008 riots
|2008 South Africa riots|
|Part of the history of South Africa|
Map of South Africa
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. Some attackers were reported to have been singing Jacob Zuma's campaign song Umshini Wami (Zulu: "Bring Me My Machine Gun").
Popular opposition to xenophobia
In Khutsong in Gauteng and the various shack settlements governed by Abahlali baseMjondolo in KwaZulu-Natal social movements were able to ensure that there were no violent attacks. The Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign also organised campaigns against xenophobia. Pallo Jordan argued that "Active grass-roots interventions contained the last wave of xenophobia".
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
- South African exceptionalism, or a feeling of superiority in relation to other Africans; and
- exclusive citizenship, or a form of nationalism that excludes others.
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. It also found that community leadership was potentially lucrative for unemployed people, and that such leaders organised the attacks. 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.
1400 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.
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.
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.
Refugee camps and reintegration question
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. Conditions in some camps were condemned on the grounds of location and infrastructure, highlighting their temporary nature.
The South African government initially adopted a policy of quickly reintegrating refugees into the communities they originally fled and subsequently set a deadline in July 2008, by which time refugees would be expected to return to their communities or countries of origin. After an apparent policy shift the government vowed that there would be no forced reintegration of refugees and that the victims would not be deported, even if they were found to be illegal immigrants.
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.
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. It was the first time that the South African government ordered troops out to the streets in order to quell unrest since the end of Apartheid in the early 1990s.
Several political parties blamed each other, and sometimes other influences, for the attacks. The Gauteng provincial branch of the ANC alleged that the violence was politically motivated by a "third hand" that was primarily targeting the ANC for the 2009 general elections. 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. 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 with then-president of the ANC Jacob Zuma, 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. 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. Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe called for the creation of local committees to combat violence against foreigners.
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. 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.
Radical grassroots movements and organisations came out strongly against the 2008 xenophobic attacks calling them pogroms promoted by government and political parties. Some have claimed that local politicians and police have sanctioned the attacks. At they time they 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.  Grassroots groups like Abahlali baseMjondolo and the South African Unemployed Peoples' Movement also opposed the latest round of xenophobic attacks in 2015.
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.
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.
Attacks in 2009–12
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 Gugulethu, Khayelitsha and Philippi, Cape Town. Samora Machel in Philippi once again emerging as a flash-point. In Gugulethu, reports emerged of secret meetings by local businessmen discussing 'what to do about Somali shopkeepers'. The Anti-Eviction Campaign brought these issues to the open by organising a series of anti-xenophobia meetings attempting to find the root cause of the crisis.
In November 2009, a community of 1500-2500 Zimbabwean farm workers was forcibly evicted from their homes in the informal settlements of De Doorns, a grape-farming town in the Western Cape. No persons were physically assaulted but homes were trashed and looted and this led to the biggest displacement of foreign nationals since May 2008. The Zimbabweans were then housed in a displaced persons' camp where some remained for a year until it was closed. Researchers identified the role of a ward councillor, Mpumelelo Lubisi, in inciting the attack in possible collusion with informal labour brokers who had financial interests in getting rid of their Zimbabwean competitors. South African workers also accused farmers of employing the Zimbabweans at less than minimum wage (farmers and Zimbabwean workers denied this).
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.
In July 2012 there were new attacks in parts of Cape Town and in Botshabelo in the Free State.
"Fortress South Africa"
South Africa's borders were re-militarised. 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."
Attacks in 2013–19
Attacks against Somali entrepreneurs
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.
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. The attacks led to public outcry and worldwide protests by the Somali diaspora, in Cape Town, London and Minneapolis.
South African Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane expressed the government's "strongest condemnation" of the violence which had seen looting and the death of a Somali shopkeeper. Somali Prime Minister Abdi Farah Shirdon 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.
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.
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.
April 2015 attacks
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 was accused of aggravating the attacks by saying that foreigners should "go back to their countries".
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. More than 300 people were arrested. On 18 April 2015, a photographer from the Sunday Times, James Oatway, photographed a brutal attack on a Mozambican man. The man, Emmanuel Sithole, died from his wounds. Four suspects were arrested within days of the publication of photographs in the edition of 19 April of The Sunday Times of the murder of Mozambican street vendor Emmanuel Sithole in Alexandra township the previous day. Sithole's name was 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.
Despite the government's insistence that Sithole's murder was not xenophobic, the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) was deployed in Alexandra township following the publication of the images. 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.
October 2015 attacks
In October 2015 there were sustained xenophobic attacks in Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape. It as reported that more than 500 people were displaced and more than 300 shops and homes looted and, in some cases, destroyed altogether. In these attacks Muslims were specifically targeted.
The attacks were instigated by the taxi drivers' protests, where the drivers' were protesting over the terrible state of roads, the rise in crime and rumours of murders committed by foreigners. Their demands were that the mayor ought to do something about their grievances. Their grievances were not addressed by the mayor.
On 21 October 2015 taxi drivers attacked spaza shops owned by Pakistani, Somali, Bangladeshi and Ethiopian residents of Grahamstown. There was a mobilisation of people by the taxi drivers, with the aim of attacking and looting shops owned by foreigners. There was a rumour that insinuated that foreigners were responsible for the rampant murders in town: that an "Arab man had killed and mutilated women" around town and that the police had not done anything to address these rumours. Grahamstown residents in the townships were angry at the police for not doing anything to dispel the rumours, despite having been warned by the councillors that the residents might end up taking the law into their own hands. Thus, it was these rumours that incited the attacks on foreigners.
On 23 October, the Makana Municipality held a town meeting at City Hall. The meeting was focused on how the municipality and the South African police would pacify the residents and address the situation. During that meeting, there was no representative from the police and one of the ward councillors further legitimized the attacks through xenophobic sentiments centred on not giving foreigners a platform to have their own shops. The attacks continued, with taxi drivers transporting looters for free, according to the residents of Grahamstown.
Reports from the residents alleged that the police's attitudes were that of indifference, with some participating in the looting. The policing of the attacks was elitist as there was a line on Beaufort street which pointed out where looting would be tolerated and where it would not be. Thus, looting was allowed in the township and not tolerated in town. The police only pacified the situation and restored order after a week of attacks and looting. The xenophobic attacks in Grahamstown differed from the usual xenophobic attacks in South Africa as the ones in Grahamstown were mostly targeted at Muslims. The main reason why Muslims were targeted was mainly due to the rumour that an Arab man was responsible for the murder of women in the town.
2016 Tshwane riots
From 20–23 June 2016 a wave of riots hit the City of Tshwane. Although the riots were sparked by political discontent within the ANC, Somali, Pakistani and other foreign owned shops and micro enterprises were targeted for looting and a number of foreigners were attacked.
2017 Anti-immigration Protest
On Friday 24 February 2017 a large scale and officially sanctioned anti-immigrant protest was organised and held in the Pretoria. Protesters marched to the Foreign Ministry and handed a petition to government representatives. Protesters accused immigrants of taking jobs from South Africans, causing crime, and complained that "[t]hey are arrogant and they don't know how to talk to people, especially Nigerians." 136 protesters were arrested during the march.
2019 Durban riots
On 25 March 2019 xenophobic riots targeting African immigrants broke out in Sydenham, Jadhu Place and Overport areas of Durban. Around one hundred people attacked businesses owned by foreign nationals resulting in around 50 people seeking shelter in a local police station and mosque. Three people were killed in the riot. A speech given by President Cyril Ramaphosa at the ANC's election manifesto for the 2019 South African general election was blamed for contributing to xenophobic feeling wherein Ramaphosa committed to cracking down on undocumented foreigners involved in criminal activities. The attacks on foreigners was criticised by both the South African government and political parties amidst calls to ensure that xenophobic sentiment was not exploited for electoral purposes.
2019 Johannesburg riots
On 1 September 2019, riots and looting targeting shops owned by foreign nationals broke out in Jeppestown and Johannesburg CBD following the death of a taxi driver. By 3 September, police had made 189 arrests for looting. Around 50 businesses predominantly owned by Nigerians from the rest of the continent were reportedly destroyed or damaged during the incident. The riots coincided with a nation-wide truck driver strike protesting against the employment of non-South African truckers. In September 2019, 640 Nigerians signed up to take free flights to Nigeria amidst attacks on foreigners.  The riots led to a sit-in protest in Greenmarket Square, Cape Town by refugees demanding to be relocated to a third country outside of South Africa and other than their country of origin.
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 marginalisation under apartheid. "They cannot barricade themselves in and not share their practices with local business owners," Zulu said. The comments were met with widespread criticism.
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.
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 in highly trafficked pedestrian areas, they open early and close late and have a wider product range.
The South African Broadcasting Corporation conducted an interview with social media analyst Preetesh Sewraj which warned of the impact of fake news stories which were being used to create panic amongst South Africans.
In 2020 the Gauteng Provincial government controversially proposed Gauteng Township Economic Development Bill which seeks to prevent businesses operated by foreign nationals without official South African residency from operating businesses in the province's informal economy. Supporters of the bill state that it will reduce xenophobia by clearing up regulatory regimes that foreigners are accused of regularly violating whilst detractors of the bill state that its explicit targeting of foreigners is itself xenophobic and legitimises xenophobia.
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