South Africa’s new scapegoats

In the land that ended apartheid two decades ago, violence against other Africans has been on the rise. What has gone wrong and what is to be done?

Arnold Wehmhoerner
22 April 2015

A Mozambiquan casual bricklayer without papers, living in a camp with hundreds of others displaced by xenophobia near Johannesburg. Demotix / Antonella Ragazzoni. All rights reserved.

In April 2015 another wave of xenophobic violence swept over South Africa. Starting in Durban, the attacks on foreigners spread to suburbs in Johannesburg and to Cala in the eastern Cape. Between six and 15 people were killed. Thousands fled to makeshift camps and Zimbabwe and Mozambique sent buses to evacuate their citizens.

The violence started after a speech on 21 March by the Zulu king, Goodwill Zwethilini, in which he invited “foreign nationals to pack their belongings and to go back to their countries”. He claims to have been misquoted and refuses to apologise.

The president, Jacob Zuma, condemned the attacks and assured neighbouring states that South Africa would do everything possible to control the situation. But, with an eye to local elections in 2016, he and other leaders of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) stopped short of criticising the king. On 19 April, in front of thousands in a Durban stadium, the king finally called for peace.  

The situation in South Africa is different from that in Europe. The European Union is separated from Africa by the Mediterranean, making it difficult for asylum-seekers and economic migrants to enter—albeit, out of desperation, many lose their lives trying to cross this natural barrier. South Africa has a land border of 4,862km, attracting migrants from the poor southern and central African states in their thousands every month.

The United Nations Population Division lists 2.4m migrants in South Africa in its 2013 global dataset. But this does not include undocumented migrants, which a Wikipedia entry estimates at 5m-8m. Some 1.5m-2m migrants are estimated to have come from Zimbabwe alone.

After the collapse of apartheid, South Africa promulgated very progressive asylum laws: essentially the state cannot deny any migrant the claim and temporary status of an asylum-seeker, which includes the right to work. The liberal approach was supported by the ANC elite: when the organisation was banned they experienced the positive side of political refugee status during exile in countries like Zambia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Mozambique. In February, however, the home affairs minister, Naledi Pandor, complained that “economic migrants are abusing the (act) in order to have status in South Africa”.

Since migrants live in townships and informal settlements, they are face to face with the poorest of South African society—most of the latter internal migrants, who have moved from the rural former homelands into the cities. This creates tense situations which have exploded into fatal clashes.

Monthly attacks

The first such outbreak before 2015 happened during two weeks in May 2008, when 62 people were killed. Jean Pieree Misago from the African Centre for Migration and Society has been tracking xenophobic attacks since then. He says that almost every month there has been at least one attack on foreigners and it is estimated that 357 have been killed over the past seven years.

A study by the South African Human Rights Commission found that 597 court cases were opened after the 2008 clashes. Yet a year and a half later only 16% had resulted in a guilty verdict—nearly all of these for theft and assault, and with the option to pay a fine rather than face jail.

During the recent attacks on foreigners in Johannesburg, a Mozambican was stabbed to death in front of Sunday Times photographers. The murderers did not try to hide their faces. The fact that perpetrators enjoy so much impunity sends the message that culprits have nothing to fear. Migrants thus lose trust in the justice system and prefer not to report their cases.


The recent violence reopened a debate in South Africa on whether this was xenophobic or criminal behaviour. Foreign shops, mostly operated by Somalis, are important for the daily supply of goods in townships. They are doing well and have displaced most of the original ‘mom-and-pop’ shops run by South Africans. In foreigner-run shops the prices of most items (rice, maize flour, milk, sugar, eggs, and cigarettes) have been found to be slightly cheaper. Yet Soweto Business Access, an umbrella body for small businesses, has opposed the reopening of foreign shops, looted during the violence, because the interests of South Africans “must be prioritised”—foreign entrepreneurs are supposedly “not ploughing money back into the township economy” and “being rude and not paying taxes”.

The situation in South Africa is different from that in Europe.

One commentary even suggested that “the very presence of thriving Somali shop owners insults unsuccessful, impoverished township dwellers” and that “envy breeds resentment”. Yet the looters were reportedly more opportunist than ‘impoverished’: air-time vouchers were particularly favoured and it seems most just seized the chance to grab handfuls of free goods. The acts were committed in broad daylight, sometimes in the presence of journalists and with police not far away.

Two factors seem of importance: the climate of impunity when committing acts against foreigners and a township environment in which public violence is highly permissible. Civil society in townships has learned, for example, that service-delivery protests only grab the attention of authorities if demonstrations become violent—it is estimated that there are roughly 300 incidents of community protests a year and at least 43 protesters have been killed by the police in this context in the last ten years. It is thus to be expected that foreigners will continue to fall victim to violence too.


On a longer view, in the two decades since the end of apartheid, South Africa has absorbed, largely peacefully, migrants comprising more than 10% of its 50m population. In such a situation many other societies would have developed outright xenophobia. The liberal climate in the multi-ethnic townships and informal settlements contributed to the integration of migrants.

So why is this positive model collapsing? Observers believe disappointment at the slow progress in public wellbeing, given the overly-high expectations raised post-apartheid, has led to frustration and anger now directed against foreigners—instead of questioning the performance and quality of South Africa’s own leaders.     

The liberal asylum legislation of democratic South Africa is a valuable achievement and South Africa is a good neighbour to Zimbabwe, allowing thousands of Zimbabweans to legalise their status and extend their work permits. This policy is not well received by everybody in a situation of high unemployment. But any criticism directed at the government should be for supporting the dictatorial Mugabe regime—the main cause of the exodus of so many Zimbabweans, who would prefer to go home if conditions there would improve.

For South Africa, with its open borders, it is impossible to control the influx of migrants from the poor neighbouring countries to its north and east. South Africa does not have enough jobs for its own population and it cannot provide decent sanitation, enough clean water and electricity for its townships. But toughening of asylum and immigration laws would not prevent illegal border crossings—rather, it would only harm those who really need asylum and deter skilled immigrants the country requires.

South Africa needs to do more to punish perpetrators of violence against foreigners. An impression is left that such violence is condoned in the hope that it deters further migrants. The liberal Mail and Guardian commented that “representatives of the government and the ruling party have spoken with forked tongues on the issue, tut-tutting about violence while expressing a measure of understanding for the attacks”. The newspaper called for a national platform from which all leaders would unequivocal condemn xenophobic outrages.

President Zuma did condemn the atrocities and he announced a series of consultative meetings to discuss a new migration policy, but he stopped short of concrete measures. Indeed, the pronouncements of South African politicians sound as helpless as those of European politicians on the recent tragedies in the Mediterranean.

Both are caught between deterring migration by the poor and dealing humanely with its consequences.

Like us on Facebook to follow the latest openSecurity articles, and tell the editors what we should publish next

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData