Academic journal article Strategic Review for Southern Africa

Locals Only: Understanding Xenophobia in South Africa

Academic journal article Strategic Review for Southern Africa

Locals Only: Understanding Xenophobia in South Africa

Article excerpt


Since the transition to democracy in 1994, South Africa has experienced an increase in xenophobia. The May 2008 xenophobic attacks, as well as evidence of renewed threats of violence in Gauteng and the Western Cape illustrates that hostility to foreigners is a prevalent issue in South African society. A history of exclusion, poor service delivery by local governments, slow development and an increase in poverty and inequality, an unwiltingness to acknowledge the political and humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe, and, in particular, South Africa's closed-door migration policies have provided a breeding ground for xenophobia. South Africa's political and economic progress will continue to attract immigrants and this challenge needs to be addressed with a properly managed immigration policy for the betterment of both South Africa and the region.


Since the transition to democracy in 1994, South Africa has experienced an increase in xenophobic attacks, including both verbal and non-verbal abuse, harassment, as well as the destruction of foreigners' homes and businesses. In May 2008, these attacks became especially violent, and for the first time since the apartheid era, the police needed assistance from armed forces to quell the violence. The violent attacks started in Alexandra, a residential township in Johannesburg, before spreading across Gauteng and then throughout the country. Approximately 62 people lost their lives, 670 were injured, dozens were raped and about 100 000 people were displaced (Landau 2009: 2). Two thirds of those killed were foreigners, while the others were South Africans who had either married foreigners, refused to take part in the violence, or were born in Mpumalanga or Limpopo (Landau 2009; Matzopoulos et al 2009: 2). Thus the insider/outsider dichotomy expanded beyond foreign nationals to other 'outsiders' in communities, for example those who spoke a minority language (Shangaan and Venda-speakers) or came from a different province (Polzer 2010: 9). For example, your safety was determined by whether you could answer the interrogative 'yini le?!'--'what is this?!' while pointing to a part of the body and requiring the correct isiZulu response (Everatt 2011: 8). Thus pointing to a general intolerance of the 'other' and highlighting a much broader concern for this rainbow nation.

The xenophobic attacks which have taken place, mostly targeting immigrant workers and asylum seekers from the African continent, illustrates that hostility to foreigners and 'outsiders' is a prevalent issue in the South African society (UNHCR 2010). According to a World Values Survey on Attitudes to Immigration and subsequent research conducted by the Southern African Migration Project (SAMP) South Africans hold the most hostile views of immigrants in comparison to 29 nations (Crush and Pendleton 2004; Philip 2008). This has motivated many discussions concerning the reasons for the prevalence of xenophobic attitudes and the violence, the suitability of the government's response, and the need for improved immigration policies (McKinight 2008:19). Evidence of renewed xenophobia in the Western Cape (Ntshingila 2010) and threats of violence targeting foreign shop owners in Gauteng (Gauteng DLGH 2011)illustrates that these issues have not yet been resolved and require proper investigation.

Understanding the underlying reasons for the widespread xenophobia in South Africa is crucial, on a micro-level, to ensure that future attacks are prevented, and, on a macro-level, to ensure that the basic tenets of regional cooperation are met, namely tolerance and acceptance of other people. Xenophobic attitudes and actions are counter to the Southern African Development Community's (SADC) aims of regional cooperation and development and its Draft Protocol on the Facilitation of Movement of Persons, to which South Africa is a signatory. This paper will first present the current migration trends in South Africa, as well as an overview of the xenophobic attacks in the country. …

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