Xenophobia: South Africa's Dark Side

Locals run with items from a shop in Soweto, South Africa, Jan. 22. Local media reported that violence broke out Jan. 19 after a 14-year-old South African was allegedly shot dead by a foreign shop owner (CNS photo/Siphiwe Sibeko, Reuters).

In recent weeks South Africans have once again witnessed xenophobic violence. The violence broke out after a Somali shop owner in Soweto shot a 14-year old local dead. The shop owner claims that the boy, part of a gang of youths, was trying to steal from him. One of the youths dropped a gun in the process of breaking into his shop; he picked up the gun and fired at them killing the boy. This shooting gave rise to violent reprisals and the looting of foreign owned shops in Soweto. Attacks on foreign nationals have now spread to other areas of the province. Politicians and civil authorities, like the police, deny that the violence is motivated by xenophobia; they have labelled it the acts of “some criminal elements.” However, many organizations (including Jesuit Refugee Service) would challenge this. Over 340 foreign owned shops were systematically looted—this is not simply coincidence.

What is not reported in the headlines is that every year since 2008 (2009 being the only exception) many people have died in xenophobic attacks in South Africa. In 2008 there were widespread attacks on foreign nationals, which resulted in more than 60 people being killed and hundreds being displaced. In 2013 alone some 240 refugees were killed in this country—some in the most gruesome circumstances. Many South Africans feel threatened by the presence of foreigners and have been manipulated to believe that foreign nationals take their jobs. In a country with a high unemployment rate (estimated to be about 25.2 percent in 2013) it is not hard to understand how this kind of violence can be fuelled.


David Holdcroft, S.J., (Director of JRS in Southern Africa) says, “Xenophobia appears to be a well-established part of the South African landscape.” He can recount numerous stories from his work with displaced people that suggest xenophobia is, alas, deeply engrained in South African society.

It is unfortunate that South Africans seem to have such short memories. In the apartheid era many South Africans enjoyed the hospitality of nations all over Africa and, indeed, the world. Foreigners who welcomed South African exiles sometimes risked their own well-being and security yet, despite this, supported the fight for freedom. In return for their hospitality, which spanned decades, South Africans have now robbed, looted, attacked and murdered their compatriots. Not only is this a travesty of the South African Constitution, it also contradicts the oft thrown around South Africanism of “Ubuntu”—“a person is a person through other people.”

Many South Africans believe that the country is “overrun” by foreigners but this is not true. Overall it is a low-ranking immigration country with 6 to 7 percent of its population foreign born, roughly four million people out of 54 million people. There is also a common belief the foreigners take local jobs. A mounting body of research from countries as varied as Uganda, Tanzania, Denmark and Australia, suggests however that refugees and immigrants often create jobs and benefit local economies.

Fr. Holdcroft says that some people would have you believe that South Africans are simply not hospitable people. He says, “Xenophobia has its roots somewhere else and it is important to understand this.”

Holdcroft believes that the real reasons for xenophobia lie in the realm of a lack of hope and vision in a society where many young people are entering adulthood with poor education, few prospects and little political voice. Young South Africans do not perceive that the political leadership really care or are listening to them. “The root causes of xenophobia lie in the great wealth disparity, and geographically defined social and economic exclusion of large portions of the community who do not experience the social compact that coheres a society into something meaningful for all its constituents. The lack of accountability to a local constituency is a particular feature of South Africa which must be addressed,” Holdcroft says.

It’s unfortunate that in the aftermath of the 2008 xenophobic attacks the South African government, under the leadership of Jacob Zuma, has remained mute. If government really wants to stop this scourge and takes the views of organizations like JRS seriously then they would, for example, embark upon a serious and systematic civic education campaign that ensures South Africans know the facts about the contribution that migrants make to host countries. They could tell stories of how they were welcomed and treated with hospitality in countries around the globe as they fought a system that stripped millions of South Africans of their dignity and thousands of their lives. Unfortunately, they have done little. What has happened is that more and more legal hurdles have been introduced to make it difficult for people wanting to enter South Africa—that’s about it.

The struggle against the forces of racism, the evil of forced poverty and scapegoating thrive and threaten South Africa’s social spectrum 20 years after democracy. It’s an unfortunate state of affairs but one that is not going to change in a hurry: there is, unfortunately, little political will to do so. 

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