South Africa has become stricken with xenophobic violence against foreign nationals. Xenophobic attacks have taken place across South Africa for over two decades, reports beginning in 1994 in districts and provinces such Western Cape, Free State, Limpopop, Gauteng and KwaZulu Natal.
There has been much speculation and many assumptions made as to what causes this violence and triggers these attacks. A vast number of reports managed to highlight issues that contributed to xenophobia, many of which suggested there was competition over resources and poor service delivery.
When it comes to the individual communities, the leaders of these communities may be to blame or have some influence over whether or not xenophobic attacks occur in their areas. This translates to issues in governance.
Not only is this the issue of foreign nationals who currently reside in South Africa and their infringed rights but this concerns the safety of everybody who lives in South Africa. The large majority of the incidents that have taken place have be caused by members of the black South African community.
Many foreigners are drawn in to live in South Africa for a number of various reasons. These reasons include South Africa’s reputation as democratic, free-living, developing country and has, for many decades, been a hub of employment for foreign nationals, dating all the way back to the days of diamond and gold mining industries.
The exact number of immigrants and foreign nationals now living in South Africa can only be estimated but recent statistical data shows that as many as 1.9 million could be living in the South Africa region. This makes up a huge 3.7% of the population. This figure is more than anywhere in the world.
On the other hand, some research departments, such as the Institute of Race Relations in South Africa believes there may be as many as 3-5 million immigrants currently residing in the country. This figure is extremely close to the number of entire white population of South Africa.
When looking at the data comparing what type of person and what nationality these people that are attacked, are, many will agree that South Africa is the most xenophobic country in the world.
With ever-increasing rates of immigration, there has be an uprising in the number of challenges that officials and government has had to face. This includes the interruption of basic services due to an increase in service users, increasing crime rates, high rates of unemployment, a rise in HIV and AIDS cases and a continually decline in effective social services.
Public officials in South Africa have not contributed to the settling of these xenophobia as many sectors and members of state, such as the South African Police Department and the Department of Home Affairs have both publicly announced their xenophobic expressions towards foreigners and immigrants.
Due to this ever increasing fear or intolerance of non-national people, physical and verbal attacks, in particular on African migrants, have occurred over the last few years.
Yet, for cases such as this, using the term xenophobia doesn’t do the situation justice.
As with all previous cases of xenophobia, xenophobia in South Africa stems from a entire history that is founded hatred of foreigners and is full of contributing factors as why there is so much violence towards non-nationals.
Government involvement is absolutely necessary in combatting this increasing epidemic. It’s vital that foreigners are protected in their everyday lives and during events such as elections. On top of this, it’s crucial that the government no longer turns a blind eye to the election of local and district leaders that have, hold or spread xenophobic statements.
It’s an extremely common xenophobic rumour that the ever-present, high rate of crime and violence in South Africa including; drug trafficking, sale and transport of illegal firearms and armed robbery is all caused by the increase in immigrants. This a belief that is held widely throughout South Africa.
A recent study shows that the majority of nationals in South Africa are extremely intolerant of non-nationals, in particular, non African nationals. To compliment these statistics, a recent national public survey found that South Africans are technically classed as being ‘exceptionally xenophobic’.
The results went on to show that 25% of the South Africans interviewed wanted a total ban on immigration all together and another 45% of people interviewed supported the idea of strict limited and regulations on the number of immigrants allowed into the country.
In the same survey, over 50% of people interviewed were completely against giving immigrants that same access to housing as African nationals have and just over 60% wholeheartedly believed that immigrants were causing strain on the economy. Breaking down the results further, 65% of the black interviewees stated they would be ‘likely’ or ‘very likely’ to take action against non-nationals starting a business in their area of residence.
The dictionary definition of xenophobia is;
The fear and/or hatred of strangers, foreigners and of anything different or foreign
There are a wide large of people, including scholars, that have consistently argued that this definition of the term is too loose and too simple for such a complicated concept. The concept of xenophobia must include the factors of violence and physical or verbal abuse.
Jody Kollapan, a former Chairperson of South Africa’s Human Rights Commission stated as far back as 1999 that the term xenophobia must embody action and/or practise and cannot and should not merely be defined as an attitude.
In this statement, it is suggested that xenophobia goes beyond dislike and fear and there must be an act of violence that in turn causes damage to a person or property. Furthermore, the concept of xenophobia should be redefined to include a specific target. This could be an individual or a group who suffer from the result of the fear or hatred and are victims to the acts of violence.
To grasp a better perspective of the xenophobic issues that plague South Africa, it’s important that you find the root of the cause, usually found in historical facts. This can be found by referring back to historical accounts of the foreigners as they came to the country.
Over many decades, South Africa has always seen an influx of immigrants. These came in the form of migrant workers or refugees. There are records of immigration dating back to the early 1980s but xenophobic incidences against foreign migrants, in particularly, African migrants, only date back to 1994. Since 1994, there has been an increasing amount of evidence that xenophobic attitudes are becoming more and more widespread in South Africa.
Victims of xenophobic attacks are usually verbally abused and called names that can make the individual feel intimidated. In a 2008 study, conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council, they managed to find two predominate patterns which could help explain the xenophobic culture of South Africa.
Firstly, the researchers discovered that the violence and abuse was mainly directed at African nationals who had migrated to the country, not foreigners as a whole. Secondly, xenophobic violence was mainly taking place in the more urban parts of South Africa, in the larger informal settlements in some of the major cities.
Over the course of time, there have been many incidents of violence in these areas including the districts of Alexandra and Cape Town. Although their have been a number of small, isolated incidents recorded, looking back at May 2008, xenophobic attacks on foreigners consumed entire cities and towns for a matter of weeks.
In this situation, violence had begun in Alexandra, a city just north of Johannesburg. The events unfolded as a meeting went underway to discuss the tensions between the communities living in the area. These communities were divided as foreigners and nationals. As the violence erupted, it spread throughout the city where word soon spread to other cities across South Africa, provoking violence across the country.
During this time of tension, over 60 deaths were reported, 21 of which were South African, and over 100,000 were evacuated from their homes. Property worth millions of Rand was also looted during this time.
The Theory Behind Xenophobia In South Africa
Various people, including scholars and educators have tried time and time again to place xenophobia into context for people of South Africa and the rest of the world. One renowned theory behind xenophobia is the scapegoat theory.
In this theory, xenophobia is placed into the context of change and social transition. The rejection and hostility that foreigners face throughout South Africa is directly related to the limited amount of resources available. These resources include, but is not limited to, access to education, access to housing, access to healthcare services and employment opportunities.
There is a widespread assumption that every job that employs a foreign national results in one less job for a national South African, which is displayed using current unemployment statistics. Despite these figures, there is no direct link or solid evidence that supports these assumptions and claims. In some cases, it has actually be proven that some fields of migrant work actually increases employment opportunities for South Africans.
In addition to this, a vast majority of foreign nationals seek shelter and housing in some of the more informal urban settlements found throughout South Africa. These are usually defined as areas with high levels of poverty, high unemployment rates and shortages of housing. As a result of this, competition over these resources can become quite intense.
This quite easily explains why black foreign nationals are taking the blame and have become the scapegoat for this increasingly dangerous situation. These groups of people have become the reason, in the minds of many South African nationals, why there is so much unemployment and increasing poverty in the country.
In the minds of these nationals, immigrants are portrayed as opportunists who have come to take the jobs and services away from the people who rightfully live in the country and have only come to the country for economic benefit.
There is also a second theory that might explain the xenophobic attitudes of people living in South Africa. This theory is based on the ideas of isolation. In this theory, xenophobia is portrayed as one of the consequences of the apartheid that occurred throughout South Africa.
From these historical events, when South Africa was given its freedom in 1994, there has always been a sense that South African nationals should hate and reject any outsiders coming into the country, maybe from fear of being persecuted again?
Taking this history into consideration, it’s completely understandable that the country should be placing its citizens at the heart of every decision it makes. This means when it comes to resources such as housing or jobs, the people feel as though the government should be putting them at the top of these lists.
However, due to the closed-door migration policies that exist, slow progress in region development and a constant increase in poverty and inequality issues, xenophobia has becoming increasingly more widespread across these affected areas.
Following on from these events, the democratic movement that occurred in South Africa after this period of time resulted in more issues. The Refugee Act took over four years to draft up and a further eight years to negotiate the terms. During this time, tensions grew and the entire concept of migration was rejected and opposed by many South African nationals.
Nonetheless, despite the tensions between foreigners and nationals, the changes and transitions that occurred in Africa at this time resulted in South Africa’s borders remaining open and the country, over time, became connected and more integrated into the international world. A direct result of this was South African people coming into direct contact with foreigners from all over the world.
The result of this was another increase in hostility towards foreigners and was further increased due to the lack of knowledge that South African people had on the plights of Africans from other countries. A failure to show empathy resulted in even more hatred and violence.
It’s always worth mentioning that South Africa and its nationals received vast amounts of support from other countries in South Africa during the apartheid era. Assistance during these times came in the form of elitists who fought for freedom and by individuals and groups of people who became exiled due to the apartheid agendas.
Due to a lack of education, a large amount of South Africans are unknowledgable about such contributions that were made during these years, once again contributing to the isolation theory. There is some speculation that South Africans are still in the process of leaving the apartheid mindset behind them and requires more time until balance and acceptance is restored to the country.
It’s so important to remember that the apartheid had a overwhelming influence on what has become today’s South Africa. It wasn’t until 1993 that South Africa began to recognize refugees. It was only during the transition period between the apartheid and the democratic era that now exists that South Africa became a member of the UN and started to focus and invest in projects related to refugees. This once again contributes to xenophobia.
Finally, there is one last theory that exists to explain xenophobia’s presence in South Africa. This is referred to as the bio-cultural hypothesis. In this theory, it’s highly suggested that violence related to xenophobia is not applied to all foreigners equally.
In the South African situation, communities of black foreigners are at a much higher risk of becoming victims of violence compared to other foreign racial groups. Moreover, similar to the first theory, it’s these communities that are taking the blame for using up precious resources such as housing and access to education and health care services.
This hypotheses explains how and why the presence violence is targeting black communities and even other South Africans who have been believed to be foreign due to aspects such as speech, accent or skin colour. As mentioned before, 21 South Africans were killed during the 2008 attacks.
How Politics Contribute To Xenophobia
Whilst the theories mentioned above do place the sources of xenophobia into context, there is still the matter of discussing why xenophobic attacks are present in some areas of the country and not in others.
If you looked deeper into the figures, the majority of violent attacks that have occurred on non-national citizens have always been caused by the politics present in these areas. Local political leaders have been renowned for organising and even leading violent attacks on foreign migrants. They do this to gain the trust, power and authority over an area or district.
Furthermore, with the increase in unpopularity towards non-nationals throughout South Africa, local democratic leaders have felt the need to exclude and push away foreigners and non-nationals from political participation.
Stemming from this constant fear, some leaders have even been known to promote violent exercises against foreigners, hoping to secure their authority in the districts. These attacks are usually very successful.
Back in 2009, the South African newspaper, Mail and Guardian, drew focus to a recent study that as conducted by the Office for Migration. In this study, it was revealed that the leaders and local governments in a vast number of areas in South Africa had done absolutely nothing to stop and even try and prevent the violence that was being imposed on foreigners.
Following on from this, the study went on to say that in some cases, these leaders and local governments were actually involved directly in some of the attacks. Where participation didn’t occur, the rest of the local authority members did nothing to assist the foreigners and non-nationals during these times, usually out of fear of losing their positions, especially during the 2009 elections.
In order to gain votes, even national leaders have been known for expressing anti-immigration statements, a technique used to gain more votes. In addition to this corruption from political leaders who have almost certainly contributed to the xenophobic behaviours, there have even been documented incidences where migrants have become targets to violence in the hands of the police force, military forces and even the department of Home Affairs.
As proof of this statement, in 2008, the former minister for Home Affairs, Mangosuthu Buthelezi had publicly stated;
“If South Africans are going to compete for scarce resources with immigrants, then we can bid goodbye to our Reconstruction and Development Program”
This kind of corruption and misuse in power and expressive use of prejudice speech has massively contributed to the xenophobic attitude present in South Africa and can be directly linked to the widespread attacks that took place as a consequence.
Throughout the country, there has always been the tendency to blame the apartheid for the xenophobic opinions of the citizens and while it may be a contributing factor, it is clear that it is not the sole reason.
The extremely high levels of unemployment among black South Africans is wholeheartedly a cause of concern and authorities should prioritize this issue as it would help to eliminate a lot of the tension.
South Africans must remember that no matter what the cause for this present xenophobic tendencies that things time take to process. Whether it’s the changing of a law or policy or a new initiative, it takes to implement into society and takes time to see the effects.
There needs to be some creative thinking when it comes to new polices that recognise and address issues regarding migration and knowledge about the matter needs to be spread across the country. Government leaders, local democrats and departments such as the Home Affairs office need to be proactive in addressing the issues and not fear of losing votes or power.
The government has the right, responsibility and the power to provide safety and protection for all citizens and residents in their districts and across the country, including non-nationals and refugees.