Exploring the roots of South Africa’s xenophobia

By 'Tofe Ayeni
Posted on Monday, 8 August 2022 12:13, updated on Tuesday, 9 August 2022 11:18

Refugees protest against xenophobia as they gather around the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) offices, requesting the agency to send them to safer countries, in Cape Town, South Africa, October 18, 2019. REUTERS/Sumaya Hisham

Xenophobia in South Africa, particularly against other Africans, periodically becomes the forefront of international news. Does it disappear at times or simply become a backburner issue in the news? How did it start?

Jason Njoku, Nigerian businessman and co-founder/CEO of video-on-demand service for Nigerian movies iROKOtv, was recently stopped and questioned by policemen in South Africa. His Uber was stopped on the way to the airport in Johannesburg and they asked him which African country he was from.

Finding out he was Nigerian, they carried out a thorough search. “When they saw my dozens of SIM cards and several phones they were 100% convinced I was into cybercrime. Apparently, it’s illegal to have so many SIM cards,” he says.

After trying and failing to convince police that he was a product manager testing different mobile money services across Africa, he says: “I literally had to force them to Google me to see I wasn’t up to anything nefarious. I wonder what story I would have told if I didn’t have that option.”

Njoku is fortunate enough to be well-known and therefore findable on Google. Others are not so lucky as Achiume, Tidal-Binz, and Morales, special rapporteurs at the UN say: “Xenophobia is often explicitly racialised, targeting low-income black migrants and refugees and, in some cases, South African citizens accused of being ‘too black to be South African’.”

However, for a Nigerian finance professional who has lived in South Africa for decades, who asks to remain anonymous due to “the emotive and sensitive topic”: “I haven’t personally experienced xenophobia. In fact, the opposite has been true and I have been treated first and foremost as a fellow African.”

It saddens and angers me to see the rising hatred of foreigners. We cannot blame other people for our troubles.

A black South African journalist explains more behind this different experience: “Affluent areas […] are mostly unscathed by xenophobia. Fellow Africans who are professionals do not necessarily encounter the brute force of community violence meted out to those living in townships without documentation.”

When did it start?

Xenophobia in South Africa can be traced back to the 1990s, during apartheid, when the nation’s black people were facing high levels of oppression.

When Nelson Mandela became president, his African National Congress (ANC) party – many of whose fugitive leaders had been sheltered in other countries across the continent during apartheid – took in Africans fleeing from war in countries, such as the Republic of Congo and Somalia. His government made it easier for other Africans to work and settle in South Africa.

In the 1990s, xenophobic locals attacked immigrants in poor urban areas, such as Alexandra in Johannesburg, prompting Mandela to say in 1995: “It saddens and angers me to see the rising hatred of foreigners. We cannot blame other people for our troubles.”

Our finance professional admits that although she has not been a victim, xenophobia is real and rampant in the country.

Asked where it originated from, she tells The Africa Report: “Apartheid was real and black people suffered and were denied opportunities. Black economic legislation was put in place to address this, but was abused by many companies. Many employed non-South African Africans in senior positions and what you found was that many  jobs were seen as being taken not by people who had suffered apartheid, but by outsiders…”

Our South African journalist, who agrees to an extent, says: “Xenophobia is most pronounced in townships … Fellow Africans who live in townships tend to compete for scarce jobs, such as labourers, domestic helps, waiters and the like, with poor South Africans. These fellow Africans face the brunt of xenophobic violence.”

Most prominent attacks

In 2008, violence against foreigners killed over 60 people and displaced at least 100,000. Our South African journalist cites a “political dimension to the problem” saying that the 2008 attacks happened “a year after the ruling party [ANC] had a change in leadership and a year before a general election”.

She says: “In recent history, periods of political change, in particular the build-up, are accompanied by sporadic acts of violence in South Africa fuelled by populist rhetoric.”

In September 2019, local Nigerian airline Air Peace volunteered to fly people from South Africa to Lagos for free, following a wave of deadly xenophobic attacks. Over 600 Nigerian citizens returned home after over 1,000 foreign-owned businesses were vandalised in Pretoria and Johannesburg, leading to the deaths of at least 12 people. Apart from Nigerians, Ethiopians, Congolese and Zimbabweans were also targeted.

Operation Dudula

Operation Dudula led its first march through Soweto on 16 June 2021. The movement describes itself as a pro-South African patriotic organisation and aims at expelling immigrants from the country. Members believe that South Africa needs better border control and stronger immigration laws.

“The emergence of Dudula coincides with an elective congress year for the country’s governing party, the ANC. Most of the elements within Dudula are part of South Africa’s urban poor … There are, however, opposition parties which are sympathetic to Dudula’s anti-foreigner sentiments – not necessarily its violent tactics,” says our journalist source.

Reasons behind xenophobia

A group of independent UN human rights experts believe that “anti-migrant discourse from senior government officials has fanned the flames of violence, and government actors have failed to prevent further violence or hold perpetrators accountable”.

Our finance professional cites another reason, saying: “The more exposed Africans like Nigerians came in and basically spent lots of money luring South African women [also for passport purposes, etc.] creating a level of resentment among the men and among society in general.”

She says: “The general sense is that people had fought for freedom over a long time but hadn’t reaped the benefits. Instead, foreigners from other countries were the ones advancing.”

South African immigration laws make it relatively easy for refugees and asylum-seekers to enter from around the continent, prompting violence in poor urban areas as they are usually only able to get jobs that working-class South Africans are already competing for.

Today, xenophobic attacks remain frequent, though to varying degrees. They have not stopped or slowed down in recent years, but simply taken a backburner in global news.

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