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South Africa: Targeting Immigrants, Again

AfricaFocus Bulletin
March 6, 2017 (170306)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

"In the post-apartheid South Africa, resurgence of xenophobic violence is a symptom of the deep leadership deficit. For the fourth consecutive week now, South Africa is witnessing what many analysts call a "resurgence" of xenophobic violence in parts of Johannesburg and Pretoria, the country's capital city. The reality is that this type of violence is a daily occurrence in the country, although it does not always get media attention. It has, in fact, become a longstanding feature in post-apartheid South Africa." - Jean Pierre Misago, African Centre for Migration and Society, Johannesburg

South Africa is not unique in seeing a "resurgence" of antiimmigrant violence this year. As in many other countries, notably the United States and many European countries, this trend draws on widespread prejudice among substantial sectors of citizens against immigrants seen as criminal and job-takers. But it is also driven by official state policy which employs its own official bureaucratic violence, by the "leadership deficit" cited by Misago, and by even more massive and multifaceted anti-immigrant campaigns such as that currently being mobilized by the new U.S. administration.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains three short articles with news and analysis of the most recent events in South Africa, as well as links to other sources for deeper analysis.

Additional short articles and reports of related interest, including reactions from other African countries:

Omano Edigheji, "Xenophobia in South Africa and Nigeria," Sahara Reporters, February 26, 2017

Simon Allison, "South Africa has become the Bad Guy in Africa," Daily Maverick, February 26, 2017

Alexandra Hiropoulos, "Gauteng Xenophobic Attacks February 2017," Xenowatch, February 26, 2017

And for contemporary US parallels, see Anand Giridharadas, "A Murder in Trump's America," The Atlantic, February 28, 2017, at
On murders of immigrants, including the most recent shooting in Kansas.

Laila Lalami, "Donald Trump Is Making America White Again," The Nation, March 2, 2017
By Laila Lalami

Holland Carter, "For Migrants Headed North, the Things They Carried to the End," New York Times, March 3, 2017
Art exhibit on deadly results of U.S. immigration policy in desert on Mexican border, from Clinton through Obama

Emily Bazelon, "Department of Justification," New York Times Magazine, February 28, 2017
On the anti-immigrant agenda of Jeff Sessions, Stephen Bannon, and Donald Trump.

Additional sources on the anti-immigrant attitudes and the Trump election campaign can be found at

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on migration and related issues, visit

Of special interest is the 2014 article by Sisonke Msimang, "Belonging--why South Africans refuse to let Africa in," -

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++

Xenophobic violence in the 'Rainbow' nation

by Jean Pierre Misago

Al Jazeera, March 1, 2017

[Jean Pierre Misago is a researcher with the African Centre for Migration and Society at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa.]

[Text only. Original at link above contains additional links to many other sources.]

In the post-apartheid South Africa, resurgence of xenophobic violence is a symptom of the deep leadership deficit.

For the fourth consecutive week now, South Africa is witnessing what many analysts call a "resurgence" of xenophobic violence in parts of Johannesburg and Pretoria, the country's capital city.

The reality is that this type of violence is a daily occurrence in the country, although it does not always get media attention. It has, in fact, become a long-standing feature in post-apartheid South Africa.

Since 1994, tens of thousands of people have been harassed, attacked or killed because of their status as outsiders or foreign nationals.

Despite claims to the contrary by the government, violence against foreign nationals in South Africa did not end in June 2008 when the massive outbreak that started a month earlier subsided.

As the current incidents illustrate, hostility towards foreign nationals is still pervasive in the country and continues to result in more cases of murder, injuries, threats of mob violence, looting and the destruction of residential property and businesses, as well as mass displacement.

And yes, the violence is xenophobic (and not "just crime", as many in government prefer labelling it) because it is - as the scholar Belinda Dodson reminds us - "an explicit targeting of foreign nationals or outsiders for violent attacks despite other material, political, cultural or social forces that might be at play".

It is a hate crime whose logic goes beyond the often accompanying and misleading criminal opportunism. The real motive of the violence, as unambiguously expressed by the perpetrators themselves, is to drive foreign populations out of communities.

Xenophobic violence as a symptom of leadership deficit

A quick analytical look reveals that the drivers of ongoing xenophobic violence in South Africa, as well as the lack of effective response and preventive interventions, reflect a dreadful lack of competent, decisive and trusted leadership at all levels of government.

The drivers of xenophobic violence in South Africa are inevitably multiple and embedded in a complex interplay of the country's past and present structural - political, social and economic - factors.

Chief among underlying causal factors is obviously the prevailing anti-immigrant sentiment easily fuelled by political scapegoating. Political leaders and officials of the national, provincial and local government often blame foreign nationals for their systemic failures to deliver on the political promises and satisfy the citizenry's growing expectations.

Due to political scapegoating, many South African citizens perceive foreign nationals as a serious threat that needs to be eliminated by any means necessary. This perception is stronger among the majority of citizens living in poor townships and informal settlements where they meet and fiercely compete with equally poor African immigrants for scarce resources and opportunities.

The result is that local residents in these areas have become increasingly convinced that foreign nationals are to blame for all their socioeconomic ills and hardships including poverty, unemployment, poor service delivery, lack of business space and opportunities; crime; prostitution; drug and alcohol abuse; and deadly diseases.

By blaming foreign nationals for its failures to deliver on its core functions and responsibilities, the South African government is unfortunately displaying an obvious if sorry sign of weak and incompetent leadership.

The triggers of the violence paint an even more worrying picture of the leadership deficit in the "rainbow" nation. Indeed, the strong anti-immigrant sentiment alone cannot explain the occurrence of violence in some areas and not in others where such negative attitudes are equally strong.

Attitudes are not always a good predictor of behaviour. Rather ample research evidence indicates that the triggers of the violence are located in the "micropolitics" at play in many of country's towns townships and informal settlements.

Instigators and perpetrators of xenophobic violence are well known in their respective communities, but the de facto impunity they enjoy only means that they are likely - as they have in many cases - to strike again.

Violent attacks on foreign nationals are usually triggered by political mobilisation led by local economic and/or political players and informal community leadership groups (in the form of civic organisations, community policing forums, business associations, concerned residents' associations, etc) for their economic and political interests.

This violence is essentially "politics by other means". It has proved a useful tool for these local politicians to consolidate their power and community leadership monopoly needed to expand their client base and the economic revenues it represents.

These "violence entrepreneurs" capitalise on people's sentiments and frustrations and have no difficulty co-opting local residents for participation in the violence given the pervasive negative attitudes. Xenophobic violence is triggered by the mobilisation of the existing collective discontent.

With denialism and impunity, violence continues

It is common knowledge that the official South African government's response to xenophobia and related violence has been characterised by "denialism".

Such denialism is rooted in a discourse which labels all xenophobic violence as "just crime and not xenophobia", a categorisation that demands few specific and sustained interventions or policy changes.

Both President Jacob Zuma and Minister of Home Affairs Malusi Gigaba repeated the popular if infamous refrain this week.

Perhaps understandably, admitting the existence of a xenophobic citizenry is both ideologically and politically uncomfortable for the ruling African National Congress, which is now the custodian of the multiracial, multi-ethnic "rainbow" nation and sees itself as the champion of human rights and unity in diversity.

In addition to the lack of effective policy response, the government unwillingness to recognise xenophobia coupled with a general weak judicial system has also led to an alarming culture of impunity and lack of accountability for perpetrators and mandated institutions: foreign nationals have been repeatedly attacked in South Africa since 1994 but few perpetrators have been charged, even fewer convicted. In some instances, state agents have actively protected those accused of anti-foreigner violence.

Similarly, there have been no efforts to hold mandated institutions such as the police and the intelligence community accountable for their failure to prevent and stop violence despite visible warning signs.

As an example, government promises to set up special courts to enable quick prosecutions after the 2008 and 2015 violence never materialised.

Instigators and perpetrators of xenophobic violence are well known in their respective communities, but the de facto impunity they enjoy only means that they are likely - as they have in many cases - to strike again.

Unfortunately, the government's unwillingness to acknowledge that this violence is xenophobic and its failure to work on finding appropriate solutions are a sign of ineffective leadership. Without appropriate intervention violence will continue.

Black lives don't matter in xenophobic South Africa

Redi Tlhabi

Washington Post, March 2, 2017

Redi Tlhabi is a radio and television journalist from Johannesburg.

Last week was an ugly, humiliating one for South Africa; a country once considered a jewel of democracy on the African continent has been gripped by a wave of xenophobic violence. In a matter of days, more than 30 stores belonging to foreign nationals were shut down after intense attacks and looting by locals in several townships. We are breathing a sigh of relief that there has been no loss of life.

This is not the first time that foreigners have faced attacks in South Africa's townships and provinces. In 2008, the country's streets were ablaze, literally, with violence against foreigners. Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave, a national from Mozambique, was beaten, stabbed and set on fire in broad daylight. A police officer tried in vain to douse the flames, but it was too late. Nhamuave died. And there has been no justice for him. Sixty-two people, including South Africans, were killed at that time and more than 100,000 were displaced. Last year, more than 20 shops were looted in one area alone, and foreign nationals had to flee their homes.

On Friday, with the government's endorsement, citizens from Pretoria, the capital, marched against foreign nationals in an antiimmigrant protest. The government said that the march was an agitation against crime in South Africa, which has been endemic in this society for many years. Yet the protesters did not march to police headquarters; instead they went to the Home Affairs office, which is in charge of immigration in the country.

The xenophobic violence tends to have a racial element. Nigerians, Somalis, Malawians, Pakistanis and Zimbabweans are often the targets of this prejudice. Perhaps it reflects the complex truth about South Africa's xenophobia — that it is never just a rejection of a different identity but also a lament for the economic exclusion experienced by black South Africans, or all black Africans, for that matter. The acts of violence are specifically targeted at African and Asian migrants. White migrants are safe. They own businesses and property and generally go about their lives peacefully. They are seen as providers of work and capital, but black ones are seen as encroachments and threats. They are from the margins of our society, and even the language used to describe them — illegal immigrants, illegal aliens, outsiders — creates an "us and them" dynamic. They are dirty, they are criminals, they are drug peddlers — common accusations that are articulated boldly on radio and television.

It is surreal as we watch how here and in the United States, black lives really don't matter. Even in a majority black country, the government is not decisive or unequivocal in its condemnation, choosing instead to obfuscate and sanitize this xenophobia by calling it something else, such as "criminal acts." These are hate crimes, no different from the killing of Indian engineer Srinivas Kuchibhotla in the United States. The suspect reportedly asked him and a companion whether they had valid visas and shouted that they should "get out of my country." This sounds so familiar. Migrants in South Africa are constantly told to "go back home." We have not experienced random shootings by citizens, but rather a wellorchestrated, mass uprising by multitudes. And in this way, individuals escape personal responsibility for hate crimes.

Nelson Mandela, the founding father of our democracy, said: "South Africans must produce an actual South African reality that will reinforce humanity's belief in justice. … Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another."

We have failed. According to the Migration Policy Institute, South Africa displays one of the highest levels of xenophobia in the world. In the past decade, foreigners have been blamed for every malaise under the sun — "They are stealing our jobs," "committing crimes" and, of course, "taking our women." High levels of unemployment — especially youth unemployment, which averaged 51 percent between 2013 and 2016 — creates a fertile environment for foreign workers to be scapegoats, despite the fact that foreign-born migrants make up only 1.6 million of South Africa's population of about 55 million.

South Africans must remember the sagacity and generosity extended to us in our time of need. African countries took on South Africa's liberation movements when they were banned by apartheid. They provided a home and education for their families. Some of these governments provided financial help to the party that is in government in South Africa today. I am hoping that the divisions that colonialism and racism tried to engineer in our psyche will not prevail. I am hoping that citizens who endeavor to make their countries "great again" will not do so at the expense of basic decency and justice.

The awful politics of xenoophobia

by Stephen Grootes

Daily Maverick, February 27, 2017

South Africans have a certain reputation for public robustness. We fight, scream, and shout at each other, all in the name of deciding what would make for a better country. At times, though, this robustness threatens to derail us at a time when many people could be vulnerable to serious harm. On Friday in Pretoria, violence broke out during a march planned by people who were "opposed to illegal immigrants". The police struggled to maintain order. And instead of speaking with one voice, everyone in a leadership position was busy pointing fingers, particularly at Joburg Mayor Herman Mashaba.

There was plenty of notice that xenophobic violence was coming. In stark contrast to the violence that claimed nearly 60 lives in 2008, and the awfulness that marked the violence in KwaZulu-Natal two years ago, last week we knew that a group of people in Mamelodi were going to march against the presence of foreign nationals in their community. They said that it was a march against crime, but when pushed on their motives it became clear that the real issue was simply that they did not like people who were not like them.

When the marching and the clashes started on Friday, the police immediately moved to contain the protests. A group of Somali men grouped together, partly perhaps for protection, partly perhaps to cause their own violence. This was the kind of thing that only leads to trouble. One of the oldest insults among human beings can be boiled down to this: He is a foreigner, and therefore a barbarian. And it is also universal among societies everywhere; when people feel their lives are getting worse and hopeless, they will turn on people they see as different, or somehow not being "like them".

Situations like these need cool heads, and plenty of disciplined force from the police. But a problem of this kind also needs leadership.

On Friday morning, the ANC released a statement about the xenophobic violence, essentially calling for calm. But by the third paragraph of the statement, it was already attacking Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba, saying he should be "singled out for particular mention", and attempting to blame him for the violence. They claimed further that "it was the reckless statements of Mayor Mashaba that lit the tinderbox of hatred in the first place".

Where the ANC is absolutely correct is to criticise Mashaba for his words and actions on this issue in the last few months. His comments about "illegal immigrants", and his almost wilful and deliberate conflation of the words "immigrants" and "criminals", was wrong, perhaps bordering on the criminal. As a public representative, he should be ashamed of himself, and the DA should be ashamed of itself for not smacking him down in public. His comments in this regard are surely against everything the DA claims to stand for.

It is hard to know why Mashaba made them in the first place. Maybe he genuinely believes there is a problem and that it needs to be addressed. Perhaps he feels that it's a way to get votes. As the US and other places have recently demonstrated again, being "antiimmigrant" can play successfully to prejudice. Or he could just be prejudiced himself, like so many other South Africans, and people all over the world.

But to say that he is responsible is to utterly miss the greater context of what is happening in South Africa these days. And, worse, it is to forget the role the ANC government played over the last few years.

Last week, before the march, Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba held a press conference specifically about the xenophobic tensions. He said he had met with the organisers of the march, and had pleaded with them to act responsibly. It was the kind of act that you would expect someone in his position to do; it was the right thing to do. Unfortunately, his department could also be accused of playing a role in demonising foreign nationals in the first place. It is his officials who deport people, and decide which foreign nationals get to stay and which get to be kicked out. And, depending on where you stand on these things, it is also his department that has largely failed to deal with the problem. The perception has grown that people who are foreign are here illegally, because government has failed to stop them from being here.

But it is not only Gigaba's fault. It is impossible to police this properly, the dynamics of economics, geography and the human nature to desire a better life for yourself and your children are all against him. With the best will in the world, Gigaba is going to be unable to change those perceptions, or even make much of a difference on the ground. Stopping human migration requires the kind of a control over a population that North Korea has. Anything less will just not work.

Gigaba himself has a fairly decent track record in this regard. He at least is not afraid to call xenophobia what it is, and to label a xenophobic march a xenophobic march. His political boss, President Jacob Zuma, appears unable to do even that, claiming on Friday that there were even foreign nationals in these marches, because they were actually "anti-crime". Proof, once again, that it's not only the facts that are alternative, sometimes it's the entire universe.

Gigaba once did something that very few other ministers have done on this issue. He raised the ire of Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini. In 2015 Zwelithini had been accused of making comments that were seen as an incitement to commit violence against foreign nationals. A few days later, violence did in fact erupt in KwaZulu-Natal. Gigaba made a comment that leaders should behave responsibly, which appeared to have angered the king.

In the end, the SA Human Rights Commission decided, controversially, to exonerate Zwelithini. And the ANC, certainly in public, has failed to publicly criticise the king for these comments. Which surely suggests they do not believe that there is a link between what he said and the violence that followed.

It is important to follow this logic through to the bitter end. If the Zulu king makes comments like this and does not incite violence against foreign nationals, while the mayor of Joburg makes similar comments and does incite violence, then who has more power? Is the ANC seriously suggesting that Herman Mashaba, as a DA mayor, has a greater moral authority and plain old influence over people in Tshwane than King Goodwill Zwelithini does in KZN? And if that is the case, it surely follows then that the ANC is actually in much greater political trouble than we thought.

In politics, it is usually a mistake to build your enemy up, to make them look powerful. In their haste to be seen to condemn Mashaba, that is exactly what the ANC is doing. It made him look powerful, as if he had the ability to shape events, that he has this magical authority over people. Who, for the record, weren't even in "his" city, but in Pretoria.

But what is also being forgotten here is the other actions of national government. As the CEO of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, Neeshan Balton, pointed out on Friday, it was national government that decided to roll out "Operation Fiela", whose aim was action against foreign nationals. And it is national government alone that controls the police. And thus the officers who are famous for rounding up foreign nationals and stealing cash from them. It's not about what you say as a leader, it's also about what you do. Our government has failed to do much to change attitudes, to present any kind of example.

Mashaba himself said, in a statement issued on Monday, that he had tried to set up several meetings with Gigaba to discuss this entire issue, and invited him to a city lekgotla on the issue. Mashaba says he declined that invitation. But it would appear Gigaba is happy to discuss the issue, just not with Joburg's DA mayor. Rather, according to Mashaba, he has accepted an invitation to speak at an event hosted by the Joburg ANC, and its leader, and former Joburg mayor Parks Tau.

No matter how you look at it, that is playing politics in times when the national government should know better.

To look at this situation from a neutral standpoint, should such a place exist, is to realise that everyone is at fault here. Mashaba should not have said what he said. The ANC national government has not provided an example of how to treat foreign nationals, despite often saying the right words. People of influence who say things that are xenophobic are let off the hook.

Very few of the people who call themselves leaders in our society can escape blame here. And if any of them think that they can blame someone else, it's time they took a look in the mirror. DM

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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