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South African cities and xenophobic violence

Here we look at the acts of xenophobic violence that have occurred in South African cities and consider local attempts to explain the phenomenon

The new democratic South Africa, which emerged after the end of the apartheid regime in the early 1990s, set out to rebuild national identity around the idea of the Rainbow Nation that could reconcile the country’s previously segregated diversity.

With the relaxation of immigration policy, after 1994, South Africa – one of the wealthiest nations in Africa –started to receive migrants from other parts of the continent. Many have settled in the country’s major cities such as Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban, where they are either employed in the service sector or have opened their own commercial activities such as general stores known as ‘spaza’ shops.

According to the 2011 census, there were 2.2 million foreign born nationals living in South Africa, which has a total population of 56 million people. In addition, there are an estimated 500,000 irregular migrants. Zimbabweans represent the largest migrant group and mostly migrated to South Africa after 2004 due to Zimbabwe’s political instability and economic crisis. Other key countries of origin include Mozambique, Malawi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Somalia and Ethiopia.

In May 2008 there was a spate of violent attacks on migrants and their businesses in the townships around South Africa’s major cities, which left 62 people dead. In one of the most horrific scenes captured on video, a Mozambican male was wrapped in a tyre and burnt alive. Such attacks have intermittently continued to take place. In some cases, police forces have deliberately targeted migrants during anti-crime campaigns and have often failed to intervene to halt violence when this has erupted.

While the 2008 murders and assaults sent shockwaves through sections of South African society and led to counter protests in Johannesburg, Cape Town and elsewhere, the violence was not unexpected. On the contrary, South Africans from across the social and racial spectrum had shown hostility towards foreigners since the fall of apartheid. Moreover, during the eight years prior to the May 2008 violence, 67 people were killed as a result of confirmed xenophobic attacks.

South African geographer Belinda Dodson, who has conducted research on African migrants living in Cape Town, has identified six overlapping common explanations for the long-standing anti-African sentiments in South Africa.

First, there is the economic explanation according to which poor, unemployed and mainly black South African nationals see foreign Africans as direct competitors for scarce jobs, housing and social services, and this is exacerbated by the fact that they often live in the same degraded urban areas. At the same time, higher-income South Africans have justified their resentment as the result of having to pay taxes to support foreigners fleeing the economic mismanagement of neighbouring countries.

Second, there is a common argument that the construction of a new, non-racial sense of South African national identity after the end of apartheid created a new ‘other’ that stood in opposition to the project. This ‘other’ was the non-South African, which, in practice, translated as the foreign African. The entrenched disdain for African migrants among many South Africans reveals the underlying exclusionary logic of the multiracial ‘Rainbow Nation’, which from its outset was premised on the possession of national citizenship to the exclusion of foreigners.

A third explanation is the role of cultural stereotyping. Increased immigration to South Africa from other African countries has brought South Africans into direct contact with foreign Africans to a far greater extent than during the apartheid era, when black immigration to the country was almost entirely prohibited (apart from temporary labour migrants employed in mines). This lack of previous contact or knowledge of Africa has led to stereotypes that exaggerate perceived cultural differences and in turn has bred prejudice and animosity.

According to a fourth explanation, antiforeigner attitudes are seen as being rooted in black South Africans’ acquisition of the full rights and benefits of citizenship with the return to democracy in 1994, and their subsequent jealous protection of these rights and benefits against non-citizens who are perceived to undermine or supplant them.

A fifth explanation regards the lack of political leadership. Instead of censuring or attempting to prevent a surge in xenophobia, senior political figures have actually stoked anti-foreign sentiments by blaming migrants for placing strains on state resources or engaging in criminal activities.

The sixth and final ‘explanation’ is not actually an explanation but rather the simple denial of the very existence of xenophobia. South African President Thabo Mbeki’s response to the 2008 violence was precisely along these lines: this was not xenophobia but rather a straightforward case of criminal activity.

These explanations point to the complex set of factors behind anti-foreign attitudes and violence in South Africa. The fact that President Mbeki refused to accept the existence of xenophobic attitudes among his fellow nationals was not simply a case of someone with their head in the sand, but also intimated at the traumatic impact that the 2008 events had upon post-apartheid South African society.

© European University Institute
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