Xenophobic Violence in South Africa

Xenophobic Violence in South Africa – Understand

What is Xenophobic Violence?

Xenophobic violence generally refers to any act/acts of collective violence, perpetrated by local communities or groups against an individual or group of individuals, based on the perception that the victim/victims of this violence do not belong to the perpetrators’ community, society or nationality. The attacks towards foreign nationals or perceived outsiders are often expressed in the forms of murder, assaults, intimidation and harassment. Further, such attacks can include arson attacks on non-nationals and/or their property or the looting and robbery of non-nationals’ shops.

Xenophobic Violence in Post-Apartheid South Africa

In post-Apartheid South Africa, xenophobic attitudes have permeated the society and fuelled countless xenophobic attacks on non-nationals. Thousands of foreign nationals or those considered ‘outsiders’ have been harassed, attacked or killed, as a result of this violence. Although initially, xenophobic violence occurred primarily in townships and informal settlements, nowadays it is also prevalent in other settings, including rural areas. While xenophobic attacks occur across all nine provinces, the Western Cape, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Free State, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and the Eastern Cape are the provinces most affected by this violence.

What some consider the starting point for the biggest waves of xenophobic violence in post-Apartheid South Africa, were the xenophobic outbreaks in May 2008. While at this time the country had one of the highest rates of asylum applications globally, the mistrust of citizens in state authorities and hostility towards foreigners was increasing. A widespread perception and fear that foreign nationals would take South African jobs away, led to attacks in Alexandra Township in Johannesburg. Within days, the tensions spread over to informal settlements and townships all over South Africa, primarily those in Gauteng province, Durban and Cape Town. During these attacks, more than 60 people were killed, dozens of people were raped and almost 700 were injured. In addition, over a hundred thousand people were displaced from their shelters and homes during this time. Most of the victims were foreign nationals from countries such as Mozambique, Somalia and Zimbabwe, however a third of the victims were South Africans who were targeted either because they refused to participate in the violent riots or because they were married to foreign nationals. Millions of Rands worth of goods were destroyed or stolen, with many foreign-owned shops and homes being burnt or destroyed. In response, South African officials assured South Africans and the international community that such outbreaks of xenophobic violence would not reoccur. However just a year later, in 2009, over 3000 Zimbabweans were displaced due to threats and attacks directed at them and their shelters.

In 2013, there was a national outcry when it emerged that a group of South African police officers in Johannesburg, had tied a young Mozambican man to the back of a police van and dragged him down the road. The man died later in a police cell from his injuries. In 2015, a new wave of xenophobic violence hit KwaZulu-Natal with more than 62 people killed, 500 people displaced, and more than 300 properties destroyed. The targets of this wave of violence were mostly Somali and Pakistani shop owners. Initially, this wave of xenophobic violence was triggered by an incident where a Somali shop owner shot a young South African boy, during an alleged robbery in Soweto Township. During the attacks that followed this incident, it was reported that the police actively participated in the looting of foreign-owned shops.

Risk Factors for Xenophobic Violence in South Africa

As far back as the 1990s, studies have indicated that many South Africans, regardless of their socioeconomic and geographic context, hold strong negative sentiments and hostility towards foreign nationals. These findings have emerged from studies conducted amongst the general public, as well as studies conducted with government officials. These hostile sentiments are particularly directed at non-nationals who are black or Asian. Studies have shown that a third of South Africans would not be disinclined to take action against non-nationals.

The reasons for this willingness to perpetrate violence against non-nationals, appear to be rooted in the perception and fear that non-nationals are taking jobs away from South African citizens or unfairly benefitting from South African social welfare, such as the healthcare and education system. However, the hostility is not only limited to foreign nationals but is also targeted at so-called ‘outsiders’ who move within the country. These ‘outsiders’ often experience exclusion, harassment and violence on the grounds of their ethnicity, language or geographic origin. Owing to South Africa’s history of racial segregation, in which the Apartheid system separated black South Africans from society and labelled them as ‘foreign natives’, tensions based on ethnicity and language still remain. For this reason, some municipalities, ward councillors and local leaders still consider uncontrolled urbanization a financial, political or security threat to other citizens. People who are considered ‘outsiders’ often face harassment by government officials. Hence, difficulties arise for non-nationals and ‘outsiders’ in accessing employment, accommodation, banking services or health care in South Africa. Unsurprisingly, some South African citizens have also adopted this mentality of hostility and discrimination to those they consider as ‘outsiders’ within their community.

Attacking foreigners can also be viewed as a lucrative business and an effective strategy. On the one hand, it is perceived as lucrative in what can be gained through looting of foreign-owned shops. On the other hand, government seems to respond to community protests faster once foreigners are attacked: so in this way attacking foreigners is sometimes seen as way of getting government attention. The perception that black non-nationals in South Africa immigrate to ‘steal’ jobs, whether in the informal or formal sector, has festered in the minds of South Africans over the years. Despite this perception, a study by the Migrating for Work Research Consortium found that in 2014 only 4% of the working class in South Africa could be categorized as foreign. In addition to this, most of the foreign workers do not benefit from labour rights or protection since they are more often employed in the informal sector.

Initially the former South African president, Jacob Zuma, remained silent in the face of these xenophobic attacks, however, eventually in response to mounting public pressure he responded in a short and restrained manner. His son Edward Zuma, on the other hand, supported and fuelled the violent attacks with accusations he made against foreign nationals. Zulu King, Goodwill Zwelithini, publicly announced his perception of non-nationals and invoked South Africans to consider foreigners as a threat.

In addition to this, a questionable police operation was set into place after the xenophobic attacks which communicated a message that justified xenophobia. The Inter-Ministerial Committee on Migration paved the way for the South African Police Service (SAPS) with a joint operation called ‘Operation Fiela - Reclaim’. This operation allowed units of the police, army and immigration officials to search the homes of undocumented immigrants in the same manner they would search the homes of drug dealers or other criminals; without a search warrant. While several human rights and non-governmental organizations expressed their concern and were openly critical regarding the operation, state authorities continued to launch the second phase of the operation in 2018. Various statements made by state authorities have inferred, either implicitly or explicitly, that undocumented migrants, asylum seekers and refugees should be categorized as criminals, without the need to consider each situation on a case by case basis. This undifferentiated approach erodes trust in those who should per law protect all citizens, be they nationals or non-nationals. 

In hindsight, various factors have contributed to an escalation of these situations. On the one hand, poor implementation of the refugee and migration legislation and regulations by the Department of Home Affairs, and on the other hand a lack of political leadership has played a role in the outbreak of this violence.

South Africa’s Legal Obligation to Protect Foreign Nationals

South Africa, like many other nation states, has ratified international instruments which legally obligates the State to ensure all those within its borders are guaranteed their basic human rights.  Further, South Africa is a State Party to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol, which it has domesticated through the Refugee Act (No.130 of 1998). In accordance with this legislation, refugees and asylum seekers in South Africa are legally entitled to the same rights as South African citizens, except for the right to vote.

South Africa is obligated to grant protection to asylum seekers and refugees. According to the principle of non-refoulement, the State is not permitted to return an asylum seeker or refugee to their country of origin, unless through a thorough asylum adjudication process it is determined that the individual does not qualify for asylum. Despite this, after the outbreak of xenophobic attacks in 2008 the State deported many refugees and asylum seekers as well as migrants, without following due process.

South Africa has ratified numerous international instruments that place an onus on the State to ensure that it provides protection against all forms of discrimination, including xenophobia and xenophobic violence. In keeping with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), and consequent of South Africa’s ratification of the ICCPR and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), South Africa is legally obliged to never deny foreign nationals their fundamental human rights, regardless of their status. 

In reality, migrants and asylum seekers coming to South Africa often face enduring asylum seeking or immigration processes. If they fail to renew their permit every three to six months, asylum seekers receive a R1000 fine for their ‘overstay’. Migrants and asylum seekers who are unable to pay the fine or are detained during a police raid, are often deported to Lindela Repatriation Centre, near Johannesburg. In this centre, detainees often face sexual abuse and other forms of violence. Although the number of asylum seekers has been steady over the past few years, the Department of Home Affairs decided to close some of the refugee reception offices in the country. Thus, no matter where refugees or asylum seekers are, they are forced to travel to Pretoria, Durban, Musina, or Cape Town which has additional cost implications. Since the Department of Home Affairs has been unable to effectively and consistently implement the Refugee Act (No.130 of 1998) and the Immigration Act (No.13 of 2002), many migrants, asylum seekers and refugees are stuck in South Africa as undocumented migrants who are excluded from the formal work sector and health care system and yet struggle to access home affairs offices where they can apply for or renew their documentation.

What Can We Do?

Some non-governmental organizations in South Africa work in close cooperation with international organizations so as to have a greater impact in their work to support refugees, asylum seekers or undocumented migrants. While some of these organizations specialize in supporting foreign nationals through legal assistance, others focus on trauma counselling or empowerment of immigrants through social cohesion initiatives.

Legal Support

Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) began a watching brief after the outbreaks of xenophobic violence in South Africa. The aim of their brief was to ensure effective prosecution of alleged perpetrators. Over time, LHR expanded the scope of the brief since many foreign nationals also needed legal assistance when South African state officials refused to open cases for them, in criminal matters. The organization also supports foreign nationals in matters related to healthcare, such as when they are denied healthcare and yet urgently need treatment.

Trauma Counselling

Beside legal support, non-nationals that have suffered violence, including torture, also need psychological support to overcome the psycho-social effects of their traumatic experiences. Depending on the impact of the violent experience, the trauma counselling can take several months until it shows any effect. For this reason, various organizations in South Africa have developed psycho-social assessments and counselling services in cooperation with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), refugee centres and legal aid centres in South Africa.

Social Cohesion

Of equal importance to people who are forced to immigrate is the need for social cohesion within their new community. Social cohesion refers to unity amidst diversity, and solidarity driven to create a more harmonious national society. Given the historical context of South Africa, bringing about social cohesion is complex and challenging. However, positive social relationships, a common culture of civic engagement and participation as well as equal treatment of non-nationals, by government institutions can improve the life of non-nationals enormously and assist in combating xenophobia. In South Africa, non-governmental organizations have launched educational programmes that tackle xenophobic sentiments and prejudices in order to establish positive social relationships between non-nationals and South African citizens. Other helpful interventions include workshops that bring together non-nationals and South Africans, to work together to bring about social integration.


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