Bukola Bolarinwa.

In April 2015 another wave of xenophobic violence swept over South Africa. Starting in Durban, the attacks on foreigners spread to suburbs in Johannesburg and to Cala in the eastern Cape. At least six people have been killed and scores injured as they sought refuge in make shift camps and police stations. The authorities have arrested more than 300 people so far, forcing thousands of foreigners to flee the affected towns.

This isn’t the first time Africa’s rainbow nation has had attacks of this nature, targeting mostly its African neighbours and their businesses. Between 2000 and March 2008, at least 67 people died in what were identified as xenophobic attacks. The first such attack on a large scale happened over the course of two weeks in May 2008 when 62 people were killed. The African Centre for Migration Studies, an entity that has been tracking xenophobic attacks in the continent, estimates that about 357 foreigners have been killed over the past seven years with at least one attack a month.

These xenophobic attacks in South Africa are an ugly stain on the continent, a stain that would linger in our collective conscience for considerable length of time. Images of machete wielding citizens looting foreign owned shops, and maiming innocent retailers have shocked, and continue to shock the world. Horrific images captured by a Sunday Times photographer show four locals beat and stab a street vendor from Mozambique as he lay in a gutter begging for his life. The murderers did not attempt to hide their face, and videos of looting show them stealing goods in broad day light, often with journalists and the police not far away.

This bout of violence was incited by the Zulu king Goodwill Zwelithini who reportedly said at a recent gathering that foreigners “should pack their bags and go” because they are taking jobs from South African citizens. The king denied that his statement was a call for violence, and it would be hard to imagine that even he envisaged such a violent reaction.

The term xenophobia has often been used to describe these bouts of violence against foreigners in South Africa. Xenophobia in its common apprehension is “the fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners or of anything that is strange or foreign”. This word alone cannot convey the complex and multi-faceted problem plaguing the country. The South African version of xenophobia is a by-product of a deadly mix of deeply rooted social issues and economic hardships facing the country’s long unemployed citizens, and the poor. Poverty levels now exceed those experienced under apartheid. Officially, unemployment runs at 24%, though the real figure is much higher, with more than half of under-25-year-olds out of work. This high level of social inequality amongst black South Africans cannot be ignored, and has divided the country in the same way colour did. South Africa’s Institute for Race Relations, a liberal think-tank, points to the “absolute failure” of government policy to deal with unemployment and with failures in the education system. It warns that xenophobic attacks may well increase as the economy weakens. In the interim, both legal and illegal immigrants bear the brunt of the country’s failed public policies.

South Africa has very progressive asylum laws, which were promulgated after apartheid. According to Open Security, ‘the state cannot deny any migrant the claim and temporary status of an asylum-seeker, which includes the right to work’. This liberal approach was fully supported by the ANC elite who benefited immensely when their organisation was banned by the apartheid regime, and they fled as political refugees into countries like Zambia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Mozambique. The United Nations Population Division lists 2.4m migrants in South Africa in its 2013 global dataset. But this does not include undocumented migrants estimated at 5m-8m. Some 1.5m-2m migrants are believed to have come from Zimbabwe alone.

In the two decades since the end of apartheid, South Africa has absorbed largely peaceful migrants comprising more than 10% of its 50m population; this, in comparison, is a lot more than the recent influx of African migrants seeking refugee status in European countries, and thus begs the question of why this positive model of immigration seems to be collapsing. Toughening immigration and asylum laws is definitely not the answer as this will simply encourage illegal trafficking that does incredible harm to individuals and society at large.


President Zuma has condemned the attacks but has not provided any real solutions. Meanwhile Edward Zuma, his eldest son and incidentally born in Swaziland, told News24, a South African television station, that he agreed foreigners should leave. He warned that “we are sitting on a ticking time bomb of them taking over the country.” Such comments found a receptive audience in the country.

The underlying belief that other Africans “take” jobs away from South Africans reveals a disturbing reality in the country, which is that many South Africans are poorly educated and ill-equipped to transition into a modern economy that demands a certain level of marketable skills. No group of people can take the jobs of citizens; they are given to foreigners because the citizens are inexperienced, feel entitled, and often unmotivated to advanced their economic lot through investment in human capital. The jobs in question in South Africa are usually menial, and labour intensive; immigrants who are often illegal cannot get jobs in the corporate sector and often create jobs for themselves by trading and selling their specialized skills.

The cleaners, drivers, security men, traders, shop owners and nannies from neighbouring countries come to South Africa because they have a budding middle class that can pay better wages. A number of the unemployed South Africans are themselves internal migrants from the rural former homelands into the cities. With millions of unemployed South Africans living in dire conditions, it is clear that their want of marketable skills, and bad public policies are the primary source of their unemployment problems, not foreigners.

In other countries with such vast economic inequality, rebellion by the extremely poor is usually directed at the government or the wealthy. This is why the attacks on fellow Africans in South Africa remain puzzling to other Africans, for it seems that the attackers have misdirected their frustrations which should have been directed at President Zuma, and his ruling elites. President Zuma, at the least, should have been asked to give account of the reported lavish expenditure of tax revenues on his private residence.

These attacks also highlight the level of impunity and opportunism that are rife in the townships where public violence is highly permissible. A study by the South African Human Rights Commission found that 597 court cases were opened after the 2008 clashes. Yet a year and a half later only 16% had resulted in a guilty verdict—nearly all of these for theft and assault, and with the option to pay a fine rather than face jail time. This low level of prosecution reinforces the lack of fear in the perpetrators while simultaneously encouraging migrants’ distrust of the justice system, which leads to low levels of reporting of xenophobic crime. With about 300 people under arrest since these attacks began, it is crucial for the South African government to make a strong statement against such criminality by prosecuting them to the full extent of the laws currently in good use.