Xenophobia Watch

South Africa a ‘failed state’ on xenophobia management


South Africans must brace themselves for more xenophobic violence after two decades of failure to deal effectively with the issue and dropping into dangerous denialism.

Blaming only government for the problem, which has developed to the point where the country could soon be formally in the international dock, at least at the African Union (AU), will also be nothing short of perpetuating that denialism.

As xenophobic driven violence against migrants from across African has, for the umptieth time, rocked parts of the country over the past two weeks or more, political leaders from both the governing African National Congress and the official opposition Democratic Alliance stand accused of helping to fuel it and/or failing to deal with it effectively.

Other formations of society, other African countries and even some international organisations should, however, also take their share of the blame for what is happening. And, as so often happens with every complex issues, over simplification is the main culprit.

20 years of failure

Just short of 20 years ago, a campaign known as Roll Back Xenophobia, was launched in the country, with high hopes that South Africa could set an example for the rest of the word on how to deal with a problem that has been ever present across the world for more than at least 2 000 years.

The reputable Enctclopedia.com carries an article that states: “The Roll Back Xenophobia campaign established in South Africa in 1998, is a succinct example of how political will and determination can produce a widely visible and national effort to confront systematic incidences of xenophobic hostility and violence.”

How wrong the publication has turned out to be two decades later. Reading that passage now, against the background of what has been happening in South Africa since, cannot be doing its reputation any good.

 It is, however, also important to note that the publication reports that the “campaign began as a joint initiative between national and international institutions: The South African Human Rights Commission, the National Consortium on Refugee Affairs, and the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. It emphasized broad, multifaceted, and synchronized activities by the government, civil society organizations, and communications media …”

It was also supposed to have included “information campaigns” by national and local governments, retraining of the police force, strengthening of labour rights protections for migrant workers, sensitization of trade union officials, awareness raising by religious organizations, reinstitution of codes of conduct for civil servants, and the inclusion of migration- and refugee-related concerns in primary, secondary, and tertiary education.”

Against the background of this failed campaign, Home Affairs Minister, Malusi Gigaba, must not be surprised if his announcement that a white paper on immigration management in South Africa was on the cards, is met with wide-spread cynicism.

Who’s to blame?

It is clear from the above citation that it would be a grossly over simplification to only blame South African society and/or its institutions of governance and organised civil society for the failure of dealing effectively with the problem of xenophobia.

And, while some other African countries – notably Nigeria, which in the person of its president’s Senior Special Assistant on Foreign Affairs and Diaspora last weak threatened to  call on the AU to take up the South African xenophobic issue as a matter of urgency – should recognise that what has been happening in South Africa is also an indictment against themselves.

The question they need to ask themselves is: “Why do so many of our people find it necessary to face a dangerous situation in South Africa in the hope of finding a better life?”

Broader perspective

It is a well-established fact that xenophobia is not a modern phenomenon, but has been with humankind for millenniums.

It is no coincidence that the word “xenophobia” comes from the two Greek words   xenos, meaning "stranger" or "foreigner," and phobos, meaning "fear."

It so happens that the first known recorded example of xenophobia in history dates to the year 191BC. In that year a speech by Greek consul Manius Acilius, was recorded in which he said: "There, as you know, there were Macedonians and Thracians and Illyrians, all most warlike nations, here Syrians and Asiatic Greeks, the most worthless peoples among mankind and born for slavery."

Examples of how xenophobia, when either not being properly managed, countered and especially when exploited for political gain, are strewn throughout history – often ending-up in genocide.

South African politicians, amongst other, should take note of this historical tendency. At the same time, to blame crime as the cause of xenophobic incidents and claims that South Africans are “not xenophobic” does not reflect the truth and amounts to dangerous denialism.

Just consider the following citation from an expert article on the website Psychology Today  by Douglas T. Kenrick (Ph.D.), professor of Social Psychology at Arizona State University: ”Unlike other phobias, this malady (xenophobia) is not limited to a small clinical population, but is found all around us. Indeed, some experts believe it may be universal. It is certainly easy to find evidence to support this pessimistic view.”

The question then is: “Why would South Africans then be the exception to the rule?”


There is some guidance, and even more perspective, to be found in a study published on the United Nations Education and Science Organisation’s (UNESCO) website on the subject of the rising incidence of xenophobic outbursts in recent decades. Some of the salient points made, include:

  • Two causes are put forward to explain the resurgence of xenophobic and racist movements towards the end of the twentieth century. The first cause is new migration patterns that have developed as an effect of the gradual internationalisation of the labour market during the postcolonial era, exacerbated by globalisation; and
  • In the receiving countries, social groups in ‘disfavourable’ positions, considered newcomers as competitors for jobs and public services. This cultivated a social and political climate that generated xenophobia and racism (i.e. defensive reactions against migrants), as well as nationalism (i.e. demands that the state provide better protection against foreigners for its own.               

 There are innumerable studies that indicate that xenophobia ever lurks close under the surface in most societies. The key question, however, is what are the triggers of it at tmes finding expression in attacks on “the other,” as was experienced in South Africa over recent years?

One of the most consistent themes in studies on the latter is how the “politics of discontent” is fuelling unrest by exploiting underlying xenophobic “instincts” in communities.

Consider this abstract form a 2003 study of violent protests in Moscow at the time regarding “scapegoating and xenophobic” action :”Locating and transferring blame can be tempting strategies in periods of political, economic and social disorder.”

South African case study

For how the politics discontent and scapegoating feed into the South African environment, what happened in Tswane’s Mamelodi last week, presents an almost perfect case study.

Due to shoddy planning and project management, three deadlines have been missed to resettle residents, many already suffering from unemployment and poverty, from Mamelodi’s Phomolong informal settlement in RDP-housing under construction in Hatherley.

Then authorities made the almost unbelievable mistake to hire the Red Ants security company, mostly employing immigrant workers, to move temporarily into the houses to protect it against vandalism, awaiting completion.

The scene was set for a disaster, and next the Mamelodi Concerned Residents Group distributed fliers which in part read: “Unemployment is at 34% in South Africa but they give people asylum seeker status, when there is no work in South Africa.”

And now, Minister Gigaba and the DA mayor of Johannesburg, Herman Mashaba, who recently was quoted as saying “illegal immigrants are holding our country to ransom and I am going to be the last South African to allow it,” have entered into a blame game themselves.

The pot can, however, hardly call the kettle black in this case, with Mashaba just last week making himself guilty of implying criminality in the very presence of immigrants from Africa by threatening businesses which are employing “illegal immigrants” that “we are coming for you.”


Unless the problem of xenophobia is approached from a holistic perspective, politicians of all shades resist the temptation to turn it into a political football and, above all, the underlying causes of deep seated community discontent – based on lack of service delivery and job opportunities and perceived corruption levels – are addressed urgently, social stability, South Africa’s standing in the rest of the continent and its economy at large, is heading for a serious crisis.

Maybe the time has come to relaunch the Roll Back Xenophobia campaign on an inclusive, depoliticised and national unifying basis.

by Piet Coetzer

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