By Khadija Patel and Azad Essa

photography by Ihsaan Haffejee

Running small convenience stores in the townships is a dangerous business for foreigners.

Often serving their customers through locked gates, they are accused of spreading disease, stealing jobs and sponging off basic government services like electricity, running water and healthcare.

But as violence against them continues, the South African government insists that criminality is behind it, not xenophobia.

essay on xenophobia in south africa

No place like home

Xenophobia in South Africa




Xenophobia in South Africa | Chapter 1

In a haze of violence in late January, an angry mob approached a convenience store belonging to Abdikadir Ibrahim Danicha. They pried open its iron gates and looted everything inside. Even the large display refrigerators were carried away.

Danicha's life was upended.

"South African people don’t like us," Danicha, a 29-year-old Somali national, told Al Jazeera, while sitting on his bed in a small room he shared with three others in Mayfair, a suburb popular with foreign nationals in Johannesburg.

The violent outburst that led to the looting of

Danicha’s store began in Snake Park, in the

western reaches of Soweto, when 14-year-old

Siphiwe Mahori was allegedly killed by another Somali shop owner, Alodixashi Sheik Yusuf.

Mahori, a South African, was allegedly a part of a group of people who attempted to rob Yusuf’s store on January 19. His death sparked a week of mob justice, which appeared to be inflamed by xenophobia.

Scores of people were injured and hundreds of stores were looted. As the violence spread to nearby Kagiso, a South African baby was trampled to death.

For the foreign nationals affected by the violence, the actions of the mob were inexplicable.

"I don’t even have clothes … I lost all my things," said Masrat Eliso an Ethiopian national, four days after his shop in Protea Glen, a suburb of Soweto, was looted.

Mofolo Central, Soweto

I don't have money.

I don't have anything

and I'm scared for my life"


Calm was eventually restored and most foreign-owned stores reopened. Shelves were restocked and customers returned, poking their arms through the closed metal gates of the stores to buy a loaf of bread. Groupsof children clamoured to buy lollipops, while tired looking men eyed the fridges for energy drinks.

It appeared to be business as usual, but to the foreign nationals who returned to their stores in Soweto, there was a shared fear that they may soon be the subject of another attack.

Danicha returned to his shop in Mofolo, another suburb of Soweto, three weeks after the violence subsided.

"I don’t feel safe," he said in early March, outside his partially restocked shop.

He is one of a few hundred thousand Somali refugees in South Africa who have found some measure of success in operating small stores in townships around the country. He is also one among thousands of foreign nationals here who report multiple incidents of persecution.

But Danicha's life in South Africa has been filled with hardship. And the scars, which run across the entire left side of his body, act as a stark reminder.

In June 2014, he and a friend were running a small store in the Johannesburg suburb of Denver, selling groceries and basic cosmetics when their store was set upon by an angry mob.

"The first day, a group of people came to the shop. They wanted to loot us. We closed the doors but then they started stoning us," he said. "Then, on the second day, they just came and threw a petrol bomb at the shop.

I was inside the shop."

Danicha was one of four people who sustained severe burns in Denver on that day.

I came to South Africa in 2012 and I thought life would be easy . "


Abdikadir Ibrahim Danicha

"Everywhere, everywhere I am burned," he said. "I was in hospital for three months."

After being treated at the Charlotte Maxeke public hospital, Danicha was then forced to rely on the Somali community in Johannesburg for assistance.

“A brother of mine helped me out by giving me a share in a shop in Soweto.”

Two months later, another mob attacked his store.

"Unless I have the capital to start another shop, I don’t know what I can do."

Estimates suggest that more than 50,000 Somalis have fled to South Africa since their home country erupted into civil war in 1991.

Many of them have settled in townships across the country, operating small businesses among the poorest South Africans.

While the store in Mofolo has reopened, and Danicha helps his co-owners periodically, he has not been able to contribute to the capital needed to get the store sufficiently restocked.

It is very difficult

to start again

and again"


From Soweto and Kagiso the violence in January spread to Sebokeng in the Vaal delta, Eden Park in Ekurhuleni and Alexandra, in northern Johannesburg.

As researchers begin to unpack the stories of yet another bout of violence against foreign nationals in urban South Africa, many of the victims are beginning to feel that the pain caused was not just the loss of goods, earnings and trading days.

“We came to South Africa because we needed to save our lives,” Mohamed Rashad, an Ethiopian national from the Oromo community says. He runs a store in Snake Park and is angered by the lack of justice in cases involving foreign nationals.

“The law is forgetting us so soon we will also forget the law,” he warned.

Back at the store in Mofolo, Danicha watches as his

co-owners serve customers through a gate. He is not

sure what the future holds for him.

 “At first I had a plan but the plan has been destroyed two times now,” he said.

With Somalia still reeling from conflict, he has nowhere

else to go.

Despite the ongoing violence, South Africa

Ismail Adam Hassen

Muhammed Hukun Galle Hassan

I came from Somalia in 2009. And the South African government is good, they let us work for ourselves. I say the government thank you very much and I was working myself and I was looking my food and to trade.

Some people come to South Africa by plane. Others come with taxis and busses.  But I took a very long route to South Africa.  I came to South Africa in 2010 and it took me three months to get here.


This is how I started, I worked and got together some money, and I put this money together with other people. Then I acted like a supervisor.

I would go to a place and see the owner of the property where I think we can make a shop and  I say can you give us the lease I’m going to work in the building here. Then when we make money I don’t take it all, we are sharing. So if it is, 18, 19, 20 thousand rands ($2,000)

profits, it is shared between five people. That is how we work. When we make this money here we working hard.

In Somalia there is no peace there. When I ran away from there, I was not the only guy. And I run because from Somalia there was no government and I came here where I can stay and make a life in peace.

I got the family there but I don’t have the choice to go back. That time if I stayed in my country there was no law and order, I was scared. That one time they shoot me inside the leg, they come here they help us that time my father passed away. This is the problem in

I want to ask government to look after our safety. We are businessmen.

We are not attacking  anybody by coming here. I really really like the government in South Africa because they allow us to stay here but we need safety. They must do something about  these people who are attacking our business and take everything. I think other people are

My shop was closed for 10 days after the attack.

After my shop was looted, we came back, and we fixed it. We bought a new fridge, we made a new gate and we put new shelves. So now people think we have a lot of money here, we don’t have the money because

they took everything. Because  we also have to buy food, we have families to feed. But even when I came back, I was told I could not open my shop.

I went to the police station and complained and told them that some people have given me this paper that says I must close my shop or they will kill me.

They give this letter to all the shops. They told us not to open, to go back to where we come from. They asked me why I am coming here. I said I live here. They said close your business, go back to where you come from. They are fighting us.

We called in the police. The police did not care. They did not listen, they did nothing. They said, “Voetsek!”

We are not feeling safe right now.  It’s the police who are supposed to  look after our safety but they say they don’t care.

They listen to other people only. If someone attacks us they don’t care.

But we are feeling scared still. We don’t know what we can do, where we can go, but we stay. We will see if we die or what.

It’s happening because: We don’t know, they say we don’t want any foreigners coming here.

I did not have the problem before and I have the the shop for 5 years.

The people here around my shop know me. They know who I am. We are friends, they know us, we are staying here for  a long time.  they all know the area and you can speak we are business people. We are the good people because we are living nicely. You can see, there  is the good people and the bad people, they are taking our customer away, how you see this people.

There have been crooks who come and steal. We saw like that before. But not like this, where they come and break the shops and taking everything that wasn’t sold.

Despite promises of help, the situation on the ground is disastrous and rebuilding almost non-existent.

With help hardly getting through, and so many in need, building materials are scarce and flats for rent even scarcer - and expensive too.


From Juba province in Somalia, I went to Mombasa in Kenya. I spent some time in Mombasa. But things in Mombasa are not good for Somali people.

And one day the police came and they were arresting all the Somalis but they left me because I was very, very thin then. So I heard them say, “Leave him, he’s too small.” And then from Kenya I went to Tanzania.

Then I went Malawi. From there I went to Mozambique. And from Mozambique, I went to Zimbabwe and then I came to South Africa.

My family is all dead. I am the only one left.

My shop is open again. With the little goods I saved from the looting I started again but the shop is still not 100%. We are trying. I am trying to get credit from the Somali-owned cash n carry to buy more goods. I don’t feel safe, but what can we do? It’s life.

On the day that my shop was looted, I was sleeping. Snake Park, where all the trouble started, is not far from my shop. So these boys, many boys, came to our shop. I was sleeping. And my “brother” saw these boys coming to the shop. He woke me. These guys took our money, our clothes, everything.

We ran away through the back entrance. They took everything. And then the police came past there. And the police looked at these boys taking the things from our shop and they did nothing. I saw the police giving bread to a mama.

I asked the police why they are giving our stock like this. And they told me to keep quiet or they will give more. Other police I saw coming into the shop and they took airtime, Grandpas (headache tablets) and other things. If I had a camera at that time I could take

the photos of the police. It was almost five cars of the police.

The police were asking us for our guns, saying, “Where is your gun?” But we don’t have a gun.

I remember, when when we were leaving, the police told us, to give them a “cold drink”  if we want them to help us.  When I told the police that we don’t have money, we are suffering, the police said, “You are living here in our place and you are foreigners.”

So we gave the police R200 ($20). So then the police helped us, and I saved a little goods but most of it was already damaged. I did not even have clothes. I came to Mayfair with just my little stock.

South African people don’t like us. The government allow us to stay but the people don’t like us.

They call us names. And I believe this looting and things will happen again at any time. We don’t have power to stop this. Only the government has power. We don’t do anything criminal. We are serving the community. We keep our shops open till late so that people who come home late after work can come to our shop and buy things. It’s only government that can stop this trouble.

Salat Abdullahi

We can be attacked anytime here in the shop.

It is like an ambush attack. We are not safe here.

We can’t even say that we will sleep peacefully tonight because we don’t know what we will face tomorrow.

I am in South Africa as an asylum seeker.

You see, in my country, Bangladesh, there are political problems. We are suffering. So we’ve come here honestly. We’re not robbing anybody. We are not doing any crime. We just come here  to do business. And we hope to help South African people also.


The South African government is not bad. But the people… they really don’t like us. Even when they come to the shop, we are giving them big discounts because we sell everything very cheap. But they are abusing us.

Even the police when they come to help you they first take money from you.

There is nobody that helped us to get so far in South Africa.

We did by ourselves. I am here for almost two years but I can’t leave South Africa.

We have problems in South Africa but it is still better than Somalia.

I am from Kismayo. If my country has peace I want to go back to my country. It is my country. I love my country.

Family? (His face creases with deep emotion) I don’t think I have any family any more.

They have all passed away. You see, the problem in Somalia is if you want to be safe you have to join Al Shabaab, or else they will kill you. And I can’t join Al Shabaab. They kill innocent people. I’ve seen this.

There is no law.

What we need is more security from government. We just want to be safe.


As a Bangladeshi in Soweto, I don’t know of any Bangladeshi who has made problems in Soweto. We have never fought with anybody and we have never shot anybody. From our side, nobody can complain about us.

This shop wasn’t affected by looting. The shop across the road was looted but we managed to close our shop before the looters got here.

Right now it’s okay but I have three, four other shops in other places in Soweto that were looted. So now I’ve joined a group called Township Business Development South Africa (TBDSA), who have been speaking to

government in Pretoria so now we are hoping to fix the problems with the local people here.

We do not want to complain about anybody. We just want to open our shops and do business. I’ve never been affected by violence in my businesses like this before. I’ve been robbed a few times. Just the other day my uncle was robbed of R20,000 ($2,000) on his way out of Soweto.

We stay here, we have to have a good relationship with the people who come to our shops.

But we need more protection from the police. I’ve been in South Africa for seven years.

If, in future, government says we have to pay taxes, I will pay tax but government must give us safety. My business has been registered already.

I’ve never had a bad experience with the South African police. The Diepkloof police have been honest with us, they don’t take money and things from us.

I don’t hire South Africans in my business because they steal, or others work for a day and ask for goods from the shop, saying they don’t have food at home and then I don’t see them again.

When we have hired South African people they do wrong things with us. If government says I have to hire South Africans then I will, but I don’t think it will work. But I won’t complain. I think I could hire two South Africans.

I will never shoot a tsotsi (thief) stealing from my shop. Look, say a tsotsi steals a can of Red Bull from my shop. That Red Bull costs R18. I must shoot him for R18? No, nobody’s life is worth that.

Ebrahim Khalil-Hassen,

Public Policy Analyst in Johannesburg

Al Jazeera:

Is it hard to do business in South Africa?


I wouldn’t say there are many obstacles starting up an informal business, particularly if you’re just going be trading. You are buying stuff and then selling it; there are no real obstacles. You just wonder why more people don’t do it.

The ease of starting up a business in a township depends largely on how legal you want your business to be. There actually is not much that needs to get sorted out. My understanding is that, procedures

like securing premises, particularly in townships, are not at all difficult. I think the key thing there is that the businesses are not all in busy areas, they’re all over. Some businesses are even run from people’s homes.

The success of foreign owned stores in the townships is owed to the business models that a lot of the foreigners bring through to their businesses. Collective buying is one trick. But if you look at the innovation that has been used in a lot of these foreign owned

businesses, it’s the small things but make a huge difference in terms of running a successful business. So you don’t sell half a kilo of salt, you sell one hundred grams of salt, in poorer communities that’s particularly the case - single serving.

The other issue is around credit, most foreign owned businesses do provide credit and they don’t charge interest, so that assists low earning households.

Xenophobia in South Africa | Chapter 2

In May 2008, 62 people were killed in a wave of xenophobic attacks across townships.

Foreign nationals, mostly migrants from Somalia and Ethiopia,  were dragged through the streets of Alexandra, barely a few kilometers from Johannesburg’s plush Sandton suburb, and “necklaced” -  a throwback to the summary execution tactic used in the Apartheid days.

A rubber tyre, filled with petrol, is forced around a victim's chest and arms, and set alight.

In an instant, the story of South Africa’s much-touted rainbow nation of black, white and brown people happily living together, fizzled away in an outburst of vengeance.

Tens of thousands of people were displaced, forced to seek refuge in churches, mosques and even police stations. In the end, it took military intervention to quell the violence.

South Africa is a nation of multiple ethnicities, languages and nationalities. From the Zulu and Xhosa, to the Dutch and the British. Somali and Tutsi to Indian Tamil and Gujarati, Chinese and Zimbabwean.

However divided, unequal, and structurally flawed, South Africa is home to a very diverse population of people. A country with deep pockets, it remains attractive as a home for migrants, some of them seeking greener economic pastures, others safety and security.

The economy relies heavily on migrants, be it to make up for a massive skills shortage or as cheap labour in farms and mines.

Despite the violence meted out to foreign nationals, tens of thousands continue to seek asylum there, as many as 60,000 to 80,000 per year.

According to the UNHCR , there were almost 310,000 refugees and asylum seekers in the country as of July 2014. By the end of 2015, this number is expected to top 330,000.

Xenophobia in South Africa is not new. Some, like Michael Neocosmos, Director of Global Movements Research at the University of South Africa (UNISA), recall anti-migrant sentiment in the early nineties, when the new government was in the midst of planning new economic policies and politicians of all stripes began drumming up anti-immigrant sentiment.

“It is important to recognise that xenophobia can exist without violence. And it’s not sufficient to simply recognise it when people start killing each other,” he said.

A survey in 1997 showed that just six percent of South Africans were tolerant to immigration. In another survey cited by Danso and McDonald in 2001, 75 percent of South Africans held negative perceptions about black African foreigners.

In a most painful of ironies, many South Africans associate foreign black Africans with disease, genocide and dictatorships.

The ills of Apartheid: skin colour, complexion and passes, in this case citizenship, are still the determinants of a better life, or discrimination.

Little illuminates this disparity more than the infamous Lindela Repatriation Centre, built in 1996 for undocumented foreign nationals entering the country. Lindela, outside Johannesburg, has been a scene of abuse, corruption and incessant overcrowding. But the undocumented are also held at police stations, even army bases.

“There is evidence that even in 1994, the records have shown that foreigners were thrown out moving trains because they are killed of bringing diseases, taking jobs, the same rhetoric we hear today,” Jean Pierre Misago, a researcher at the African Centre for Migration and Society at the University of Witwatersrand, said.

“It didn’t start or end in 2008. It had been building up,” he said.

And build up it did. In 1998, three foreign-nationals were killed on a train, between Johannesburg and Pretoria. In 2000, a Sudanese refugee was thrown from a train on a similar route. The reasons were all the same: blaming foreigners for a lack of jobs, or economic opportunity . In 2007, a shop in the eastern Cape was set alight by a mob.

The violence that escalated in 2008, was distinctive and decisive. It affected black, African foreign nationals; poor and disenfranchised South Africans; in the townships, but there is no evidence to suggest white Europeans were attacked,  or those from the Indian subcontinent.

A very particular demographic paid the price, but researchers remind us that at least one third of the victims were actually South African. Xenophobia is not a problem unique to South Africa.

With so many economies battling recession for the better part of the past decade, the deadly triad of competition-survival-blame has seen fear of the foreigner rise across the globe.

“Xenophobia is experienced in the north and the south, in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) regions and other countries. It’s a worldwide phenomenon,” Misago said.

But, contrary to popular belief, xenophobia in South Africa is not just a problem of the poor.

A national survey of the attitudes of the South African population towards foreign nationals in the country by the South African Migration Project in 2006 found xenophobia to be widespread: South Africans do not want it to be easier for foreign nationals to trade informally with South Africa (59 percent opposed), to start small businesses in South Africa (61 percent opposed) or to obtain South African citizenship (68 percent opposed).

The violence of 2008 was still shocking.

The country fell into mourning; South Africans understood that the innocence of democratic transition, purposefully packaged in cotton and celebrated with confetti, had finally been taken. The mask had fallen.

This was a country now reverberating under the internal schisms of rising dissent and desperation. The South African government, for its part, refused to label the violence as ‘xenophobic’.

Then President Thabo Mbeki, at the very end of his second term in office, said those who wanted to use the term were “trying to explain naked criminality by cloaking it in the garb of xenophobia”.

When I heard some accuse my people of xenophobia, of hatred of foreigners, I wondered what the accusers knew about my people, which I did not know ... and in spite of this reality, I will not hesitate to assert that my people are not diseased by the terrible affliction of xenophobia which has, in the past, led to the commission

of the heinous crime of genocide."


The government attempted to reduce the perception of the terror meted out on foreign nationals as benign, unexceptional acts of criminality. If they were orchestrated attacks, they said, ‘a third force’ was behind the violence, apartheid parlance for acts perpetrated by outside forces, or intelligence agencies.

“Of course violence against foreign nationals is criminal. But it can be criminal and xenophobic, it doesn’t have to be either or,” Misago said.

And even before the onset of the latest wave of violence in 2015, there was more to come.

In early 2013, a young Mozambican man named Mido Macia was tied to a police van and dragged through a street close to Johannesburg by officers. He had parked his taxi on the wrong side of the road.

The violence was captured on video

and spread across social media. Resounding condemnation from the middle classes in South Africa and the international community followed. President Zuma himself condemned the incident, but there was still no acknowledgement that these incidents constituted ‘hate crimes’.

When the riots broke out in Soweto in January 2015, it surprised no one.

Jean Pierre Misago

Researcher at the African Centre for

Migration and Society at the University of Witwatersrand

Michael Neocosmos

Professor and Director UHURU

Unit for the Humanities at Rhodes University

Does South Africa have a history of violence against foreign nationals?

How different is South African xenophobia different to what we see in Europe, for example?


What’s happening now is not new. It’s happened long before 2008, but it peaked in 2008 when so many people died and many people were

displaced. It never stopped since then.

So that we are seeing violence again in different areas of the country is no surprise to us. The way we see it is that government has always tried to call it criminality,

insisting that there is no xenophobia behind it but from a research point of view that’s not correct.

Because, of course violence against foreign nationals is criminal. But it can be criminal and xenophobic, it doesn’t have to be either or.


It’s not all that different in what was happening in other countries in Europe where those in power have been creating precisely an exclusionary understanding of who the nation is. People who migrate from elsewhere are outsiders who come here to steal…including

apparently stealing our democracy. It’s within that context that we have to understand this rise of xenophobic violence and attitudes more generally. The violence couldn’t take place if the attitudes are not there, and we have to insist on  the fact that xenophobia is not a problem of the poor.

How is it xenophobic?

Who in SA is xenophobic?

What’s happening now is not new. It’s happened long before 2008, but it peaked in 2008 when so many people died and many people were displaced. It never stopped since then.

You can see from various survey, attitude surveys taken through the years, that in fact xenophobia is widespread throughout all racial and ethnic groups, all gender groups, all political party groups- supporters throughout the country. In other words, xenophobic attitudes are prevalent irrespective of who you  are talking to.

And there is also a culture. When various individual politicians speak, they don’t just simply speak and then everyone forgets about it. It creates a culture. It creates  a culture in the same way as the people in the media create a culture by repeating discourses over and over again. And in the media,  there was a systematic targeting of immigrants, has calmed down,  except for one or two well known cases. But in the 1990’s even supposedly serious newspapers were going on and on about Nigerians all being drug dealers. This creates a culture.

Do we know how it was created culturally? And what’s currently feeding it?

There are different accounts and scholarly accounts on what’s causing xenophobia. And one thing I can say is that xenophobia is not unique to South Africa. It is experienced everywhere, in rich and poor countries, in the north and the south, in the SADC regions and other

countries. It’s a worldwide phenomenon. Migrants, especially poor migrants are affected by these kinds of feelings and sentiments.

One account is that xeno or the tendency to fear the stranger is inherent in human nature.  Some scholars give the example that when you go to visit family and you touch a kid and the kid doesn’t know you the reaction is what? To cry, as in “to put away, and I want to go back to my mum”. By this theory, the feeling is natural.  But the other theory says that it is actually a social construction.  So, this suggest that yes, even if there might be initial fear of the norm, after a while the kid is going to warm up to you once realizing you are not a danger.

It becomes a problem when there is something that perpetuates that fear, the feeling that this person is bad. And that’s where the social

construction comes in. And from that perspective in South Africa, we see the legacy of the past, for instance where the movement of people was perceived as a threat to residents and their livelihoods.

People were told to stay where they are: this is where you live, this is where you get your livelihood. Don’t move. The current dispensation has not been able to shake off that legacy. Movement is seen as a problem, as a threat to peoples’ lives, and we have to remember it’s not just about foreigners.

And so in South Africa the main explanations are the legacy of segregation; this legacy has not been addressed. And even the current leadership keeps using that kind of rhetoric: but calling immigrants or outsiders as criminals as bringing diseases, and blaming them for all sorts of socio-economic ills we face. From the national level to local level where local leaders blame the presence of foreigners for

the shortcomings of service delivery. "We can’t deliver because so many people keep flocking here". "Hospitals can’t cope because we are too many Zimbabweans coming in". "Not enough housing because too many foreigners". "Not enough jobs because foreigners are stealing them".

That kind of rhetoric forces that feeling that foreigners are here to take what is ours, what we deserve, and what supposed to be ours. And we don't have what we want,  "because of the presence of outsiders".

Xenophobia in South Africa | Chapter 3

On a busy Monday morning in mid-March in Soweto, Mphuti Mphuti, the acting head of the South African Spaza and Tuckshop Association, appeared on national TV, waving his South African identity document.

“Your government is saying this document means nothing. They are saying foreigners are equal to you,” Mphuti said.

In the weeks following a wave of attacks against foreign-owned businesses in Soweto earlier this year, groups similar to this association and claiming to represent some 3,000 businesses, have been particularly vocal about the presence of foreign nationals in the townships.

“There is tension, there is anger, especially amongst those who fear competition from the so-called foreigners,” said William Veli Sithole a 56-year-old food vendor in Dobsonville.

But while the gall of the mob shocks other South Africans, their activities have also managed to escape censure.

However, business owners in the country are not likely to be found hurling petrol bombs, or rocks, at foreign owned shops. Often it is a mob, made up of the township mainstay of unemployed youth that form the front lines of service delivery protests, vigilante justice, and repeated attacks against foreign nationals.

“At the time of looting the mob rule takes over, you do not have time to reason; you (only) have time to do what others are doing,” Sipho Mamize, a representative of the NGO Afrika Tikkun's Wings of Life Centre, in Diepsloot, told the national broadcaster.

Mphuti, however, said that at the heart of these township battles is the dereliction of government’s duty to its people that has spurred the resentment of foreign nationals here, culminating in the violent looting of foreign owned stores in January.

The people expect a lot from the government, he said.

For others, like Cynthia Khanyile, a street vendor in Jabulani, the blame lies elsewhere.

“I hate foreigners. I really don’t like them. They take business away from us. We work hard, but then the foreigners come and take our business and our jobs,” she said.

According to 2015 figures released by Statistics South Africa, 21.7 percent  of all South Africans live in extreme poverty. At least 53.8 percent survive on less than $75  a month.

It is the politics of survival.

The close knit structures of migrant communities which foster micro-lending and bulk buying schemes popular among Somalis, for example, has only served to disempowerment among locals. The upward mobility of those “from the outside” amidst local inertia is frustrating.

“As South Africans, we still cannot speak about the fruits of this democracy,” Mphuti said.

Sociologist Devan Pillay said that despite the redistributive rhetoric of the ruling-party, the new South Africa has “unleashed a socio-economic system of market violence against the majority of the population.”

Here, the perpetrators of xenophobic acts are victims of the violence meted out by the market.

“Whereas in other instances this might have taken a gendered form, or an ethnic form, in this instance, the convenient scapegoats were easily recognisable foreign nationals,” Pilay writes in “Go Home or Die Here”.

South African townships are a scene of daily pandemonium with residents protesting against poor service delivery, low levels of development or improvement to their lives. Twenty years on, the majority of  South Africans continue to live on the margins.

It is this desperate level of inequality, social scientists have warned, that continues to drive resentment and instability.

The attacks on foreigners do not happen in

a vacuum, nor can they be explained simply by hatred of all things foreign. This, after all, is a country still searching for social and economic reconciliation.

We have seen very little government intervention and upliftment of small businesses in the township,"


“And that’s why we are saying before government can say we are equal with foreign nationals, government must empower small South African businesses. But the critical thing is, South Africans must in the interest

of people who carry the ID book, the green ID book is our license to get preferential treatment from government.”

Days later, a formal agreement between foreign traders and South African business leaders was eventually reached.

The drama of Mphuti’s TV soliloquy was perhaps necessary to assert the will of a subdued population. He understands the discontents in Soweto, and he also knows how those discontents spill out onto the streets.

Orlando East

Jameel Buhle Gobile


Kwanele Godfrey Gumede

The trouble started in Snake Park and the violence spread everywhere. We were here in the city, and each and every shop is owned by the Somalians. You see what started this, we don't want these people here.

I was born in Soweto, I know what is going on here. There is a way of dealing with this problem. I don’t want to blame government but people are hungry. Me too, I’m hungry. And people will do anything when they are hungry.


Because when we see lots of shops owned by this people and when we see the shops that was owned by our peoples have been closed.

Each and every shops that was owned by our people has closed. Our brothers our sisters had shops, but when these people come, nobody was buying from our shops, for example: you can sell less price, our people will seek products that's high cost prices, so we feel it's not fair.

I looted their shops, I took the stuff from the shop. We were many, many people, young people, older people, men and women, everybody was angry. There was no leader, it was just us fighting them. We broke their shops and took everything. We were all over Soweto. We went this side, and then go another side, finish that side and go another side.

We were busy looting  all over the place.

I didn’t get caught by the police but some of my friends were locked up. Then the police released them after two, or three days.

But now the Somalians are all back and we feel angry, angry, angry, we feel the law is failing the citizen. Because all of them they do business, and we know for sure they don't pay taxes, because they pay taxes to the police. The police they come here and they demand

cold-drinks, biscuits, snacks, sweets, and cigarettes from them. The police are involved in everything, because the police they come here and they demand.

I was working before  but this year I don't have a job.

In this township there are a lot of young guys who have a matric certificate but no jobs.  I don't have a matric, but when I see my friends, there are many people living here who are not employed. So I’m staying here, each and every day I can see things are not the same. All of my life I was staying here in Soweto. There are a lot a

lot of people without work, I can't say that they don't want to work, but many of them they are trying, but, there is no change. I can't see change.

I can say even if  one shop, they hire maybe two, or three people, it will make a big change in our country, I can't say in our country in our city. Because in our city there is full of them.

Yes, when I can see our people they don't have enough strength to open their shops again because everyone buys from the Somalians shops. Yes, I also still buy bread, milk and airtime from the Somalians’ shops.

I can buy the bread from South Africans shops for R12, for example, but the bread by the Somalian people is  R11. Everyone will go to Somalian people, because of what, one rand. That's it.


People have listening to many false promises from people to employ them, or to create employment. And then on the other side the foreigners are trading and they are successful here among people who are hungry.

And then when there are problems it is usually sparked by service delivery because when protests against service delivery happens, people begin to take advantage of foreign owned shops and then they

drink. If you look into it, after the looting has taken place, two days later, that service delivery protest also dies down because there’s nothing left to loot, nothing to burn, no property to damage, or ransack. What we saw happening in January, we saw young and old,

carrying things from foreign shops like they have just gone shopping. You see, people are hungry and they are unemployed.

For me the solution lies in foreign nationals, who are large in number, to hire a South African in each shop they run. So now, if we estimate, there are 5,000 foreign owned shops on the East Rand, then 5,000 South Africans can be employed there.

People wait for an excuse to raise their issues, like we see what happened here in Soweto after the child was killed in Snake Park. One child was killed by one foreigner but all foreigners were affected. So you see, people wait for an excuse to express their frustration against foreigners.

But you see, if we say the foreigners must go, but if we do that, I think we are bringing economic sanctions to our our country. We depend on foreigners and on imported goods also.

William Veli Sithole

In January,  it started when they said a schoolchild was killed by foreigners. Anger boiled, and then it sort of took over even some criminal elements who saw a way of destabilizing the shop owners.


My community was drastically affected because in the aftermath of the attacks and looting, people suffered. They were forced to go to faraway places like Shoprite and other shops to go buy food.

We have gotten used to foreigners, they supply most of the things that we use in our houses and they are not far from us. But now there is a criminal element you must know of. The drug addicts, they are the ones

who are being used by certain local shop owners who fear competition from the foreigners.

I don’t fear competition. The foreign shopkeepers are like my brothers. Why should I fear them? They are as human as I am.

I tell you what though, the government and the governments of those foreign nationals struck a deal of which we know nothing of, to have these people, to be brought in, because one morning we woke up they were here, hiring buildings, making shops in people’s houses, even though the rents are exorbitant but they are paying. It’s their own deal the shop owner and the owner of the house.

Foreigners are also trying to make a living for themselves, even though somewhere, somehow they don’t pay tax, while it’s a government issue to handle, its not for me to question how the government goes

about their own stuff regarding taxes.

Our government also knows, the State Security people, know who the perpetrators of the violence are, and they looking the other way sometimes. And mostly, it’s because of power hungry people that cause all those conflicts that only if they could, they should sit around the table and resolve their differences for the sake of peace.

But our government, must address poverty. It is poverty that makes people lose their minds.

We are a peace loving nation. And we accommodate people from outside.

We need to work together to keep things running smoothly for the sake of peace because no parent would like to see their child perish in a war.

Who is responsible for the violence? Individuals or groups?

It’s a group of people coming together and deciding to attack. Most of the time violence happens after a general public meeting, organised by the community leaders, where foreigners are discussed, and then a decision is taken to remove them from the community. In those meetings, it a matter of taking charge: "this is the situation, we can’t continue like this", or "there is nobody else to take care of this issue," or "It’s now us who has to deal with it".

So there is clear evidence that violence happens after local leaders, and they don't have to be local government leaders, meet and decide. And this is another issue: often local resident groups are more

powerful than the local government.

Local council members are often reminded there are other powerful groups calling the shots, and those are the ones they listen to, and in some instances, these informal leaders or groups have specific incentives in the removal of foreign nationals because it consolidates their power and their power comes with economic benefits.

We tend to think that community leadership is a voluntary kind of business, but it’s not. It’s paid, it’s a form of income generation, because community leaders charge you for a service. If you have a problem, they don’t hear the problem before you give them something.

They locate space for big sharks; they locate land, they resolve conflicts and for that everybody pays. So the more legitimacy, the more clients, and the more economic avenues they have. So that’s why we often conclude that the violence we see is politics of other means because it has political and economic motives behind it.

Even if the general communities say we have no problem with foreign nationals because actually we benefit from their presence, their voice gets drowned out. And the police and everybody doesn’t do anything about it. And the problem is, those are not the amongst those arrested. Only those caught in looting and taking things from the shops. But the true perpetrators who are behind the violence are not touched and they continue to influence the next…whenever they feel it

suits their interest. That’s why we have seen some areas have become scenes of repeated violence because the perpetrators are still there, the investigators are still there…there didn’t do anything about the focus…

Who are behind the looters?

We haven’t seen any investigation beyond the looters to look at who is behind the violence; who organised and who reaps the benefits. So people get caught looting, they are released after a few days but the

instigators are still on the streets. The same will happen in Soweto.

So generally speaking, there hasn’t been any systematic sustained will from government, the political leadership and the police to fix this. And it sends out a very bad message. And when there is no political will, there is noone you can call for protection. So what do you do? You try many many things, and that’s where we are now.

Does the larger community never ever intervene?

In some instances, very few, but in very interesting cases, community members have resisted saying that we cannot attack foreigners because we been living with them for a long time. They actually protected them. Even Landlords organising to protect the people who are renting.

But in some of these cases, foreigners have also been forced to agree to certain conditions. Like not selling goods cheaper than the locals, or not opening a certain number of shops.

Xenophobia in South Africa | Chapter 4

Mxolisi Eric Xayiya, an aide to Gauteng Premier David Makhura, took photos of the fridges and assortment of goods covered in thick plastic at a Somali-owned wholesaler in Mayfair.

He was being ushered through the area west of the Johannesburg city skyline days after foreign traders were attacked in Soweto some 20 minutes away.

Foreign owned stores were looted, foreigners were attacked and their lives threatened.

There, the parking lot of Awash Cash & Carry appeared to be overrun with the salvaged remains of foreign-owned stores.

essay on xenophobia in south africa

“We only saw the foreigners leaving but we didn’t know where they were going,” Xayiya said in late January.

At the time, police were still battling to contain the violence and more than 100 alleged looters had been arrested. The violence threatened to spread even further.

And in an impassioned address to more than 500 affected migrants that day, Makhura condemned the violence, but insisted that it should not be seen as anything other than an act of criminality.

“What we have seen happening, ladies and gentlemen, is not xenophobia, it’s criminality,” Makhura told the crowd. “We have gone out to the community to talk, telling our community members that nobody in our communities must try to defend criminality.”

As Makhura continued to condemn the violence, he also commended the police for moving migrants out of what he called “difficult areas”.

A day after Makhura addressed migrant traders, flanked by senior police officials, the City Press made a shocking allegation.

The Johannesburg-based Sunday broadsheet said that people arrested in connection with looting foreign owned stores in Soweto that week claimed local police had spurred them on.

“Cops told us to loot,” the headline said.

Ten Soweto residents in various parts of the township, who had admitted to looting, told the paper that the police had either join in the looting, or looked on while they helped themselves to goods and fridges from foreign-owned stores, while victims raised allegations of police complicity, corruption and neglect.

Two days later, speaking on SAFM, a talk radio station owned by the public broadcaster, Lieutenant General Solomon Makgale, spokesperson for the South African Police Services vehemently rejected City Press’ claims. He said all allegations had to be registered as complaints to be investigated.

However, Makgale admitted that one particular police officer who had been caught looting toilet paper in a widely disseminated video had been identified and action had been taken against him.

“Unlike previous administrations, we don’t brush things under the carpet,” he said. “Any complaints of misconduct by police officers will be investigated without prejudice.”

The South African Human Rights Commission said its research has shown that “negative perceptions of and attitudes to justice and the rule of law abound at the level of affected communities”.

This then points to a “poor relationship between communities and the police and wider judicial system”.

Attacks against foreigners have continued. Researchers say recent bouts of violence against foreign nationals have already outstripped the carnage of 2008. Still no official mention of ‘hate’, or ‘xenophobia’; the language carefully coiled.

In fact, language goes to the heart of the problem, with South Africa conflating rights with nation-state citizenship, despite the promises of the Constitution, to protect all. When the South African government speaks of justice, rights or solutions, the emphasis on citizenship is marked. In so doing, Zuma’s administration, time and time again descend to the very games engendered to create outrage on the street.

In February, following January’s attacks, President Zuma spoke of a “need to support local entrepreneurs and eliminate possibilities for criminal elements to exploit local frustrations.”

And even as Minister of Small Business Development Lindiwe Zulu, recently established a Task Team to look at the underlying causes of the violence against foreign-owned businesses, her point of departure left observers beleaguered. Zulu was reported to the Human Rights Commission for inferring that foreign-business owners in South Africa’s townships could not expect to co-exist peacefully with local business owners unless they shared their trade secrets.

“Foreigners need to understand that they are here as a courtesy and our priority is to the people of this country first and foremost,” she was quoted as saying .

Minister Zulu later clarified her remarks, but the damage it seems, had already been done.


Is there a vacuum of governance that contributes to the problem?

Even before these actions are instigated,  organisers weigh up the costs to the benefits. And if the benefits outweigh the costs it is because governance in that specific locality allows it. So there is no accountability, nobody is held accountable, the police do not intervene, the local councillors are not going to help the police and this and that.

The socio-economic and legal controls are in favour of the instigators. In literature they say this happens when social controls are weak. But this is not always the case. Sometimes we see strong leadership is actually behind the violence, using the same social controls to actually mobilize communities toward violence.

The point here is that: violence doesn’t happen if the governance of that area does not allow it. And when I say governance I refer to what is what is broadly defined: moral, legal, social, police, everything

combined. So that kind of governance allows for what is known as a political important structure for violence to take place.

Where do we see violence?

We see violence in areas where… the “official” leadership- from government is either directly involved, as in they’re the ones telling communities to attack foreigners, or complicit with the organisers.

The leadership does not want the state to stand in its way because they, the fear of losing their political positions. That’s the second.

The third scenario is when the leadership is completely weak and has been taken over by those other informal groups who see the use of violence as benefiting them, or responding to their socio-economic interests.

That’s why we see violence not happening in all localities where we see the similar conditions- you have poverty, inequality, poor service delivery in many areas, but we don’t see violence in all areas.

Xenophobia in South Africa | Chapter 5

Addressing a group of around 300 migrant traders in early March, Amir Sheikh, the chairperson of the Somali Community Board in South Africa, appeared confident. Weeks after violence against foreign nationals erupted in Soweto, he was relating news of progress.

"We have had three meetings with the Minister of Small Business Development and we have given her a briefing of the challenges you face in the township, and what we think is the cause and the solution," Sheikh said.

We know that things are much better now but we don’t want this to happen again."


Most of the displaced foreigners had been restored to their stores and a fragile calm had been negotiated. Representatives from both the community and the South African business community in Soweto continued to meet with government to negotiate sustainable conditions for foreigners and South Africans to coexist. Sheikh told the assembled migrants that a cohort of lawyers had offered to take up the case of traders who were affected by the violence in Soweto earlier this year.

The victims of the Soweto violence certainly have a case.

The South African Constitution, along with various international treaties ratified by the South African government, ensures the protection of all persons who reside within the country from violations to the right to liberty and security of person.

And when it comes to cases of violence against foreigners, the state is particularly obliged to protect the victims from individuals who perpetrate the violence.

This time, however, legal redress is not being sought.

Sheik said its the safer, more practical option. He said that two years ago, Ethiopians, Somalis and Bangladeshis were attacked in Duduza in Nigel (east of Johannesburg).

“They actually interdicted the councillors, and the chairperson (of ANC Youth League), and these people were even all detained for up to one week .… But today you go to Duduza and and there is not even a single shop belonging to us there.”

Foreign nationals are reluctant to seek legal redress because of the consequences court cases often inspire. After all, how does justice protect the returning migrant looking to reintegrate into a society already hostile to foreigners?

Lessons learned, leaders of the migrant communities are now determined to prevent a mass exodus of foreign traders from Soweto. With more than 1000 foreign-owned shops in the township, Sheik says: “As long as we can co-exist and agree on certain terms, we don’t want to go the legal route.”

A South African Human Rights Commission report in 2010 (pdf below)

found that “the judicial outcomes for cases arising from the 2008 violence have limited the attainment of justice for victims of the attacks and have allowed for significant levels of impunity for perpetrators”.

About 180 people were arrested in connection with the looting and violence in January. It’s unlikely any of these will result in convictions.

Neocosmos says that the lack of convictions in cases of violence against foreign nationals in South Africa strips the government’s approach through the criminal justice system of any efficacy.

“I know one person was convicted for throwing a guy off a balcony in Durban. How many people are in prison now as a result of those murders? These are murders that were committed on camera in front of everyone. How many people have been convicted?”

The best known case of xenophobic violence in 2008 is of “The Burning Man”, Mozambican national, Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave, who was burned alive in the Ramaphosa settlement in full view of the world’s media.

The case was closed in October 2010 with the conclusion that there were no witnesses and no suspects. According to the Sunday Times newspaper, a single sheet of paper indicates detective Sipho Ndybane's investigation :

"Suspects still unknown and no witnesses.” The lack of political will screamed through the short conclusion.

Just over a month after January’s violence against foreigners in Soweto, reports emerge of a petrol bomb thrown at a foreign-owned store in Doornkop.  This time, it’s an Ethiopian national that has incurred severe burns. Police say they arrested nine people in connection with the incident.

Two months later this man is still in hospital. No word about his belongings or livelihood. The work of ‘a mob.’

Meanwhile, Abdikadir Ibrahim Danicha,the Somali national who was burned after his shop was petrol bombed in Johannesburg last year, is determined to have his case solved in court.

“I’ve been to court six times already for the one case about public violence and damage to property,” he said. “But the other case, about me burning, I’ve not yet been called to court about it.”

Danicha was one of the traders in the crowd that was addressed by Sheikh and the leaders of the newly-established “Township Business Development-South Africa” group. He is confident that the route chosen by the leadership, the choice of negotiations with government and Soweto business leaders is the right option.

“We have to try to work together,” he said. “Because there is nowhere else we can go.”

Marc Gbaffou

Amir Sheikh


I moved to South Africa from Cote d’Ivoire,  in 1997 and in my experience, South Africa can

be very good, and very bad.


South Africa is still ahead of many African countries in terms of its economy, its democracy and also the application of the law


When you meet people who are not selfish, who know how to liaise with other communities, who know how to regard other communities as an asset, then South Africa becomes interesting.

But South Africa becomes very bad when you have your own brothers and sisters beating you, chasing you away from the community, telling you that you are not part of them. This South Africa is very, very bad.

In 2008, I personally sent 700 people back home because they didn’t feel safe to remain in South Africa.They called on us for help. And with the aid of a local newspaper, we were able to voluntarily repatriate these people.

We strongly believe that the motives behind the attacks against foreign nationals are purely political. It is important that we point out that each time an election is approaching then migrants are being targeted.

We say this cannot continue. Our community members are not scapegoats for the problems of South African communities.

South Africa is very good when you meet with nice people, open minded people who want to change the world, and who want to change the world for everyone, not just for themselves.

I think that we can live together, making use of each other, instead of isolating yourself and being scared of everyone.


Somalia is in turmoil, and that is well known, and when we see some of our other brothers and sisters here, like Ethiopians: they are not even free in their own countries. They can’t talk freely out of fear of being

killed. So in comparison, South Africa has one of the best-written constitutions but implementation is always a problem.

For the Somalis in South Africa who have suffered back home, for the youngsters whose education was disrupted, and who now face persecution in South Africa, it is like being caught between two hells.

But we believe in life after death. But the truth is Somalis in South Africa have a lot of opportunities that we don’t have back at home, despite the problems, the killing, the looting, the maiming, that we face every, single day here.

So between Somalia and South Africa, Somalis have progressed here, some have furthered their education, while others have succeeded in business. We are not in the same state that the first Somali migrants were in 20-years-ago.

Although South Africa has ratified many treaties internationally and in Africa, and also has its own law about the way migrants should be accepted here, we also have to respect the locals, even when they are wrong. We are weak. So even when the Zulu King says all foreigners should leave, we know we can lodge a complaint with the South African Human Rights Commission, or we can criticize it in the media,  but we cannot go that route because he has many followers and we fear reprisals and victimisation.

So we choose the route of dialogue, sitting with people, explaining to them that we are not a threat to them, and at least we can say we have been successful, because our members are back in Soweto and trading.

But we have also learned through sitting at the table with South African business representatives and government, that even if we are naturalised South African citizens, we will still be treated differently; we will always be a foreigner. We have been called names that can lead to ethnic profiling, we have been accused of being terrorists.

We have found that yes, according to the Bill of Rights, the Constitution, the law, we are equal to South Africans and but on the ground we are not equal.

What needs to be clarified through better education that it a legal requirement that foreigners have socio-economic rights here.

What are foreigners supposed to do if justice fails them?

Is there a solution to xenophobia in South Africa?

Some foreigners are now turning to illegal firearms for protection. We have seen in January what happens when they use them. That action then legitimizes the violence we see.

So people say, “They are killing us, it’s now self-defence, and we have to protect ourselves. We can’t allow people coming from outside the country to come and kill us in our country.”

This cannot be sustainable. Today it can be foreign nationals, but tomorrow it can be somebody else. So our leaders must be very very careful, they might not care because foreigners are not their constituency… [but] next time it’s going to be somebody else.

When violence makes political and economic sense, it’s dangerous.

Everybody can be an outsider somewhere. We are all outsiders, and we have seen signs when people march to say people coming from another area cannot get jobs here anymore, we should be getting jobs in this company because this is our area.

That’s my view, everyone should get jobs where they born. It’s dangerous, it’s very very serious, I’m very worried because I don’t see leaders taking the issue seriously. They think it's foreigners, but its more than that.

It’s some section of the population deciding who has the right to live where, and to live in our cities and enjoy the benefits they offer.

And that’s dangerous as I said because everyone is a foreigner somewhere. We are all foreigners.

There are solutions but people have to understand there’s a different way of thinking. The only way is people have to sit down and talk and they not talking, there is no culture of talking there is a culture of violence.

So in those situations in where people have organised politically as defending themselves and attacking others, but to bring various people in the community together and talk. Its important to stress that in some places violence has not occurred around foreigners.

And there are important reasons why this has often taken place its because where violence hasn’t taken place people are organised enough to unify the community around certain issues and bring people together to make the point that violence against

foreigners is no solution to anyone.

So this is possible, this idea of talking and organising communally can take place at different levels

of our political society and that is what’s required. Unfortunately in this country we don’t do enough talking.

essay on xenophobia in south africa

Photography by Ihsaan Haffejee

Produced by @ajlabs

Mohammed Haddad and Alia Chughtai


essay on xenophobia in south africa

  • South Africa

Xenophobia, politics, and religion as we approach the 2024 elections in South Africa


This essay explores the linkages between xenophobia, politics and religion, in the run-up to the general elections in South Africa. Despite this year’s general elections coinciding with South Africa’s 30-year anniversary of democracy and freedom, there is very little to celebrate: while there have been gains in the promotion of human rights and democracy since the end of the Apartheid era, such gains have been overshadowed by the critical energy crisis, high profile cases of corruption, high unemployment, increased inequalities, and incidences of xenophobia. Xenophobia is defined as the “dislike, hatred, or fear of outsiders. This can manifest as hostility toward immigrants, but it can also manifest as hatred toward members of another tribe, culture, or religion.” 1  In the South African context, xenophobia has mainly manifested itself in a unique way: local black South Africans have been channeling their dislike or anger towards Black immigrants from other African countries, a phenomenon referred to as Afrophobia. In recent years, there has also been the formation of militia groups such as Operation Dudula, which has been responsible for mobilizing local citizens against foreigners by terrorizing neighborhoods with large concentrations of immigrants living within communities. Additionally, Operation Dudula also confronts companies and businesses suspected of employing foreigners and/or illegal immigrants, at the expense of local citizens. Operation Dudula was recently registered as a political party. 2  This anti-immigrant organization has been accused of engaging in physical violence, hate speech, and calling on the government to close borders and “clean up” big cities, such as Johannesburg and Pretoria—where foreigners are allegedly illegally occupying and hijacking dilapidated building within the city centers.

In most cases, foreigners living in abandoned buildings have been accused of engaging in illicit activities, such as selling drugs and contraband goods, as well as engaging in violent crimes. These allegations were fueled when, months ago, more than 70 people occupying an old building in Johannesburg (most of whom were people from Malawi, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, and Mozambique) died after the building caught fire. 3  Recently, these xenophobic perspectives have shifted slightly from primarily focusing on African immigrants from neighboring countries to include Indians and Pakistanis—particularly those owning Spaza shops—by accusing them of selling poor-quality, expired or contraband goods.

According to the 2022 census, the number of known economic and political immigrants in South Africa is estimated to be around 3.95 million. 4 However, the real number of foreigners living in South Africa may exceed 3.95 million because of the existence of a large number of undocumented immigrants. Most of these foreigners, particularly those deemed illegal immigrants, live below the poverty line, engaging in informal jobs as a means of survival. Most of the foreigners regarded as “illegals” are blamed by local South Africans for taking jobs from them. However, such claims cannot be easily verified. Foreigners with work permits are not allowed to occupy a position when there is a local citizen who is qualified for the job. When compared to the overall population of 53 million people in South Africa, the allegation that foreigners—topping 3.95 million in total—are taking away jobs from local citizens cannot be substantiated. Some scholars have regarded this influx of immigrants from the neighboring countries as forced immigration, 5 because of the political turmoil and collapsed economies in their countries. It can be argued that the upcoming elections in South Africa are of critical importance to the country’s ability to play a pivotal role in enhancing democracy, economic growth, peace, and security in the neigbouring countries.

The South African context of xenophobia

There has been much speculation about the causes of xenophobia in South Africa. Some scholars, such as Harris, regard it as a mindset that was engendered by the Apartheid era. 6 The oppression of the Black people in South Africa during the years of Apartheid rule is regarded as being responsible for a closed mindset, including prevailing suspicion and lack of trust of foreigners. 7  Other scholars have regarded the mushrooming of xenophobic tendencies in post-Apartheid South Africa as a political tactic aimed at diverting the attention of local people from the real issues that are affecting them, such as growing inequality, unemployment rates, high levels of corruption, and poor service delivery in the country. From a religious perspective, xenophobia is regarded as having emanated from a heretical theology, a replica of a reformed apartheid theory that instilled an element of superiority and entitlement among Black and white South Africans.

The different perspectives on what could be the cause of xenophobia clearly indicate the intertwining of different social, political, and religious issues still affecting the country despite the end of the Apartheid era. The different facets describing the cause of xenophobia in South Africa also indicate that the country is divided along social, political, and religious lines despite extensive effort to bring reconciliation in the post-Apartheid era. Churches have been unable to deal with the problem by promoting inclusivity. This indicates the existence of an inherent problem that needs serious attention. The energy crisis in the country and the high levels of unemployment and poverty has exacerbated the divisions by creating an environment brimming with crime, violence, and xenophobia. The need to deal with the different forms of divisions ravaging the country is high. The search for solutions must go beyond simply uniting different races and establish the initiation and promotion of ethnic and racial cohesion, immigrant integration, and social and economic justice for all.

Effects of xenophobia on regional security—and what can be done to deal with the problem

The problem of xenophobia is not only a South African problem. Xenophobia can spill into other neighboring countries, given the influence that South Africa has over the region. However, the lack of capacity to deal with the underlying issues fueling xenophobia indicates that the problem is likely to continue for years to come. As the 2024 elections on May 29 approaches, we are already seeing xenophobic trends, as politicians are already raising the alarm on issues pertaining to open borders and expired contraband goods sold by Asian immigrants, Ethiopians, and Somalis. Such politicians are also calling for the change of visa and residency conditions to expel illegal immigrants and refugees. The cases in point include ActionSA and Patriotic Alliance, which have been using their campaign streams to incite local South Africans against foreigners; ActionSA, in particular, “was able to score points with xenophobic sloganeering during the 2022 municipal elections.” 8 Although the ruling party appears to portray a non-xenophobic face as it prepares for its toughest elections in history, the chances of joining the xenophobic campaign trail are high since there are so many xenophobic forces within its ranks, some of its top leadership even having been responsible for uttering statements that have fueled attacks on foreigners in the past. 9  The coming on the electoral scene of the uMkhonto weSizwe Party (MK), which has already been labeled ethnocentric, and the quest of the Economic Freedom Front (which is openly xenophobic) to secure votes, might create a volatile and tense atmosphere. Although the influx of African and Asian immigrants is a serious problem in South Africa, there is a need to deal with the problem in a proper and organized manner. The tendency of politicians to exploit immigration issues to inspire violence and xenophobia, in order to gain political mileage and win public favor by taking advantage of a partly broken society that has not completely healed from the legacy of Apartheid. This is a sign that the political leaders are selfish and unethical in their bid to win votes.

According to the report of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), an independent organisation which is based in Pretoria, the South African immigration situation is not unique to the world. “The xenophobic rhetoric” by anti-migrant groups, politicians, and public officials, claiming the country is overrun by immigrants, is not true. This rhetoric has only succeeded in creating an atmosphere of resentment towards migrants. 10 The step taken by President Ramaphosa to establish the “National Action Plan” in 2019, for the purpose of combating racism and xenophobia’ and condemning anti-migrant protests and vigilante groups for attacking and harassing foreigners, has played a great role in calming the situation. But experts say that the government needs to do more in order to solve the problem. 11

Xenophobia is a growing problem in South Africa and, with the coming of elections it poses a serious security challenge to citizens and immigrants alike. The solution to the problem does not lie in denying the existence of growing intolerance of African and Asian immigrants in the country. It is only by accepting that this problem exists that genuine steps can be taken toward resolving it. The solution lies in promoting inclusivity, equality, unity in diversity, and social and economic justice for all. There is also a need for all sectors of society to be involved in dealing with the problem. Politicians must desist or refrain from making statements that violate the rights of the vulnerable in society, sowing seeds of division, racism, and xenophobia. People in positions of power have an obligation to create an environment that promotes peace, security, equality, and respect for the rights of all people, enacting laws that protect immigrants. Therefore, election campaigns should be based on the rule of law by focusing on eradicating corruption, creating employment, bringing development, and building a stable economy through foreign investment rather than being used to fuel discord in the country.

  • Villines, Z. “Xenophobia: Meaning, signs, examples, and more.” August 5, 2022. (Accessed October 25, 2023)
  • Allison, S. “South African anti-migrant ‘vigilantes’ register as party for next year’s polls.” September 26, 2023. (Accessed October 30, 2023).
  • Bezuidenhout, C. “Another building fire breaks out in Joburg CBD.” September 23, 2023. (Accessed October 10, 2023).
  • Gordon, S. “Xenophobia is on the rise in South Africa: scholars weigh in on the migrant question.” April 14, 2022. (Accessed October 30, 2023)
  • Concern worldwide. “Six causes of forced migration.” Concern worldwide US . June 29, 2019. (Accessed November 01, 2023).
  • Harris, B. “A Foreign Experience: Violence, Crime and Xenophobia during South Africa’s Transition.” Violence and Transition Series 5 (2001): 70
  • Kaziboni, A. (2022). Apartheid Racism and Post-apartheid Xenophobia: Bridging the Gap. In: Rugunanan, P., Xulu-Gama, N. (eds) Migration in South Africa. IMISCOE Research Series. Springer, Cham.
  • Schwikowski, M. 2023. South Africa faces growing xenophobia problem. November 4, 2023. (Accessed on January 04, 2024)
  • Guilengue, F. Xenophobia and Social Cohesion in South Africa. September 9, 2023. (Accessed January 04, 2023)
  • Charlie, A & Ford, T. Inside South Africa’s Operation Dudula: ‘Why we hate foreigners.’ September 18, 2023. (Accessed January 04, 2024)
  • Saudi Gazette. Why South African vigilante group hates foreigners. September 18, 2023. (Accessed January 04, 2023).


Bambo Miti has a Bachelor of Theology Honours degree and Master of Theology degree in systematic theology (MTh) from the University of South Africa. He is currently a PhD candidate in systematic theology at the same university. He is also an intern at the Protestant Theological Faculty, Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic, under the Coimbra Group Scholarship. He has presented papers at notable international conferences. His research interests straddle along African theology, African Pentecostalism, ecumenism, reconciliation, and migration. His doctoral research focuses on the role of faith traditions (African Pentecostalism) in dealing with the problem of violence and xenophobia... Read more

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  • 28 May 2024

‘Stop the xenophobia’ — South African researchers sound alarm on eve of election

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Sarah Wild is a freelance journalist in Canterbury, UK.

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Election posters for the African National Congress, Economic Freedom Fighters and the Democratic Alliance parties. Credit: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg via Getty

South Africans will head to the ballot box on 29 May for a general election at which, for the first time in 30 years, the incumbent African National Congress (ANC) party’s majority is in question. Scientists hope that the next government will stoke South Africa’s faltering economy and reverse its declining trend in research funding. But researchers have also told Nature that they are concerned about the xenophobic rhetoric used during campaigning. Among other things, they worry that these attitudes are making the nation less welcoming to researchers from other African countries.

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South Africa ‘on the precipice of explosive xenophobic violence’, UN experts warn

Surviving through COVID-19 has been particularly difficult for vulnerable refugees and migrants living in South Africa.

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A group of independent UN human rights experts have condemned reports of escalating violence targeting foreign nationals in South Africa, and called for accountability against rising xenophobia, racism and hate speech aimed at migrants, refugees, asylum seekers - and even citizens perceived as outsiders - throughout the country.

In a statement released on Friday, the rights experts cited “Operation Dudula” as an example of hate speech. Originally a social media campaign, Operation Dudula has become an umbrella for the mobilization of violent protests, vigilante violence, arson targeting migrant-owned homes and businesses, and even the murder of foreign nationals.

The experts, known as Special Rapporteurs, warned that the ongoing xenophobic mobilization is broader and deeper, and has become the central campaign strategy for some political parties in the country.

“Anti-migrant discourse from senior government officials has fanned the flames of violence, and government actors have failed to prevent further violence or hold perpetrators accountable,” they said.

‘Too black to be South African’

“Without urgent action from the government of South Africa to curb the scapegoating of migrants and refugees, and the widespread violence and intimidation against these groups, we are deeply concerned that the country is on the precipice of explosive violence,” the group continued.  

The experts noted that xenophobia, especially against low-income, African and Southeast Asian migrants and refugees, had been a feature of South African politics for many years.

In 2008, for example, xenophobic violence resulted in the death of over 60 people and contributed to the displacement of at least 100,000.

Xenophobia is often explicitly racialised, targeting low-income Black migrants and refugees and, in some cases, South African citizens accused of being “too Black to be South African.”

In one highly publicised incident in April 2022, a 43-year-old Zimbabwean national and father of four was killed in Diepsloot by a group going door-to-door demanding to see visas.

The attackers drove the victim out of a place where he was seeking refuge, beat him and set him on fire. The violence has continued unabated. It is alleged that the burning of the Yeoville Market in Johannesburg on 20 June this year, was carried out by persons targeting migrant shopkeepers.

A family look out over Durban in South Africa from their apartment building. They fled their home in the Democratic Republic of the Congo due to conflict more than fifteen years ago. (Dec 2021)

‘Institutionalized discrimination’

The UN experts observed that discrimination against foreign nationals in South Africa has been institutionalized both in government policy and broader South African society.

This had led to violations of the right to life and physical integrity, and rights to an adequate standard of living and to the highest attainable standard of health, as well as elevated risks of arbitrary detention, torture and refoulement, they said.

The experts also expressed concern over reports that widespread corruption in the South African asylum and migration systems compound these dangerous problems.

“The cost in human dignity and lives, particularly in light of the past 30 years of xenophobic violence, remains widespread and deeply troubling,” the experts said.

“We are gravely concerned that South Africa is not meeting its positive obligations to protect and promote human rights while preventing racial and xenophobic discrimination,” they said.

“At the same time, perpetrators enjoy widespread impunity for xenophobic rhetoric and violence, leading to a lack of accountability for serious human rights violations and the flourishing of racist and xenophobic political platforms.”

The experts urged private and public actors to honour their commitments to human rights and racial justice, and take a firm stand against the racist and xenophobic violence which continues in South Africa.

The UN experts have been in official communication with the South African Government to address these allegations and clarify its obligations under international law.

UN Special Rapporteurs 

Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council .

Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world.

Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

*The experts:

Ms E. Tendayi Achiume, Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance;

Mr. Morris Tidball-Binz, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions ;

Mr. Felipe González Morales, Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants.

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Human Rights Careers

5 Essays About Xenophobia

The word “xenophobia” has ties to the Greek words “xenos,” which means “stranger or “guest,” and “phobos,” which means “fear” or “flight.” It makes sense that today we define “xenophobia” as a fear or hatred of strangers or foreigners. Xenophobia has always existed, but the world has experienced a surge in recent years. The essays described in this article provide examples of xenophobia, its ties to anti-immigration and nationalism, and how diseases like COVID-19 trigger prejudice.

“These charts show migrants aren’t South Africa’s biggest problem”

Abdi Latif Dahir  | Quartz Africa

Between March 29-April 2 in 2019, violence broke out in a South African municipality. Foreign nationals were targeted. Even though people were killed and businesses looted and destroyed, the police didn’t make any arrests. This represents a pattern of violence against foreigners who are mostly migrants from other places in Africa. Reporter Abdi Latif Dahir explains that these recent attacks are based on a belief that migrants cause South Africa’s economic and social problems. In this article from Quartz Africa, he outlines what people are blaming migrants for. As an example, while politicians claim that migrants are burdening the country, the data shows that migrants make up a very small percentage of the country.

Abdi Latif Dahir reports for Quartz Africa and speaks multiple languages. He also holds a master’s of arts degree in political journalism from Columbia University.

“Opinion: A rise in nationalism could hurt minorities”

Raveena Chaudhari | The Red and Black

Nationalism is on the rise in many countries around the world, including the US. The election of Donald Trump signaled a resurgence in nationalism, including white nationalism. In her essay, Raveena Chaudhari explains that far-right politics have been gaining steam in Western Europe since the 1980s. The US is just following the trend. She also uses the terms “patriotism,” which is an important part of the American identity, and “nativism,” which is closely linked to a fear of immigrants and diversity. Xenophobia easily emerges from these ideas. Minorities feel the consequences of a rise in nationalism most keenly. Raveena Chaudhari is a junior accounting major and staff writer for The Red and Black, a nonprofit corporation that circulates the largest college newspaper in Georgia. For 87 years, it operated under the University of Georgia but is now independent of the college.

“The Deep Roots of Trump’s Anti-Immigrant Policies”

Daniel Denvir | Jacobin

In this essay, author Daniel Denvir digs into the background of President Trump’s anti-immigration policies. At the time of this piece’s writing, the Supreme Court had allowed the administration to exclude certain groups from entering the United States. The travel ban has been labeled the “Muslim ban.” Where did these anti-immigrant views come from? They aren’t original to Donald Trump. Denvir outlines the history of racist and xenophobic policies that paint immigrants as a threat to America. Knowing that these views are ingrained in American society is important if we want change.

Daniel Denvir is the host of “The Dig” on Jacobin Radio and the author of All-American Nativism, a critique of nativists and moderate Democrats.

“Nationalism isn’t xenophobia, but it’s just as bad” 

Jeffrey Friedman | Niskanen Center

If you’re unsure what the difference is between nationalism and xenophobia, this essay can help clarify things. Written in 2017, this piece starts by examining surveys and studies measuring how xenophobic Trump supporters are. They also explore the reasons why people oppose illegal/legal immigration. The core of the essay, though, takes a look at nationalism vs. xenophobia. While different, Friedman argues that they are both irrational. The distinction is important as it reveals common ground between Trump supporters and Trump opponents. What does this mean?

Jeffrey Friedman is a visiting scholar in the Charles and Louise Tarver Department of Political Science at the University of California. He’s also an editor and author.

Xenophobia ‘Is A Pre-Existing Condition.’ How Harmful Stereotypes and Racism are Spreading Around the Coronavirus 

Jasmine Aguilera | Time

As COVID-19 spreads throughout the world, there’s been a surge in racism against people of Asian descent. In her essay, Jasmine Aguilera relates examples of this discrimination, as well as responses as people take to social media to combat xenophobia. Reacting with racism to a disease is not a new phenomenon. It’s happened in the past with SARS, Ebola, and H1N1. Society always looks for a scapegoat and minorities usually suffer. This has an impact on a population’s health, livelihood, and safety.

Jasmine Aguilera is a contributor to Time Magazine. She has written several articles about COVID-19 for the publication.

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The Roots of Xenophobic Violence in South Africa—A Pan African Response

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2021, Academia Letters

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Goolam Vahed

essay on xenophobia in south africa

Tara Polzer Ngwato

vusi sithole

The world is characterized by migratory patterns. Migration from one country to the other is often caused by various factors ranging from search for better life, fear for scathing wars, hunger, etc. Migration has been practiced for ages throughout the whole world. However, it has been marred by resistance from native citizens of countries often resulting into xenophobic attacks. The great question to be asked is whether xenophobic attacks are justified or not. The question may be further expanded in determining whether governments do have frameworks or policies to ensure safety of migrants. South Africa has also had a share of xenophobic attacks that have claimed lives and damage to property belonging to migrants. A series of attacks has been experienced throughout the country and this has been seen to be directed to specific nationalities. The scale of attacks against migrants, especially black migrants has raised some eyebrows at times threatening the investor confidence in the country. This paper discusses the possible causes of xenophobic attacks in South Africa. The discussions will determine whether xenophobic attacks are justified or not. summarily, it may be forthright said there is no justification for killing anyone whether it be a foreigner or anyone in the country as enshrined in the South African Constitution. However, there should be scrutiny of some sort to establish the sources and rationale behind xenophobic attacks to determine possible solutions to these barbaric acts.

Anthropology Today

The Journal for Transdisciplinary Research in Southern Africa

Evangelos Mantzaris

peter Okafor (pexgraphics)

This article talks about the various xenophobic attacks, that has occurred in south Africa. The causes for this mindset and the way forward on averting such conflicts

INSAMER Analysis

Humanitarian and Social Research Center (INSAMER) , HUTHAIFAH A B D A L L A H BUSUULWA

Xenophobic violence in the country is abysmal and must be condemned in the strongest terms possible. This renunciation of violence is after all what distinguishes a civilized society from a barbaric one as Jaeger succinctly says, “when a society educates its members to the extent that all groups within it willingly make this renunciation (of violence)...then we can speak of civilization and no longer merely society”.

Daniel Tevera

The urban space in South Africa is increasingly becoming a troubled terrain of xenophobic violence. In recent years xenophobia has emerged as one of the major contributing factors to urban violence in several African countries and the phenomenon is becoming an urban management challenge that deserves academic inquiry and policy attention. Yet most of the academic research into the incidence and causes of xenophobic violence has not explored the connections between urbanity and xenophobia. This article aims to contribute to the debate by examining the broader relationship between xenophobia and urban violence in South African cities and by pulling together the latest literature into creating a better understanding of xenophobia in urban spaces. This article provides an assessment of xenophobia in contemporary South Africa within the context of the on-going and important debate regarding the extent to which poverty and poor service delivery are determinants of urban violence. In addit...

David Everatt

Insight on Africa, Vol. 3, No 2

Lukong S Shulika , Mandlenkosi Mthombeni

The concept xenophobia is not a new phenomenon and has become a major, worldwide problem especially in this contemporary era. Worth noting is the 2008 and the 2009 xenophobic attacks that were perpetrated in various parts of South Africa. The analysis of the root causes and exacerbating factors of xenophobia have been linked to socio-economic and political aspects emanating from within South African society. Notable in South African history is the apartheid regime and the present democratic age. With the end of the apartheid regime and the transition to democracy, the new South Africa continues to be challenged politically, socio-economically and security-wise, especially following the recent xenophobic attacks on foreign citizens. Migrants, in particular black foreigners, make up the majority of the victims and are often described as the ‘scapegoats’ of the expressed economic and social dissatisfactions and frustrations of a few South African nationals. With the South African government striving towards establishing a culture of respect for human rights in its citizens, the question that arises is -- what are the causes and consequences of such xenophobic attacks that flagrantly violate the very proclamation of the principles of human rights? This article examines and encapsulates the socio-economic and political causes, effects and ramifications pertaining to xenophobia in South Africa, with a special focus on aspects such as poverty, the high unemployment rate among black South Africans, a lack of, or inadequate service delivery and corruption in terms of access to resources. Therefore, the paper argues that xenophobia is not only an inhumane problem faced by foreigners, but also by locals in South Africa. It further interrogates the efforts being made by the South African government and the Department of Home Affairs in an attempt to curb this violent practice.

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A kneeling man is surrounded by anti-migrant marchers.

Documenting violence against migrants in South Africa – a photo essay

More than 12 years have passed since xenophobic violence swept unexpectedly through South Africa’s townships, leaving more than 60 people dead, hundreds injured and tens of thousands displaced from their homes. Photojournalists James Oatway and Alon Skuy document the unrest in a new book, [BR]OTHER

I n May 2008, a series of xenophobic attacks accompanied by widespread looting and vandalism left at least 62 people dead, 1,700 injured and 100,000 displaced in South Africa . The violence began in Alexandra in Johannesburg after a local community meeting at which migrants were blamed for crime and for “stealing” jobs. Within days the attacks had spread around the country, with Ramaphosa settlement on the East Rand becoming one of the areas that witnessed inhumanity on an unthinkable level.

A man and child climb under a low barbed wire fence.

A man and child cross under the border fence between Zimbabwe and South Africa on 27 June 2008 – the same day Zimbabwe was holding what was widely viewed as a sham run-off election

On 18 May, 35-year-old Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave was beaten, stabbed, covered with his own blankets and set alight. The following day, a 16-year-old migrant was hacked, burned and left for dead on a refuse dump. Miraculously, he survived. Across the land, tens of thousands fled their homes, crowding into community centres and police stations for protection until they could be moved to makeshift camps.

In the years that followed, prosecution of perpetrators was slow, socio-economic change was negligible, and the anger of poor South Africans, who have yet to see the promised fruits of their 1994 liberation, was left to simmer…

A man balances on the tops of church pews to polish a stained-glass wind

Congregant Paulin Chikomb, above, was part of the clean-up team who restored a church after it was vacated by migrants at the end of 2015. He later became a wellness counsellor for traumatised migrants in the city

In April 2015, an upsurge in xenophobic attacks began in Durban and soon spread to Johannesburg. Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini was accused of fuelling the violence with his comments, which were reported as: “Let us pop our head lice. We must remove ticks and place them outside in the sun. We ask foreign nationals to pack their belongings and be sent back.”

Zwelithini claimed the media had misrepresented his remarks. In that month alone, at least eight people were killed and hundreds displaced.

Crowd of people raise their hands trying to catch food thrown from a small shop

A group of young people ransack a convenience store in Meadowlands, Soweto, as anti-migrant sentiment sweeps the area in January 2015

Church minister in bloodstained white robes

A church minister with bloodstained robes. He was injured after a community protest against ‘criminals and drug dealers’ in Pretoria West in February 2017 turned into a series of random attacks on migrants

Perhaps most brutal of all was the murder of Emmanuel Sithole in Alexandra, which was captured on camera by James Oatway. These images brought home to millions around the world the true horror of xenophobia, and despite government denial that the killing was xenophobic, the army was deployed the day after their publication. Over the following three years, violence continued around the country and some African governments began repatriating their citizens.

A man brandishes a shovel during unrest

A man brandishes a shovel as hostel dwellers descend on an area before trashing shops and stalls and looting goods, August 2019. Many believe migrants are robbing them of job opportunities

James Oatway, Johannesburg, March 2020

Whenever fresh violence erupts, my stomach begins to knot with tension. Whenever I hear rumours of attacks, or see a new flyer on my phone stating that “foreigners must go”, I get heart palpitations and panic attacks. I become absent-minded and feel suffocated by dread as I remember the brutality of previous attacks. I feel angry and frustrated that we have allowed these attacks to continue.

It’s no coincidence that the most brutal xenophobic attacks take place in areas where poverty and unemployment are worst. Ramaphosa settlement, Makause settlement, Zandspruit, Diepsloot, Alexandra, Jeppe Hostel, Khayelitsha. These are places where it’s not easy to live. Places where poor South Africans feel let down and forgotten.

A man throws water from a bucket onto burning remains of a shack.

A man fights the flames engulfing a shack in Ramaphosa. Tens of thousands of people were displaced, more than 342 shops looted and 213 burned down in the weeks of violence that swept the country in May and June 2008.

Man crouches to read his bible in a field of dead grass

A refugee reads the Bible at a temporary shelter in a field outside a police station on the East Rand, 2008. Makeshift camps and shelters had to be hastily erected and some migrants requested repatriation to their home countries

In 2008, seven years before I photographed the attack on Emmanuel Sithole, I spent many hours working in the same area – ironically nicknamed “Pan” after the nearby Pan Africa Shopping Centre – photographing xenophobic attacks.

man stands in the doorway of his brightly painted shop

Since Ethiopian-born Getachew Sugebo arrived in South Africa in 2004, he has been a victim of xenophobic violence, and his Together tuck shop has been broken into ‘many times’

Woman sits behind a sewing machine surrounded by shelves of brightly coloured fabric

Chantal Nsunda was born in Angola but lived in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In 1997 she moved to South Africa where she runs a small but successful dressmaking business, 2016.

In 2015, not much had changed; and even today sewage leaks into the streets from rows of plastic bucket toilets. Residents must queue at communal taps for water. We see the same violent scenes, in the same depressing areas.

But even in these unacceptable conditions, can anybody justify violent attacks and murder? We hope this book will serve as both a historical record and a call to action. We want the debate to continue. We want people to think before they act.

Men stand with their hands against a brick wall waiting to be searched by police in blue jackets and baseball caps

Law enforcement officers conduct random searches as xenophobic unrest sweeps through central Johannesburg, May 2008

Alon Skuy, Johannesburg, March 2020

The xenophobic violence that occurred in May 2008 was the start of what some might call the most troubled era to grip South Africa since the dawn of democracy in 1994.

Twelve years later, intermittent attacks and chaos continue to shake the foundations of this fragile state.

Monochrome picture of a group of young men brandishing weapons

Armed with weapons ranging from a rock to a masonry hammer, hostel dwellers – large numbers of them unemployed – express their anger at migrants who they believe are taking food off their tables

Monochrome picture of a police officer putting his hand on the arm of a man as he makes a gesture of anger.

South African police discourage a group of migrant men, infuriated at the looting and attacks, from fighting back against a militant crowd of marchers, April 2015

Monochrome picture of a young man in a hallway with his hands above his head as police enter rooms around him

Men are forced from their rooms as police search for weapons and those suspected of committing xenophobic violence, 2015

In documenting this violence, I – alongside many other photographers – have tried to make sense of the inexplicable torment and cycles of unrest that migrants, as well as South Africans, have been thrust into with no real intervention by the state.

Portrait of a man dressed dramatically in red surrounded by deep shadow

A refugee who was forced to abandon his home with little more than the clothes on his back as xenophobic violence raged through his community

When I think back on these darkest days and nights, it stirs in me things I’ve long suppressed. I cannot imagine what those on the receiving end of such attacks must live with.

Minister in black and white robes holds a candle along with members of a church congregation

The Rev Omphemetse Dimo leads a memorial service in Coronationville on Johannesburg’s West Rand for Isaac Sebaku who was killed during xenophobic unrest in September 2019

During the process of looking at these photographs so closely again now, years later, I am reminded of how unprepared South Africa was for such waves of violence.

With this collection of images – a worryingly unfinished story – we wish to create deeper dialogue around the issues at stake; and to honour those so deeply affected by intolerance, whose resilience we hope will outlast this tragic period in our history.

Two women hide behind a red car on a city street with a police officer in the background

Pedestrians duck for cover as police attempt to control unrest in the Johannesburg inner city

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What caused the xenophobic attacks in South Africa?

Government-commissioned report says ‘media houses’ played a role in the deadly 2015 xenophobic attacks in KwaZulu-Natal.

South Africa

Johannesburg, South Africa –  A series of sensational newspaper headlines and the dissemination of false information on social media contributed to the deadly outbreak of xenophobia-related violence last year, a new report says.

“The failure of media houses to contextualise the violent occurrences sent shockwaves across the country and around the world,” said the government-commissioned report released on Tuesday that investigated the causes and consequences of the xenophobic attacks in KwaZulu-Natal  province. 

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Seven people were killed and about 5,000 others displaced in a wave of violence against foreign nationals between March and May 2015.

“The spreading of misinformation on social media platforms contributed to widespread panic at the height of the attacks in April 2015,” it said.  


A probe headed by Judge Navi Pillay, former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, took place over seven months and also found shortcomings by law enforcement agencies contributed to tensions between locals and foreigners. 

‘Preventive action missing’

China Ngubane, a Durban-based activist and researcher who worked closely with victims of the xenophobic violence last year, said effective preventive action by officials and law enforcement agencies is still missing.

“Even up to now there is a lot of fear among African immigrants, given that on the streets there are continuous messages flowing indicating that xenophobia is still something that is alive,” Ngubane said.

The report found many of the underlying tensions between foreigners and locals had roots in the xenophobia violence of 2008 , when 62 people including South Africans were killed. Because these tensions had not been resolved, the report concluded, “there is strong possibility of recurrence.

“The underlying socioeconomic challenges laid the foundation for increased competition for employment, basic social services, and business opportunities within and between various communities.” 

The trigger for the attacks was blamed in part on comments made by King Goodwill Zwelithini. Speaking at a rally in Pongola, northern Kwazulu-Natal, in late March, the monarch is reported to have said  that foreigners were changing the nature of South African society.

Zwelithini was quoted as saying : “We urge all foreigners to pack their bags and leave.”

Between March and May, the violence spread to other parts of the province and to Johannesburg. Businesses were looted, homes wrecked, and thousands of foreigners were forced to flee and seek refuge in makeshift camps.

Most of those affected were from Malawi, Zimbabwe, Somalia and the DR Congo.

Ndabezinhle Sibiya, a spokesman for KZN premier’s office, told Al Jazeera it was clear from the report that “nothing whatsoever links his majesty to the xenophobic attacks.

“You guys in the media manufactured stories. Social media and some of the mainstream media houses manufactured stories.” 


‘Intimidation and violence’

There have been a series of reports of sporadic attacks against foreign nationals across the country in 2016.

In Kwazulu-Natal, unconfirmed reports of violence continue to circulate as several foreign nationals told Al Jazeera about daily travails of intimidation and violence in the townships.

Sibiya, however, dismissed the allegations.

“Sporadic reports? You’re going to create another panic. That’s exactly what Judge Pillay was saying, that you guys in the media, you just write up something, you create panic, you create anxiety. There’s just nothing like that,” said Sibiya.

Ngubane said social media was particularly culpable for exacerbating tensions through the circulation of false reports and fabricated images at the height of the violence last year.

“So somehow social media had contributed to the perpetuation of xenophobic sentiment and the flaring of xenophobic violence,” he said.

Additional reporting by Aaisha Dadi Patel and Dana da Silva

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South Africa heads for a coalition government. Why that’s a win for its democracy.

  • Deep Read ( 4 Min. )
  • By Julie Bourdin Contributor

June 3, 2024 | Cape Town, South Africa

When the Electoral Commission of South Africa announced the official results of the country’s election on Sunday evening, it marked a seismic shift in the country’s political landscape. 

The ruling party, the African National Congress, had lost its majority.

Why We Wrote This

After a historic election, South Africa will be governed by a coalition for the first time since the end of apartheid in 1994. Experts see that as a major moment in the young democracy’s coming of age.

Although the ANC still received the highest count of any party in the race – just over 40% – this result was unprecedented. The ANC came to power in the country’s first democratic elections in April 1994, and the party has never gotten less than an absolute majority of the vote in any national election since.

Now, for the first time, South Africa will be ruled by a coalition government, which many political experts consider a pivotal moment in the young democracy’s “consolidation,” or coming of age. Equally encouraging, they say, is the fact that the ANC accepted the results without a fight.

South Africans have greeted the results with both excitement and trepidation, because much still depends on the coalition negotiations now taking place behind closed doors. Which opposition parties the ANC chooses to govern beside will have a major impact on the country’s future. 

The group gathered around the small TV in an abandoned Cape Town hospital on Sunday evening crackled with nervous energy. They had squeezed into one of the old patient wards, now the bedroom of a woman named Zubeida Brown, to watch the official announcement of the results of South Africa’s May 29 election.

Already, the outcome was clear: The country’s ruling party, the African National Congress, had lost its parliamentary majority for the first time in history. But as dramatic music swelled from the TV and an election official announced the final vote tally, one woman in the room, Faghmeeda Ling, sighed. “I wonder if we will see any change now,” she says. 

Indeed, it was a moment of deep uncertainty. Although the ANC still received the highest count of any party in the race – just over 40% – the result marked a seismic shift in South Africa’s political landscape. The ANC, which led the anti-apartheid movement, came to power in the country’s first democratic elections in April 1994, and the party has never gotten less than an absolute majority of the vote in any national election since.

essay on xenophobia in south africa

“It’s clear that there’s not going to be massive undemocratic actions and pushback, like in many other countries” after a liberation movement loses its hold on power, says Melanie Verwoerd, a former ANC member of Parliament and political analyst. 

For Ms. Ling, like for many other South Africans, the moment was deeply symbolic – but also unsettling. She is one of the leaders of a community of about 1,000 people squatting in the rundown hospital complex because they cannot find an affordable place to live in Cape Town.

“We have had many empty promises,” from the ANC government over the years, she says. But now, after hearing the results, she felt equally unsure what the future would bring. 

Breakaway politics

There’s good reason for that. Going forward, much remains uncertain. With 159 seats in the 400-member National Assembly, the ANC will need to negotiate a coalition with one or more smaller parties to reach a majority. And its choices could not be more different. 

On the one hand is the pro-business Democratic Alliance, the ANC’s closest challenger with 87 seats, or just under 22% of the vote. Many see the DA as the most likely coalition partner, despite its reputation as a party favoring South Africa’s white minority. 

But the ANC may also choose to align itself with two parties run by its own former leaders, and whose supporters are largely its own disgruntled former voters. One is the Economic Freedom Fighters, a Marxist-leaning party run by former ANC Youth League President Julius Malema, that received just under 10% of the vote. 

But the election’s kingmaker may be the other ANC breakaway party, uMkhonto weSizwe (MK), which was founded only six months ago by controversial former president Jacob Zuma. It stormed to a nearly 15% share of the vote, the third-largest tally of any party. 

“This is the ANC cannibalizing itself,” says Rekgotsofetse Chikane, a lecturer at the Wits School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. This is in line, he says, with a “gradual decline in its ability to hold people accountable and to provide services, and a distancing between the party and citizens.” 

Dr. Chikane himself knows what it is like to lose faith in the ANC. The son of a prominent former freedom fighter, the Rev. Frank Chikane, he grew up in the party and was a member of its youth league. But he left five years ago after becoming “disenchanted” with the lack of internal change. “I still have a deep love for the organization, but I also believe you can help the ANC from the outside,” he says.

essay on xenophobia in south africa

“Victory for democracy”

For many South Africans, the five years since the last presidential election have been painful ones, marked by soaring unemployment and crime rates , crumbling infrastructure, and endemic political corruption. Many put the blame for that on the current administration of President Cyril Ramaphosa.

“When Jacob Zuma was president, things were better,” explains a street vendor named Ntuthuzelo Majaza, citing lower unemployment and a stronger economy during Mr. Zuma’s tenure, which ran from 2008 to 2019. 

Thirty-year-old MK voter Benjamin Zondo, who works as a tour operator, agrees. He says these election results are a welcome “lesson” for the ANC, which he had always voted for in the past.

“It’s a new system that is coming in place, and people want new hands,” he says.

But others are wary of the comeback of Mr. Zuma, whose time in power was marred by rampant theft of state money by the president and his associates.

“There isn’t necessarily an understanding that a lot of what we’re seeing today actually originated from Zuma’s presidency,” Ms. Verwoerd, the political analyst, says. For instance, she says the regular power cuts that have hit the country hard in the last few years can be partly traced to the poor management and corruption in the state-run energy provider, Eskom, during Mr. Zuma’s tenure. 

On Saturday night, Mr. Zuma cast a dark cloud on the electoral process by alleging vote rigging and threatening “trouble” if the results announcement went ahead.

But it did anyway. And afterward, as Mr. Ramaphosa addressed the country in the shadow of his own party’s dramatic free fall, he offered a different take on the disappointing results. 

The election, he said, “represents a victory for our democracy, for our constitutional order, and for all the people of South Africa.” 

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Another Milestone in Mexico: Its First Jewish President

Claudia Sheinbaum was born to Jewish parents, but she has played down her heritage on the campaign trail.

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By Simon Romero and Natalie Kitroeff

Reporting from Mexico City

Mexico elected its first Jewish president over the weekend, a remarkable step in a country with one of the world’s largest Catholic populations.

Yet if it is a watershed moment for Mexico, it has been overshadowed by another one: President-elect Claudia Sheinbaum will also be the first woman to lead the country.

There is another reason there’s been relatively little discussion of her Judaism.

Ms. Sheinbaum, 61, rarely discusses her heritage. When she does, she tends to convey a more distant relationship to Judaism than many others in Mexico’s Jewish community, which stretches back to the origins of Mexico itself, and today numbers about 59,000 in a country of 130 million people.

“Of course I know where I come from, but my parents were atheists,” Ms. Sheinbaum told The New York Times in a 2020 interview. “I never belonged to the Jewish community. We grew up a little removed from that.”

Ms. Sheinbaum’s parents were both leftists and involved in the sciences, and she was raised in a secular household in Mexico City in the 1960s and 70s, a time of considerable political agitation in Mexico.

“The way she embraces her own Mexican identity, from a very young age, is rooted in science, socialism, political activism,” said Tessy Schlosser, director of the Mexican Jewish Documentation and Research Center.

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