Post-World Cup xenophobia in South Africa

After the euphoria and apparent pan-African pride of the 2010 World Cup, xenophobia has resurfaced in South Africa. After the World Cup final, there have been a steady trickling of reports of violence against foreigners. Some examples of this are the five Zimbabweans and Mozambicans who were injured in Kya Sands yesterday, one having been cut with an axe, after battles between foreigners and locals in the Johannesburg township; a Malawian man being killed and having had his genitals cut of last week; shops belonging to foreigners in townships in Cape Town having been burnt down and looted during the past two weeks ; two Somalis being killed and two others wounded when their shop was attacked in Worcester last week; and hundreds of foreigners who have businesses in the Mbekweni township near Paarl being escorted to safety by police officers when locals began looting their shops during the World Cup Final.

Threats of violence, such as notes passed round to foreigners saying that they would be killed if they stayed in South Africa after the World Cup or accusing them of stealing the jobs and houses of South Africans, had begun months before the World Cup and continue to occur. These attacks, and the fear of more to come, have caused Zimbabweans and other foreigners to return home in their droves or to seek asylum in churches or in police stations.

In addition to actual instances of potential violence, foreigners also face a more subtle institutionalised discrimination. Some institutions exclude foreign nationals without a South African ID, such as some banks; foreigners, especially Zimbabweans, generally pay a higher interest mortgage loan on equal terms with South Africans; car loans are difficult to obtain because one needs a permanent residence permit to get one; and one can only apply for such a permit after six years of living in South Africa; and getting a work permit is challenging, to say the least. There have also been consistent reports of police harassment and discrimination of foreigners. And whilst much of this might simply be a case of red tape or bureaucracy rather than institutionalised xenophobia, on top of the recurring outbreaks of xenophobia and anti-foreign sentiments it must feel more like the latter than the former to foreigners.

This is not the first time that foreigners in general, and immigrants in particular, have been attacked in South Africa since 1994. In 2008, over 60 foreigners were killed as protests over lack of homes, schools, and jobs for the poorest South Africans caused anti-immigrant feelings to erupt, and an estimated 35.000 were chased out of their homes. South Africans are thus seemingly finding it very difficult to shed their racial and cultural stereotypes after a racist system that discriminated on the basis of colour and led to decades of isolation from the rest of Africa. Then as now, many poor and unemployed South Africans argued, amongst other things, that these foreigners were taking their jobs, and that (white) employers were employing foreigners that are “willing to work for 15 rand a day”, less than a similar wage for a South African.

The question is whether this is a classic case of xenophobia, as the media and civil society claim and have been warning of for months, a case of criminals trying to use the fear of xenophobic attacks to scare foreigners into handing over their belongings and property and an “Afro-pessimistic” media trying to use this to end the success story of the World Cup, as the ANC government claims, or a case of poverty-stricken South Africans that haven’t seen the benefits they believe they were promised by the government post-1994, and are taking it out on foreign scapegoats, as other commentators claim. The truth might be somewhere in-between.

And whilst many point to the World Cup as an important nation-building and -bonding experience, as well as to the pan-African feelings that it allegedly gendered, South African nationalism is at best a two-edged sword, as is all nationalism. Nations are obviously not natural boundaries, and this is most obvious in the random borders of Africans nations, but are constructed over time by education, the media, and a process of political socialization that is still very much in its infancy in South Africa.

Other young nations, such as India and Israel, have experienced similar outbreaks of xenophobic violence to South Africa during the formation of their nation states. Nationalism creates nations, not the other way round, and whilst nationalism can be said to have initially been a positive force on the African continent, by helping to create a common front against colonialism and at by installing some sort of stability post-independence, nationalism always ends up preserving the current social structures by creating a false sense of togetherness.

And more importantly, such a sense of togetherness cannot realistically be successful in the long term without some sort of scapegoat or common enemy, the cultural tolerance that (black) South Africans might have shown their fellow Africans being a typical example of tolerance being superficial and exercised at a theoretical level. When those that one has previously been tolerant against suddenly “invade” ones country this tolerance suddenly evaporates, as has been the case in countries such as South Africa and Denmark.

Not that all South Africans are inherently xenophobic, exclusivist or nationalistic, however. COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi recently insisted that foreigners should not be made scapegoats for the post-1994 lack of service delivery, and many locals helped persecuted or frightened immigrants in 2008. Many of Vavi’s political colleagues and civil servants are downplaying the xenophobic nature of the attacks, however, in an apparent attempt to prolong the positive image of South Africa that the World Cup gave the world.

President Zuma has oscillated between denialism of xenophobia and his current more subtle approach, where he is claiming that the reported attacks are simply “rumours” and that he was therefore “not certain whether there have been threats of xenophobia”. The minister of police and acting chairman of the Interministerial Committee on Xenophobia, Nathi Mthethwa, also dismissed the fears of xenophobia in stating that “there is no such thing as xenophobia in the country”, and that the many who had already fled South Africa were “seasonal workers”. The implication of such appeasement talt seems to be that nothing should be done, and a cynical view of it is that South Africa’s leaders and elite are rather pleased that foreigners and immigrants are taking the brunt of the discontent in the population over the lack of progress in South Africa.

Something is being done to address and solve the problem of xenophobia, however. Gauteng Premier Nomvula Mokoyane has set up a team that is to deal with the threat of xenophobic attacks; the Humanitarian Assistance Network of South Africa, a coordination of civil society organisations, was established after the 2008 violence to coordinate anti-xenophobic action, and has recently established an “anti-xenophobic action” hotline meant to be an early warning system; the South African Human Rights Commission and various political parties have pledged to monitor and act against xenophobia and racism; Lawyers for Human Rights have a refugee and migrant rights programme and are equipping their members to provide advice to foreign nationals; and civil society in general has learnt from the limited coordination during the 2008 attacks, some organisations holding workshops and forums on how xenophobia can be overcome, and others, such as the “Unite As One” campaign, using the signing of pledges to “transmit a positive message of unity” in South Africa. Apart from this, precautionary measures are being taken by the government, such as erecting tents to house fleeing their homes in fear of attacks, and the South African security forces are on high alert.

All this seems rather defensive, however, and will be of no avail in the long run without improving the root causes of the discontent, and thus of the xenophobic attacks, in South Africa. What the South African government and ordinary South Africans have to do is to be more culturally open, to ensure a more fair and even distribution of its resources, and try and create more jobs for the many unemployed South Africans. And what is perhaps equally important, power has to be seen to be more inclusive. The ANC has to start implementing a more inclusive style of government, as opposed to the top-down structures that it has implemented during the last 16 years, and civil society and ordinary South Africans have to break the governments monopoly on the conceptions of citizenship and South Africaness.

There are believed to be up towards 5 million migrants and immigrants in South Africa, depending amongst other things on which groups you include, an estimated 1 to 3 million of these being Zimbabweans fleeing a repressive ZANU-PF and economic chaos, and Johannesburg is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. South Africa thus has no choice but to accept itself as a (descriptive, not necessarily normative) multi-cultural country. Culturally, such an influx is certainly beneficial to any culture. Intermingling with other cultures is in fact one of the ways cultures evolve and transcend, and this is especially relevant for a South Africa that has been more or less culturally isolated during apartheid.


Migrants attacked in Johannesburg, five hurt, Mail & Guardian, 20 July 2010

Institutionalised Xenophobia, Mail & Guardian, 19 July 2010

Don’t let this be a lost opportunity to build a more accepting nation, Sunday Times, 18 July 2010

‘Brother and sisters, learn from Mandela’, IOL News, 18 July 2010

Civil society sets up warning system for xenophobia, Mail & Guardian, 15 July 2010

President speaks out against xenophobia, Eyewitness News, 16 July 2010

Act against Xenophobia – ANC, IOL News, 15 July 2010

Residents urge foreigners to return,, 15 July 2010

Fear drives migrants home,, 15 July 2010

Foreigners ‘chased like dogs’, IOL News, 14 July 2010

Xenophobia: The situation in Cape Town, Politicsweb, 14 July 2010

No time for denialism, Times Live, 14 July 2010

Just rumours like the girl without bloomers, IOL News, 14 July 2010

Where do I stand, a film about healing and hope in the wake of the 2008 xenophobic attacks in South Africa

Unite as one, campaign to “create a South African society in which people notwithstanding their language or country of origin, respect each other and live together peacefully”. The goal of the campaign is to collect one million signed pledges before 17 October 2010. The pledge can be signed online by South Africans.

One Response to Post-World Cup xenophobia in South Africa

  1. ANC Hater says:

    South Africa is one of the most bigoted, xenophobic countries I have ever lived in. As a foreign national, I am excluded from being able to finance a car, apply for various types of credit accounts, etc. This is highly discriminatory and unusual as most countries with whom this second-rate nation likes to compare itself do allow these practices, yet the locals here shrug their shoulders.

    The world cup, while an outward success, was only so because foreigners visiting only saw the face the country wanted them to see, not the reality. This country is run by a gang of cronies and crooks and mouontebanks who do not understand the first thing about how to properly administer and manage, and are only in office for personal gain. The funniest part of all of this is that the police department is at least named correctly – SAPS, as all of them are truly saps in every sense of the word.

    The ANC is nothing more than a club for those wishing to rape the country and turn it into a dictatorship based on the model provided by their idol, Robert Mugabe. The ANC has been consistently putting measures in place designed to facilitate the same and will likely take over in either bloodless or very violent coup sometime after 2011, at which time all those they deem undesirable will be expelled or stripped of all civil rights and possessions. Julius Malema, while a boil on the face of Africa, at least is no coward like Jacob Zuma; he at least has the audacity to come right out and state baldly what he envisions the future to be and what he thinks should happen to those he terms his enemies.

    In 10 years, South Africa will be a crony state, stripped of all its productivity, unable to feed even a quarter of those it does right now because the ANC and its greedy members will have pillaged and raped the country bare.

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