News | Racism / Neonazism - Southern Africa Xenophobia and Social Cohesion in South Africa

As the 2024 elections approach, economic anxieties are increasingly being channelled into racist violence


Protesters gather to march to parliament against xenophobia in Cape Town, South Africa.
Protesters gather to march to parliament against xenophobia in Cape Town, South Africa, 3 March 2017. Photo: IMAGO / Gallo Images

When at least 77 people died from a terrible fire in a squatted five-storey residential building in the Central Business District of Johannesburg, South Africa on 31 August 2023, one could have expected the public’s attention to be devoted to the scale of the destruction. Described by the authorities as one of the country’s worst tragedies, victims of the blaze included five children, while an additional 43 people were injured.

Fredson Guilengue works as a senior programme manager at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Southern Africa Office in Johannesburg.

Following the disaster, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa demanded an investigation into its causes and a commission of inquiry was soon established by the Gauteng Provincial Government. In South Africa, “hijacked” buildings, as they are often called, refer to abandoned buildings occupied by poor people and largely controlled by criminal syndicates. Often, they are the only option available to poor South Africans and black immigrants from other parts of Africa. According to a source citing the government, there are 450 such buildings in South Africa, of which 57 are located in Johannesburg. Roughly 2 million individuals are on the waiting list for government housing, in a country where 13.9 percent of the population lives in informal dwellings.

Yet, rather than focus on the tragic loss of life in the fire or the social conditions that compel so many people to live in these “hijacked” buildings, South African Minister in the Presidency Khumbudzo Ntshavheni denied the government’s responsibility for providing “illegal immigrants” with housing, according to News24. She added that “the majority of the people who stay or reside in hijacked buildings are not South African and they are not in this country legally”, and that “the government cannot provide housing to illegal immigrants”.

This pronouncement contradicts the constitutional provision which establishes the right to adequate housing as a basic human right in South Africa, and seem to suggest that said right is dependent on the legal status of a person in the country. Yet it reflects a growing trend in South Africa that treats immigrants from other African countries as threats to the country’s well-being and seeks to drive them out.

South Africa’s Xenophobic Wave

Xenophobic rhetoric and active violence against black immigrants, one of the most important but neglected threats to social cohesion in post-apartheid South Africa, is likely to increase in the coming months as the country approaches a major national election that will prove particularly challenging for the ruling African National Congress (ANC). Observers expect that the ANC will fall below the 50 percent threshold for the first time, forcing it to look for coalition partners in order to form a government. Seven opposition parties have already collectively agreed not to enter such a coalition.

South Africa has been witness to regular attacks on black immigrants for some time now, posing serious risks to domestic stability and socioeconomic development. Nevertheless, the country remains one of the main destination countries for immigrants across the continent. Some sources tracking immigration into South Africa suggest there are 4.2 million immigrants in the country, constituting 7.2 percent of the total population. Total net migration has increased by 2.5 percent since 2019. Black Africans comprise about 80 percent of these immigrants, many of whom come from neighbouring countries like Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Malawi in search of improved economic opportunities.

The politicization of migration became evident in the 2021 local elections, as a number of parties deployed harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Contrary to popular expectations, the end of the apartheid system and the establishment of the Republic of South Africa as a “rainbow nation”, as Nelson Mandela called it, has failed to translate into social acceptance of other black people from the continent, including from neighbouring countries who were once allies in the battle against white supremacy. On the contrary, it is in the rainbow nation that we see more disdain and hate thrown at black immigrants from some segments of South African society, including the deployment of extreme forms violence such as burning people to death.

This paradox has led many to question why freedom for black South Africans did not bring about acceptance of other blacks from other African countries. More fundamentally, people have questioned the way the ruling ANC has dealt with the issue of immigration. Perhaps Mandela’s vision did not properly take into account the deep-seated anti-foreigner sentiments that are sown into the country’s fabric due to the pervasive and long-standing use of migrant workers in mining and other labour-intensive sectors? The idea of South African exceptionalism, the notion that the country is both economically and socially unique when compared to other African countries, is contributing to an increasingly toxic atmosphere, stoked by growing economic hardship and the ANC’s broken promises to act on restitution and wealth redistribution swiftly after apartheid ended.

The “Others” Are to Blame

In South Africa, immigrants are regularly blamed for all kinds of social problems. They are accused of bringing drugs into the country, corrupting the police, practicing witchcraft, engaging in robbery and violent crimes, taking jobs from South Africans, taking South African women, stealing social benefits, and indeed, corrupting the society as a whole.

It is the case that unemployment remains a massive problem in South Africa. According to recent official unemployment statistics, 33 percent of the population is unemployed, including almost half of the country’s working-age population. In 2022, 62.6 percent of the population was estimated to live at or below the poverty line, and inequality remains among the highest in the world.

Black South Africans are affected the most, with 64 percent of them being considered poor, while the respective levels among Indians and Asians are 6 percent and 1 percent among whites. Yet rather than take effective measures to counteract this trend, the government and political parties generally prefer to shift the blame to its perpetual easy target — immigrants.

ANC Secretary General Fikile Mbalula once publicly suggested that immigrants were a contributing factor to high unemployment rates in South Africa. On the more extreme side of things, opportunistic populist nationalists have gone as far as establishing an entire vigilante organization, called Operation Dudula, with the ostensible aim of assisting the government in its fight against illegal immigration.

Although Dudula denies promoting violence, the rhetoric pushed by the group and other xenophobic organizations has fostered an environment in which black immigrants suffer constant harassment. Their shops are frequently robbed, they are physically assaulted, and in some cases even killed. Recently, at least 21 delivery trucks were burned to ashes in a protest by local lorry drivers against the hiring of foreign drivers.

Since the transition to democracy in 1994, a total of 1,028 xenophobic incidents have been recorded, resulting in 659 deaths. Although only 31 incidents were recorded so far this year, as opposed to 110 last year, these figures may change dramatically as election season approaches.

The other strategy to combat xenophobia, which is well understood by the ANC, is job creation.

As in many countries, such as Germany, the South African state has reacted to rising xenophobia with stricter laws instead of tackling the root cause of xenophobic prejudice and violence. The government’s response has been to tighten its immigration act since 2014, propose a comprehensive review of its immigration system, establish the new Border Management Authority (BMA) in 2022, and make it almost impossible for even high-skilled immigrants to work legally in South Africa. All of these measures come on top of the incredible delays immigrants experience applying for visas and permits with the country’s Home Affairs Department.

Meanwhile, the politicization of migration became evident in the 2021 local elections, as a number of parties — particularly right-wing formations such as the Patriotic Alliance and ActionSA, established in August 2020 by the former Mayor of Johannesburg, Herman Mashaba — deployed harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric. Given their comparatively strong performance in 2021, we can expect this kind of rhetoric to spread beyond the right-wing camp in the run-up to the 2024 national elections.

The ruling party has so far displayed internal incoherence when it comes to migration, with some figures condemning the rise of xenophobia and others endorsing right-wing rhetoric and movements like Dudula. This marks a shameful political failure on the part of the party that once led the struggle against apartheid and enjoyed strong ties to national liberation movements across the continent and beyond.

Legacies of Apartheid

Addressing xenophobia in South Africa is no simple task. Due to its essentially social nature, understanding its roots requires new ways of looking at race and race relations in a country characterized by a hyper-racialized colonial history. In order to address racial intolerance, South Africa may need to look at xenophobia through the notion of “black-on-black racism”, as recently proposed by Hashi Kenneth Tafira in the book Xenophobia in South Africa: A History.

According to Tafira, black-on-black racism is a form of racism that results from the deep sense of racial inferiority and categorization instilled by the apartheid regime into black South Africans in its efforts to subordinate blacks and establish the segregationist system. Situating xenophobia as a form of racism may be the transformative solution required to put it at the centre of the challenges for social cohesion in South Africa. If there is already a general consensus that racism is an evil that needs to be combated, understanding xenophobia as a form of racism will benefit from the same consensus and anti-racist campaigning.

Immigrants constitute less than 10 percent of the total population in South Africa. The narrative that there are too many immigrants in the country is blatantly false and needs to be combated vigorously by all segments of South African society, especially progressive politicians. This means overcoming historical legacies. Colonialism, “the great historical tragedy” in the words of Aimé Césaire, and apartheid in particular not only established white as the superior skin colour, but also managed to inculcate the idea that black immigrants were inferior in culture and origin, as well as in relation to black natives of South Africa.

The other strategy to combat xenophobia, which is well understood by the ANC, is job creation. Youth unemployment in particular needs to be urgently addressed. However, South Africa’s challenge is not confined to creating jobs alone. Due to its own history, South Africa needs to create jobs that preserve the dignity of its people, who still carry the memory of apartheid when the native population was only permitted to pursue menial jobs such as gardeners, waiters, carpenters, electricians, or porters.

It is understandable that many black South Africans refuse to take on the same types of jobs that supposedly reflected their inferior racial and cultural status. Efforts must be made to expand the skills and capacity of the native population in areas such as IT, engineering, and medicine, where there is still a massive skills shortage in the country.

If the government of South Africa does not recognize the centrality of fighting xenophobia as a way of achieving social cohesion and socioeconomic development, the country risks a future marked by generalized and permanent social tensions, episodic uprisings against and the murder of foreigners, interspersed with false lulls while the institutions continue said violence in a more insidious way. South Africans, whether native-born or immigrant, must stand together — or the nation will fall apart.