Unscrupulous politicians must stop blaming foreign nationals for crime, unemployment and a range of other social ills. A migrant population that is estimated at 2.2 million, less than 4 per cent of the entire population of 56.72 million, is not the reason why the unemployment rate has risen to 29 per cent.


“12 died and 639 arrested following xenophobic violence” – the September 9th headline of the online edition of South Africa’s weekly City Press newspaper. The paper reported that at least two foreigners were amongst the dead. Millions of rands worth of property in shops owned by foreigners and South Africans were looted and destroyed in the violence that began in Pretoria and spread to parts of Malvern, Denver, Hillbrow and Maboneng in the Johannesburg Central Business District (CBD).

Afrophobic violence in South Africa is not recent or isolated. From time immemorial, South Africans have used the derogatory, contemptuous and dehumanising term “makwerekwere” to refer to other Africans. Attacks against people from other African countries such as Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, Ethiopia and Malawi has been widespread. Between 2000 to 2007, it is estimated that at least 67 people were killed in Afrophobic attacks across the country. In May 2008, crowds shouting “Khipha ikwerekwere” (kick out the foreigners) targeted Africans and killed over 60, displaced over 20,000 people, and left countless victims injured and robbed of their properties. After several days of anarchy, the military was called in to help the police quell the situation. More than 500 people were arrested and charged with various offences, including malicious damage and grievous bodily harm. In April 2015, following comments by the influential Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu, that foreigners should “pack their bags and go back to their countries”, at least five people were killed and hundreds forced to flee their homes in Durban and Johannesburg. Following this attack, many foreign governments repatriated their citizens. Regularly, there have been low-level attacks on Africans in most parts of the country on the basis of the mistaken belief that they “steal” jobs from South Africans, peddle drugs or are involved in prostitution and human trafficking.

Ironically, most of the African countries whose nationals have been the subject of attack in South Africa were countries whose people made immense sacrifice for the liberation of the country during the days of apartheid. Mozambique, for example, was the location of many African National Congress (ANC) safe houses and operational base of the armed wing of the ANC, Umkhonto weSizwe (MK). As a result, it was raided on several occasions by the South African Defence Forces. Zambia hosted the ANC headquarters and its underground radio station, Radio Freedom. Nigeria issued hundreds of passports to allow ANC officials to travel abroad, provided education to many South Africans and one of its lead singers, guitarist and composer Sonny Okosuns, recorded the pan-African best seller, “Fire in Soweto”, to commemorate the 1976 Soweto uprising and raise global awareness about the fight against apartheid.

In response to the recent attacks, South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa tweeted that “(T)he people of our country want to live in harmony; whatever concerns or grievances we may have, we need to handle them in a democratic way. There can be no justification for any South African to attack people from other countries.” ANC secretary-general, Ace Magashule, called on black South Africans to immediately stop waging violence on foreign nationals from Africa and stop hating people of the same colour as themselves. “Remember you are South Africans but you are African first, you must never despise people who are the same colour as you,” Magashule is quoted as saying.

The Parliamentary Caucus of the ruling African National Congress said the violence and looting of businesses owned by South Africans and foreigners last week damaged the country’s reputation on the continent and across the world. However, the ANC, once a liberation movement with struggle credentials, has always denied that the attacks are xenophobic. According to ANC chief whip, Pemmy Majodina, “(W)e must differentiate between xenophobic attacks and criminal activities. Ninety per cent of what is happening has everything to do with criminality.” The South African Police Service also denies that the violence is targeting foreigners. Police Minister Bheki Cele instead blames “criminal elements that are taking advantage of a volatile situation.” Former South African president, Thabo Mbeki, noted that “(T)here is no South African that goes around chasing Nigerians because they are Nigerians…. It is incorrect to read that there’s been an offensive against Nigerians in South Africa, that is not true. So, I am saying when you talk about xenophobia and Afrophobia we need to be very careful about it.”

The high levels of violence and criminality speaks to the failure of the South African government to protect the people within its territory. Pervasive violence across the country must not and should not take away from the fact that certain groups are easy prey and are vulnerable to attack.


True, South Africa is a very violent society. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) ranked South Africa second for assault and murder (by all means) per capita and first for rapes per capita in a data set of 60 countries. Total crime per capita was 10th out of the 60 countries in the dataset. Murder rates continue to rise nationally. The number of cases of aggravated robbery recorded by the police rose by almost 40 per cent. In the 80s and 90s, the crimes waves in the Johannesburg CBD was so prevalent that it became a virtual ghost town. Around this same period, thousands of people were killed in the townships in black-on-black violence between the major ethnic groups.

This violence has continued unabated over the years. Although it has mostly been random, it has also targeted easy preys. Like other Africans, women have also been victims. In 2017/8, 2,930 women were murdered. According to the most recent data from 2017/18, a woman is killed every three hours in South Africa. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 12.1 in every 100,000 women are victims of femicide in South Africa each year – a figure which is five times worse than the global average of 2.6. South Africa has frighteningly high levels of rape that led some to dub it the rape capital of the world.

In August this year, several women were murdered. Boxing champion, Leighandre “Baby Lee” Jegels was shot dead by her estranged policeman boyfriend. Her mother, Rita, was also shot and wounded and is fighting for her life. 14 year old Janika Mallo was gang-raped, killed and found with her head bashed in the backyard of her grandmother’s house. 19 year old University of Cape Town (UCT) student, Uyinene Mrwetyana, was raped and killed by a 42-year-old employee at the Clareinch post office in Cape Town. This prompted President Ramaphosa to declare that “violence against women has become more than a national crisis” and to ask Parliament to consider amending the legislation to make the national register of gender-based violence offenders provided for in the Sexual Offences Act public.

The high levels of violence and criminality speaks to the failure of the South African government to protect the people within its territory. Pervasive violence across the country must not and should not take away from the fact that certain groups are easy prey and are vulnerable to attack. While most South Africans are not Afrophobic, many have reservations about other Africans or see us as inferior. The Apartheid regime mainly perpetrated this division through its policy of divide-and-rule. A number of South Africans are still resentful of the fact that the white apartheid regime preferred black professionals and academics from the rest of the continent, instead of black South Africans.

The situation has not been helped by the fact that many South African public officials hold xenophobic attitudes or turn a blind eye to attacks on foreigners. South African minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Grace Naledi Pandor, said many Nigerians in the country are involved in drug and human trafficking and believes that Nigerians are harming their youth. Deputy minister of police affairs, Bongani Mkongi, is on record to have said, “(T)he question arises and we must investigate also what is the law of South Africa says. How can a city in South Africa be 80 per cent foreign nationals? That is dangerous. That in Hillbrow and the surrounding areas, South Africans have surrendered their own city to foreign nationals, the nation should discuss that particular question. You won’t find South Africans in other countries dominating a city into 80 per cent because if we do not debate that, that necessarily means the whole South Africa could be 80 per cent dominated by foreign nationals and the future president of South Africa could be a foreign national. We are surrendering our land and it is not xenophobia to talk truth. We fought for this land from a white minority, we cannot surrender it to foreign nationals. That is a matter of principles. We fought for this country, not only for us, for the generations of South Africans.”

The endorsement of mob justice by some senior public officials undermines the legitimacy of the South African judicial system and the rule of law. Criminality can never be an excuse for xenophobic attacks. The repeated denialism and rationalisation of violent xenophobic attacks by the South African elites encourages the reoccurrence of these dark episodes in South Africa.


The anger against foreigners is so acute in South Africa that last year, a new party, the African Basic Movement Party was launched. According to its secretary-general, Thembelani Ngubane, “We need to make it illegal for foreigners to come and get married to South Africans in order to get citizenship.” Ngubane says foreigners are on a mission to destroy the South African youth and take over the country in a few years.

If the Basic Movement party is not to gain electoral support, like other nationalist parties in other parts of the world, President Ramaphosa and his government must take steps to fully implement the National Action Plan to combat xenophobia, racism, and discrimination. The five-year plan aims to raise public awareness, improve access to justice and better protection for victims, and increase anti-discrimination efforts to help achieve greater equality and justice. To effectively combat Afrophobia, the government and police need to publicly acknowledge attacks on foreign nationals and their property as Afrophobic and take decisive actions against these.

The endorsement of mob justice by some senior public officials undermines the legitimacy of the South African judicial system and the rule of law. Criminality can never be an excuse for xenophobic attacks. The repeated denialism and rationalisation of violent xenophobic attacks by the South African elites encourages the reoccurrence of these dark episodes in South Africa. Unscrupulous politicians must stop blaming foreign nationals for crime, unemployment and a range of other social ills. A migrant population that is estimated at 2.2 million, less than 4 per cent of the entire population of 56.72 million, is not the reason why the unemployment rate has risen to 29 per cent. In fact, on the contrary, a World Bank report entitled “Mixed Migration, Forced Displacement and Job Outcomes in South Africa” between 1996-2011 immigrants in South Africa had a positive impact on employment and wages for locals. The report notes that at least 25 per cent of immigrants are self-employed and that each immigrant worker generated approximately two jobs for citizens. Instead of attacking immigrants, the focus should be to acknowledge the vital contribution they make to the economy.

President Ramaphosa and other leaders must speak with one voice to dispel the myths that foreign nationals are the cause of various social ills in South Africa. As Julius “Juju” Malema’s Economic Freedom Front (EFF) puts it: “only a united Africa can resolve the problems that have troubled the continent for centuries… Xenophobic violence will never resolve the problems our country face because they were never caused by foreign nationals in the first place. Unemployment, poverty, lack of service delivery and high levels of crime are all created by the ANC government and its bosses in the white monopoly capital quarters… The battle must be taken to the real people who control our lives; the ANC government and big business that has failed to make our economy grow, create jobs, defeat poverty and unemployment.”

Abdul Tejan-Cole lived in Cape Town, South Africa from 2005 to 2007.

Picture credit: The New Times, Rwanda.