Xenophobia and Society


Various research studies conclude that South Africans, black and white, are xenophobic. In 1997, the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) identified xenophobia "as a major source of concern to human rights and democracy in the country." The same study revealed that one in five South Africans sampled believe that everyone from neighbouring countries living in South Africa (legally or not) should be sent home.

Research reveals that about 40% of South Africans are opposed to Africans from other parts of the continent enjoying the same access to health and educational services as South Africans. These xenophobic feelings and attitudes manifest themselves in different ways, sometimes even through violence. The SAHRC study reports:

"Violent attacks on non-South African traders erupted on the sidewalks of Johannesburg in 1996 and assaults on foreign citizens became increasingly common in a number of cities. This culminated in 1998 with the death of three foreign citizens on a moving train at the hands of a group of South Africans returning from a rally of the unemployed in Pretoria."

Different writers explain xenophobic attitudes of South Africans differently. Michael Neocosmos (2006) argues that there is a dominant political discourse held by many South Africans of all racial groups regarding the apparent exceptionalism of the country on the African continent, a discourse which forms part of South African nationalism. "According to this perception, South Africa is somehow more akin to a Southern European or Latin American country given its relative levels of industrialisation, and now increasingly of liberal democracy."

Media and Xenophobia

According to Ransford and David (2000), the overwhelming majority of the newspaper articles, editorials and letters to the editor surveyed for their research study are negative about immigrants and immigration. "They are extremely unanalytical, uncritically reproducing problematic statistics and assumptions about cross-border migration."

The study further reveals that a large proportion of the articles reproduce racial and national stereotypes about migrants from other African countries, depicting, for example, Mozambicans as car thieves and Nigerians as drug smugglers. The study concludes that:

"At best, the press have been presenting a very limited perspective on cross-border migration dynamics and, in the process, are leaving the South African public in the dark about the real complexities at play. At worst, the press has been contributing to public xenophobia generally through weaving myths and fabrications around foreigners and immigration."

The study shows that newspaper headlines often set the tone for these xenophobic and racist articles. Ransford and David point out that headlines are particularly bad in this respect, with bold titles like, ‘Illegals in SA add to decay of cities’, ’6 million migrants headed our way’, ‘Africa floods into Cape Town’, and ‘francophone invasion’ being common examples. "In total, 25% of the articles surveyed used sensational headlines and 9% used sensational metaphors in the text of the report."

According to David & Sean (2005), the source of these xenophobic comments is highly skewed, with the vast majority emanating from the wire services. "For example, of the articles that used the term ‘job stealers’ the South African Press Agency (SAPA) was by far the worst offender, making up 38% of the articles that refer to migrants in this way."

Institutionalised Xenophobia

The department of South African Home Affairs estimates that there are over 7 million undocumented immigrants in the country. As numerous research have demonstrated, most of these undocumented immigrants have had to deal with an extremely xenophobic society after escaping from conflicts and civil wars in their own countries of birth.

In South Africa, the framework for asylum determination "begins with the issuing of a section 23 permit at the border post. This is a 14-day temporary permit to allow the applicant time to get to one of the 5 Refugee Reception Offices. At the Refugee Reception Office, an eligibility form is completed and the applicant is given a section 22 asylum seeker permit. After a Status Determination Hearing, it is supposed to take 6 months for the claim to be processed. If the application is successful, the asylum seeker is given a refugee permit, a section 24 permit that is valid for two years. The refugee is entitled to an identity document. If the person retains refugee status for a period of 5 years or longer, they are entitled to apply for permanent residence. Should their claim be rejected, they may appeal the decision. Unlike many other countries, South Africa has chosen local integration over confinement in camps ( Report on Open hearings on Xenophobia and problems related to it, 2004) ."

However, with all of these in place, research reveals that refugees are still subjected to xenophobia and are used as a political scapegoat for the lack of service delivery. Research also shows that most refugees and migrants live in overpriced and overcrowded urban settings.

Furthermore, The South African Human Rights Commission’s Socio Economic Rights Report notes that refugees and asylum seekers are excluded in housing policy.

"With regards to housing, the SAHRC report (2000/2002) concludes that, despite the fact that South Africa acceded to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, none of the stated measures by the national government and the respective provincial departments make provision to provide transitional housing for refugees and asylum seekers (ibid)."

Also, the South African banking legislation prevents anyone except permanent resident and citizens from opening bank accounts. As the report on open hearings on xenophobia shows, migrants’ inability to access secure banking has manifold consequences. "A lack of access to financial services limits the ability of migrants to invest in the city. …Foreigners struggle to secure their money and are thus more often victims of crime as they are forced to carry their earnings on them personally or hide them in their homes (ibid)."

The Lindela Repatriation Centre (Lindela) has also made headlines in the press for its inhuman treatment of undocumented migrants. A study done by the South African Human Rights Commission in December 2000, describes the centre as "centralised detention facility for the apprehension of undocumented migrants awaiting determination of their legal status in South Africa and/or deportation." According to the study, it is the largest detention centre for undocumented migrants in the country and is the only facility specially designated for that purpose.

The findings of this research are worth quoting:

"Arrested persons were deliberately prevented from providing accurate documents, valid identity documents were destroyed, bribes were taken for avoiding arrest or for release without documentation and processes were delayed by inefficient investigation methods and insufficient communication between the different departments. As a consequence, many persons with valid documents were arrested and brought to Lindela."

The study documents conversations between officials at Lindela and undocumented migrants.

"Where are you from? Durban. What languages do you speak? Zulu. Only Zulu? Yes . Is your name in Zulu? Yes. Go away. You are just taking a chance."

"Where are you born? In Pietersburg. In what area exactly? In Pietersburg. If you are born there, you must know the area. Where exactly are you born?" The immigration officer thought the man was too vague and left him."


The issue of xenophobia in South Africa is one of the struggle issues that the Africa Project for Participatory Society ( www.apps.org.za ) takes seriously. The research findings reveal that institutionalised xenophobia in South Africa is alive and kicking. For example, the mainstream media is implicated in perpetuating xenophobia. In addition, the South African Police Service, the Department of Home Affairs and the banks collude to make life unbearable for the 7 million undocumented immigrants in the country.

Activists ought to do something about this injustice.

Mandisi Majavu is with the Africa Project for Participatory Society www.apps.org.za

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