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The looming threat of xenophobia in South Africa

27th August 2010

By: In On Africa IOA


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In 2008, xenophobic attacks broke out across over South Africa, starting in the town of Alexandria on May 12.(2) Although the country has struggled with xenophobia throughout its history, this event shook both South Africans and the international scene. After the end of apartheid in the 1990s and the new era of a multicultural society living in peaceful coexistence, this type of open conflict based on ethnic belongings rocked the image of a new South Africa. Some commentators have even gone as far as to claim that "South Africans, post-apartheid, have developed an aggressive and chauvinistic nationalism."(3)



The looming threat of xenophobia persists, and reports have been received of foreign nationals being threatened by violence after the soccer world cup in June 2010.(4) On 20 July 2010, foreign nationals were attacked in Kya Sands, Johannesburg.(5) These attacks were said to be motivated by xenophobia.(6) Looking at the wave of attacks that took place in 2008 and events of July 2010, it is necessary for the Government to act to avoid similar attacks in the future.



Xenophobia - a definition


Xenophobia is often defined as "an unreasonable fear, distrust, or hatred of strangers, foreigners, or anything perceived as foreign or different."(7) When discussing xenophobia in South Africa, it is important to bring in the concept of ethnicity. "Ethnicity is an aspect of social relationship between agents who consider themselves as culturally distinctive from members of other groups with whom they have a minimum of regular interaction."(8)


In other words it is a social relationship that does not require regular interaction or people knowing each other. What they need to know is that they come from the same social group and that this social group is distinct from the ‘others'. This ethnic group is able to socially construct a distinct identity based on shared memories and myths, a common shared history that sets them apart from ‘others'. The ethnic identity becomes an ‘imagined community'.(9) It is the emotions combined with shared memories and myths that make ethnicity, and thus xenophobia such powerful instruments. In the case of xenophobia in South Africa, ethnicity is used as a marker to scapegoat certain groups for the problems found in struggling areas.


Xenophobia is in many cases linked to conflict. It is linked to the sense that ethnicity is used as a marker to target groups who are blamed for the problems in a given society. It thus becomes xenophobia, as it is the ethnicity of the group that the locals fear will damage their future of a better life. The following quote gives an indication of how xenophobia, ethnicity and conflict are linked:


Ethnic conflict is not caused directly by inter-group differences, "ancient hatreds" and centuries-old feuds, or the stresses of modern life within a global economy, nor were ethnic passions, long bottled up by repressive communist regimes, simply uncorked by the end of the Cold War. We argue instead that intense ethnic conflict is most often caused by collective fears of the future. As groups begin to fear for their safety, dangerous and difficult-to-resolve strategic dilemmas arise that contain within them the potential for tremendous violence.(10)

In the case of South Africa, the link between xenophobia and conflict is the collective fear of a struggling local population for the future, as revealed in the work of Lake and Rothschild.(11) The country is struggling with a high level of unemployment and this, combined with a high influx of refugees and migrant workers, will often lead to disturbances amongst the local population who are at a low income level.(12) In South Africa, the effect of this becomes dramatic as the job market is strained, with official numbers indicating unemployment to be at 25.2% in the 1st quarter of 2010.(13) The foreigners thus become an easy target for problems within society, such as high unemployment. They become competitors in an already struggling economic system. The Government in South Africa has not done much to stop these allegations; instead they have used them as a way of shifting blame from its own failure to address the causes for the social stress.(14) If the threat of xenophobic-related violence and stigma is not dealt with, the consequences may be grave.

Xenophobia in South Africa


In May 2008, local residents in working class areas throughout South Africa attacked foreign black workers due to xenophobia.(15) Studies done by the Consortium for Migrants and Refugees in South Africa in 2009 found that the foreigners were still under threat of violence and that little was done to address the causes of the attacks.(16) A similar wave of violence has not been seen since 2008, but a threat of future attacks still exists. Foreigners, and shop owners in particular, are still being threatened and beaten.(17)


After the soccer world cup of June 2010, reports have been received of foreign nationals being threatened by violence.(18) On 20 July 2010, 16 people, most of them foreign nationals, were attacked in Kya Sands, Johannesburg.(19) After the attacks, the army was deployed to the area, despite Gauteng Provincial Community Safety Minister Khabisi Mosunkutu declaring they were not needed. The attacks ranged from assault and house breaking to theft, which ended in five people being taken to hospital.(20) No incidents have been reported since the attacks in Kya Sands, but the situation is being monitored closely.


The problem with the threats of xenophobic attacks and the attacks in Kya Sands is that they come from different groups in South Africa.(21) This is a problem as it showcases how society in general is convinced that the foreigners are to blame for all social stress found in South Africa. To make matters worse, several of the people making the threats believe they have the support of senior political leaders and thus making it socially and politically acceptable.(22) This is evidence of a society that is not taking the consequences of this situation seriously and that it is damaging towards the international reputation of the country. Even more grave, however, is the neglect of facing the root causes of the social stress. By blaming the foreigners for all the problems, the real causes are not dealt with and thus the problems will not be solved. Patrick Bond argued that "Allowing immigrants to be blamed for crime and joblessness is a ‘scapegoat' strategy for the government's failure to address root causes of the social stress from mass unemployment and housing shortages."(23)


Concluding remarks


A problem in South African society and politics is the accusation that the immigrants are to blame for the economic situation, the high level of unemployment and other problems facing struggling communities.(24) Since the violent xenophobic attacks in May 2008, little has been done to find the cause for the attacks and even less has been done to ensure it will not happen again.(25) If the Government and civil society do not take the situation seriously, there is no guarantee it will not happen again. If the situation is not dealt with it may continue to harm tourism, the country's international reputation and geopolitical interests.


The real issue that needs to be addressed is that of social stress - at a Governmental, regional and local level. Blaming all the ills on foreigners will not solve unemployment and crime levels. Instead the root causes must be identified and adequately addressed. Until then, the looming threat of xenophobia still threatens South Africa, and incidents such as the one in Kya Sands may escalate and spread across the country.

Written by: Christine Storø (1)


(1) Contact Christine Storø through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Conflict & Terrorism Unit (
(2) Annie Kelly, 'Warning of xenophobic violence in South Africa after World Cup', The Guardian, 17 May 2010,
(3) Athalie Crawford, 'Counting the cost of our descent: Xenophobia in South Africa today, in New Routes, 1/2010,
(4) Annie Kelly, 'Warning of xenophobic violence in South Africa after World Cup', The Guardian, 17 May 2010,
(5) 'Several hurt in xenophobic attacks',, 20 July, 2010,
(6) Ibid.
(7) Xenophobia - South Africa,
(8) Thomas Hylland Eriksen, Ethnicity and nationalism, 2002, London and Sterling, Virginia: Pluto Press.
(9) Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, 2000, London: Verso
(10) Lake, D.A. and Rothchild, D., ‘Containing Fear: The Origins and Management of Ethnic Conflict' in International Security, Vol. (21)2: 41-75, Autumn 1996.
(11) Ibid.
(12) Patrick Bond, 'World Cup, 'resource course' and xenophobia threats', Pambazuka, Issue 481, 1 July 2010,
(13) Statistics South Africa, 'Latest key indicators', 24 July 2010,
(14) Ibid.
(15) Athalie Crawford, 'Counting the cost of our descent: Xenophobia in South Africa today, in New Routes, 1/2010,
(16) Ibid.
(17) Ibid.
(18) Annie Kelly, 'Warning of xenophobic violence in South Africa after World Cup', The Guardian, 17 May 2010,
(19) Mail & Guardian online, 'Police: No overnight attakcs in Kya Sands', 21 July, 2010,
(20) Ibid.
(21) Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa (CoRMSA), 'Real Threats of Mass Xenophobic Violence after World Cup', 11 May 2010,
(22) Annie Kelly, 'Warning of xenophobic violence in South Africa after World Cup', The Guardian, 17 May 2010,
(23) Patrick Bond, 'World Cup, 'resource course' and xenophobia threats', Pambazuka, Issue 481, 1 July 2010,
(24) Ibid.
(25) Athalie Crawford, 'Counting the cost of our descent: Xenophobia in South Africa today, in New Routes, 1/2010,




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