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Xenophobic attacks repudiate freedom. They must be stopped!


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Xenophobic attacks repudiate freedom. They must be stopped!

Raymond Suttner
Photo by Madelene Cronje
Raymond Suttner

27th November 2023

By: Raymond Suttner


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The bodies may not have even been recovered from the Albert Street fire before Minister in the Presidency, Khumbudzo Ntshaveni issued a statement that “it’s not the government’s task to provide homes for undocumented immigrants.” 

No time is right for xenophobic statements, but this was especially insensitive, emanating as it did from the office of the president. It has now been established that most of those who lived there or died were in fact South Africans.


Xenophobic statements and actions are racist or neo-apartheid discourse and practices. They ought to qualify as hate speech or be banned under other provisions of our law and constitution. (see Section 16 2, c, of the Constitution).

Xenophobia breeds discord in situations where inhabitants of South Africa, foreign and locally born, have often lived amicably together, sharing resources. South African citizens have sometimes protected foreign migrants from looting or attack, or in the cases of foreign-born African and Asian shopkeepers, extended credit and assistance that other merchants did not make available.


Xenophobia is antagonistic to building social cohesion and unity. I do not buy into the idea that this does not include everyone who walks in the streets or in other ways inhabits South Africa. I have the “old-fashioned” idea that South Africa “belongs to all who live in it, black and white” - words found in the much-referenced Freedom Charter, supposedly guiding the racists/xenophobes in the ANC.

The “new South Africa” was established in relation to a system that had denied the common humanity of all human beings, that practised violence and humiliation against the majority of its citizens who lived in poverty, experiencing inferior education, little or no healthcare or social welfare.

The Bantustan system in later years was, in its many variants of racism, also an attempt to denationalise Africans, in this case those who were the majority of the people of South Africa, ascribing to each of them - with limited exceptions - a Bantustan identity.

Post-apartheid South African democracy was intended to turn its back on this past and give everyone a chance to live fully human lives, free of fear or hunger, police intimidation and dispossession.

Most of the rights in the Bill of Rights apply to all inhabitants of South Africa. The Constitution does not generally specify citizenship as a requirement, and this is because the new South Africa was born with a sense of freedom that was applicable across people and borders where we were concerned not only about those carrying an ID, but all who were in our midst. And we may say that the tradition of the liberation movement was one where special care was extended towards those who were from situations of misfortune.

The liberation movements themselves enjoyed extensive care, hospitality and protection over many decades in African states - starting long before the birth of the minister in the presidency.

I recognise that some in government and ANC leadership are now prone to play down the significance of this hospitality and say that they cannot continue to see gratitude as requiring hospitality on our side.

That is a disgraceful sentiment in light of the material support and sacrifices made in often vulnerable states. Neighbouring states lost their own nationals and saw destruction of their infrastructure as a result of supporting our struggle. This was notable in Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

But further away, in Nigeria, whose nationals are often stereotyped as criminals, especially as drug peddlers, and harassed in South Africa, that support was tangible. People contributed significant political and financial support.

“Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa declared, ‘We in Nigeria are prepared to do anything towards the liberation of all African countries.’ Nigerians kept their word. By 1976, Nigerians paid from their pockets to support the liberation struggle through the monthly ‘Mandela Tax’ on civil servant salaries paid into the Southern African Relief Fund (SARF). Young Nigerians, who had been moved by the plight of their South African age-mates who had been killed in the 1976 Soweto Uprising formed anti-apartheid clubs such as the Youths United in Solidarity for Southern Africa (YUSSA) and the Nigerian African National Congress Friendship and Cultural Association (ANCFCA), voluntarily contributed to the SARF too. For twenty years Nigeria chaired the United Nations Special Committee Against Apartheid until South Africa finally achieved its democracy in 1994. By then, Nigeria had contributed an estimated US $61-billion towards the anti-apartheid effort.” (Panashe Chigumadzi: ).

The scandal of xenophobia repudiates much of ANC history that has always related as Pan Africanists and “internationalists” towards the rest of the continent and freedom struggles generally from the early statements of Pixley ka Isaka Seme, one of the founders of the ANC, onwards. Within this tradition the ANC has supported the Saharaoui people under Moroccan colonisation, the people of East Timor and now Palestine (though one may speculate, if a Palestinian were to trade in the Johannesburg CBD, would he or she be free from harassment?).

Internationalism and Pan-Africanism have been foundational values of the liberation struggle. It is shameful that this generation, many of whom are former freedom fighters, dishonour that legacy and encourage the spread of xenophobia. They do this at all levels by diverting attention from government failures to scapegoat people from the rest of Africa and Asia.

Naming xenophobia

When xenophobic discourse and incitement is at work it is usual for the person doing it to preface what is said by declaring that s/he is not xenophobic. It is important to name xenophobia for what it is and not misname it as pursuing criminals and those without papers or protecting borders.

The way in which xenophobic discourse and incitement operates in South Africa is that it does not declare itself boldly by its real name but hides under the fig leaf of legality, pretending that it is all in pursuit of those who do not have proper papers or papers at all or resulting from the porousness of our borders. These people, it is said, are not documented so they cannot be traced when they commit crimes, which we are told they do aplenty and in a specialised way in relation to drugs.

Xenophobia and character of our freedom

Xenophobia is problematic on a number of grounds, which go to the core of how we understand freedom. In the first place, the sentiments of the Freedom Charter to which I referred, conferring freedom on all who live in South Africa is part of an understanding of freedom as universal and indivisible.

In the whole history of the ANC, it did not belong just to Africans or just to whites, it did not exclude Indians or Coloureds, it did not exclude women and now, constitutionally it cannot discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.

This universality is undermined by the attacks on Africans from other parts of this continent and Asian people who have come to trade or on other legitimate business in South Africa.

In many religions, and in many proverbs, there is an injunction to “welcome the stranger”. The notion of xenophobic action runs against many of the belief systems that purport to be practised by many people in South Africa.

The practice of xenophobia also leads to “Othering" of people, in other words, stereotyping them in a particular way, as not belonging, as being different. Difference is treated in this context, not as something that can enrich us and our collective cultural wealth as a country, but something alien and “not belonging here”.

And that is also antagonistic to our freedom, just as the stereotyping of people who practised Islam, after the 9/11 attack in the United States, was a prelude to broad, wide scale Islamophobia in the world.

We need to recognise that when you play with racism, whether it is xenophobic racism, Islamophobia, or whatever it may be, it is harmful to people. After 1994 we were not meant to see harm caused to others by virtue of their identities or any similar factor.

It has already resulted in deaths, assaults, violence against people, a sense of insecurity and fear.

These same people, whose countries welcomed our freedom fighters for decades, and could have been wealthier than they are now had they not faced repercussions from apartheid South Africa- are treated in this country as less than human. And that is shameful.

Politicians fan flames of xenophobia

Regrettably many of these attacks have spread to areas that were significant sites of resistance during the Struggle, like Atteridgeville and Zeerust.

Unfortunately, it is hard to appeal to any politician to stop this, because the politicians have fanned the flames of xenophobia by blaming people from other countries for some of the ills of the country for which they, the politicians, are in fact responsible. In addition, further xenophobic actions tightening controls on foreign migrants are in the pipeline or being contested in court (where the removal of the Zimbabwe Exemption Permit, which if implemented could lead to many who have lived long in South Africa being expelled, has been found to have failed to follow due process).

Regrettably xenophobic sentiments now seem widespread throughout society and not purely populist actions of politicians.

When we have a problem like this, as with other problems, we have a broader question that needs to be addressed. And that is the vacuousness of political life in this country, the fact that it is not run by principles that we would have recognised 30 years ago, principles that drove many people to offer their lives for the freedom of this country.

It is little wonder that the same politicians who run the country have callous indifference to the plight of the poor, and in this case, a section of the poor, who are migrants from other countries in Africa, or sometimes from Asia.

Consequently, while the remedying of the question of xenophobia can be treated separately, it may be that it will not happen until the democratic foundations of the country are restored.

Raymond Suttner is an Emeritus Professor at the University of South Africa and a Research Associate in the English Department at University of the Witwatersrand. He served lengthy periods as a political prisoner. His writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions. His twitter handle is @raymondsuttner.


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