Is It Really Xenophobia?

16th July 2010 By: ISS, Institute for Security Studies

Prior to the start of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, there were consistent threats of impending xenophobic violence after the event had ended. To date, no major attacks have occurred throughout the country, apart from a number of sporadic incidents in the Western Cape. The South African Institute for Race Relations has stated that information on threats of violence against African foreign migrants is ‘anecdotal'. The SA Communist Party has described the attacks on foreign nationals as criminal acts and not xenophobia. President Jacob Zuma also acknowledged there had been rumours of xenophobic attacks to follow the end of the World Cup, but to date there has not yet been any "concrete evidence" of an outbreak of xenophobic violence in South Africa. National police commissioner General Bheki Cele, observes that the few disturbances in the Western Cape province are more to do with criminal activity against foreign nationals than xenophobic attacks reminiscent of 2008 and November 2009.

The main targets of displacements to date have been Somali shop owners in the townships of Khayelitsha and Gugulethu - traditional hotspots of attacks upon foreign shop owners. Of interest is the fact that the shopowners have not been attacked personally, but rather their property and economic possessions. It is this fact that supports the government statement that these acts are indeed criminal activities: robberies under the guise of xenophobia. This has done very little, however, to ease the fears and tensions of many Zimbabwean nationals who have packed their bags and made their way to the N1 highway seeking any form of transport to Johannesburg, and inevitably to head home across the border. According to a Business Day report, Zimbabwean authorities at the Beitbridge border post reported a significant increase in arrivals, and attributed it to their citizens fleeing threats of xenophobic violence in SA.

Xenophobic attacks, or any attacks for that matter, often occur against a group of persons who are vulnerable within a particular community. Somali shop owners in the Western Cape Province are no strangers to attacks. In July 2006, Somali shop owners in a township outside Knysna were chased out of the area, with at least 30 spaza shops looted and vandalised. In August 2006 between 20 and 30 Somalis were killed in townships surrounding Cape Town. In February 2008 residents of Valhalla Park forcefully evicted at least five Somali shopowners from the area, injuring three people after having apparently ‘warned' the shop owners to leave three months before. In addition, in May 2008, a Somali shopkeeper was killed and his brother wounded by armed robbers in Durbanville, Cape Town.

Research by various organisations indicates that most of the above incidents occurred due to the perceptions around business competition, i.e. community members complained that the presence of foreign traders undermined local businesses to the point where local businesses were closing down because they could not compete. In order to attach a xenophobic tag to such attacks, one would have to ask the question: if the local traders were being undermined by fellow local businesses, would they have reacted any differently in addressing this perception around business competition? Some might think that if the answer is no, i.e. business owners would be prepared to address their competition through violence, then it cannot be xenophobia. If the response was yes, then one may attach a xenophobic tag to such attacks.

It is however not that simple. The taxi industry provides for us an example where violence is used in business competition. Rival taxi associations, whose members comprise of local and foreign traders, at times employ violence against each other to resolve their issues, often referred to as the ‘taxi wars'. Yet, no distinction is ever made between race and ethnic origin, despite the glaring presence of these factors. Direct focus is placed on the underlying issues of competition for passengers on various routes. Can the same not be applied to the recent attacks on shopowners, where, although the targets are foreign nationals, the underlying issues remain that of business competition.

This scenario brings to light the very essence of xenophobia in South Africa: a number of the attacks on foreign nationals have very little to do with hatred against foreigners but more to do with society's frustrations being targeted against the vulnerable groups, often wrongly perceived as the cause of these frustrations. The fact remains that if foreign nationals were to leave the country, the underlying causes which are often stated as crime, unemployment and housing would still remain. One would not be too over-critical in assessing that in general the underlying causes of the ‘xenophobia attacks' actually had nothing to do with foreign nationals, and that they are, and continue to be victims of a social process within a political and economic setting of poverty, unemployment and disenfranchisement. In essence, xenophobia is never a ‘dish served alone' but has a parasitic social strain attached to it. Xenophobic violence - through various acts of criminal conduct - often does not occur outside of a context of social dissatisfaction, and often with incitement from local leadership community structures, democratic or parallel in nature, which seek to reinforce the communities' resentment towards what is perceived as ‘the other'. In essence, one cannot be violently xenophobic without an underlying cause. One however can harbour xenophobic feelings without necessarily expressing them through the medium of physical violence.

Law enforcement agencies at this stage need to be as vigilant as they were during the hosting of the World Cup. From a proactive perspective, intelligence services are one of the most effective ways of protection of foreign nationals as well as any targeted groups perceived to be outsiders. The government has adequate criminal laws to react to those caught inciting violence or participating in such activities. It is however the political will to use these resources, manpower and legislation that remains to be clearly seen, and act as a deterrent to xenophobic violence. The World Cup tournament has created the environment for which a lasting legacy of tolerance can be enjoyed in South Africa, and it remains to be seen for how long that environment will last.


Written by: Emmanuel Maravanyika, Intern Corruption and Governance- ISS Cape Town