South African Exceptionalism: An Afrophobic Proposition?

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A man replaces a broken window at a tavern in Philippi township, on the outskirts of Cape Town, next to a banner that reads: No Xenophobia, No Afrophobia, Africans 4 Africans. The president has postponed a key ceremony after the deaths of seven people in recent attacks. Schalk van Zuydam AP African News Agency (ANA)

While international Nigerian artist Burna Boy is anticipated to perform in two weeks, tensions still remain high as anti-foreign sentiments still surface to expose the complexity of the modern day rainbow nation. The singer is expected to perfrom as a peace offering to contribute to the endless campaigning for the fight against xenophobia. However, his arrival is mounted to be one of the turning points as to how South Africa maintains diplomatic friendship with other African states. 

This may come as a pleasant surprise to achieve closure, but some are skeptical of whether the Afrophobic atmosphere will drop into the following years. With burdening violence following the violent attacks on other African nationals in the wake of September, South Africa faces a crisis that tests its commitment in handling what they have been attesting to as being the beacon of the continent. Alas, xenophobia is no longer a hidden word but a reality lived by many Africans in South Africa today, across all realms of social and economic classes. And this stigma has become unbearable

South Africa is amidst a deep social crisis, battling with horrific levels of femicide, gender based violence and rising xenophobia that is intensified on the micro level. Post 1994, South Africa was touted to be a vehicle of change and democracy rearing the dream of ‘African Renaissance’. Sadly, this has diminished.  With increasing hostility displayed on the streets, in corporate hallways, educational spaces and peripheries of major cities, it is quite alarming that governmental authority presiding over issues on migration and foreign habitance tread on uncertain grounds. 

On a recent interview on Al Jazeera, former deputy president and speaker of parliament Baleka Mbete denied pressing accusations of South Africa positioning itself to be isolated from the African landscape, building an armour that eludes foreign immigration. She vehemently professed to protecting the state’s borders but denied a probably isolationist agenda. Yet, what is evident to note that the frequent persecution of African nationals who do not identify as South African persist. That means that there is systematic complicity in anti-foreigner slogans being chanted across the country.

Following from the forced removals of some 300 refugees who stood in solidarity for a peaceful demonstration outside the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights (UNHCR) in Cape Town just last week, the constant apprehensive policing of foreigners (documented or undocumented) is troubling. Organizations such as Africa Unite and Human Rights Watch have advocated for undocumented asylum seekers to get protection and be dignified with safe returns yet there is no concrete policy in place to mitigate that.

But what remains baffling is the lack of accountability which staged the endless cycle of xenophobia in the country. It is difficult to implement change when people in position endorse Afrophobia which in turn is instrumental in public and local perception. Outgoing Gauteng Mayor Herman Mashaba has been notorious in his frontal hate statements that spark legitimacy of xenophobia which ignites the problematic boundaries of limit and social security for African foreigners. Mashaba clearly indicts foreigners, especially from Zimbabwe, Somalia, Tanzania and The Democratic Republic of Congo of apparent criminal behavior inciting insensitivity and unsettling favour for the foreigners living in the nation today. And there has been no repercussions for his statements and a lack of government retaliation. This suggests a harmful silence, one that can have unimaginable costs for predicted prosperity in the nation.

From burning small retail stores to imploding spaza shops owned by foreign nationals in the hearts of Johannesburg and principally the Gauteng province, African migrants now face open persecution while their livelihoods are at stake from unsolicited attacks. The harrowing videos of foreign nationals being chased down and encountering violence have made the rounds on social media but what we now ask is that is there nothing that can be done? The sudden eviction of foreign nationals does not remedy a predicted economic burnout. But rather more of the informal sectors of productivity which re dominated by foreigners who have constrained additional security or support from the government will face a collapse to devastating effect.

Denialism has become a second nature in this arena of politics which is why even with fewer condemnation of Afrophobia by ministers and members of parliament, there is a polarization in the country housing the debate on migration. Xenophobia is hatred and it has been entrenched into South African society which we can feel the tremors of. There is limited time for intellectualizing issues on concerning human rights abuses especially within the borders. We cannot excuse Afrophobia under any circumstance, come what condition is put before. It is a severe infringement upon human rights and especially to Africans who are entitled to feel safe in any way under basic human privilege.

South Africa’s assumed role in continental caregiver has exceeded beyond disappointment because they made the cardinal mistake of equating foreign migration to inviting crime, lack of resource distribution and drop in international living standards. What it should do is dig deeper into its own flawed system of legislation over refugee protection and support. There is a dire need to project its own dissonance over domestic barriers rather than plunge into the perennial worry on the push and pull factors of foreigners. 

The ‘new’ nation that is characterized by this notion of being ‘rainbow nation’ stands on a fallacy of transnational, more so African integration. And we worry this fallacy might not last for the fantasy to be torn apart. So while we wait for Burna Boy and Zimbabwean born and raised ‘Beast’ (from the 2019 South Africa World Cup winning squad), let’s reflect on some of the pertinent scares of xenophobia.


Sumona Bose is a MPhil candidate in Justice and Transformation at the University of Cape Town. She has an undergraduate studies in Political Studies.