South Africa’s problem with xenophobia

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A refugee shouts outside the U.N. refugee agency offices in Cape Town, South Africa Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2019. Police used water cannons while dispersing and arresting scores of foreigners who have camped outside the offices for weeks seeking relocation outside South Africa after a wave of attacks on foreigners in cities earlier this year. (AP Photo)

On the 30th October 2019, news has broken that the South African Police has stormed the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) offices in Cape Town, forcibly removing refugees that were peacefully protesting, ironically to leave South Africa for fear of an imminent xenophobic attack. Videos are swarming all over twitter of spray canisters, rubber bullets being fired as protestors and mothers being separated from their children. 

For some reason, a wave of frustrated anger engulfed me. Once again, in an almost sadistic cycle of violence in this country, we are seeing vulnerable people being mistreated and disregarded by structures meant to protect them. This incident is one amongst the several that have taken place in 2019 alone, as there has been an overall increase in xenophobic attacks in South Africa this year.

By no means is xenophobia a uniquely South African phenomenon. This is the reality we live in where complex social and economic issues are being compartmentalised into who deserves access and who does not, who belongs and who does not, who is a foreigner and who is not. But there is unarguably a concernignly high level of denialism by the South African government and a large part of the South African public, who refuse to acknowledge how hateful sentiments targeted towards specific groups of African immigrants have direct consequences on the livelihoods of their fellow brothers and sisters on the continent. Political statements made by leaders creates binaries of “good” and “bad” citizens, and stirs up tensions as a means to not only garner support, but enable structural violence to continue unchecked.

Equating xenophobic rhetoric to dealing with issues of criminality is symptomatic of how South Africa has failed to redress not only how they treat others, but the structural legacy of policies that ‘othered’ their own not too long ago. The democratic transition after 1994 saw expansive promises to improve the lives of South Africans and that the country belongs to all those who live in it; but instead of critiquing the failure of policy implementation, blame is shifted onto a specific group for social and economic woes. 

Former Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba has stated just over a month ago that it was “not necessary for South Africa to apologize for xenophobic attacks”, under the argument that criminality and lawlessness must be dealt with. What Former Mayor Mashaba and others fail to realise is that framing narratives around poor criminal justice frameworks and equating lawlessness to migrants enables an environment for vigilante justice. Furthermore, it erases the reality and nuances of South Africa’s socio-economic landscape. 

In 2018, a study conducted by the World Bank found empirical evidence that immigrants contribute positively to the labour market through diverse skill sets and having complementary jobs than competing ones. With the clear onset to prioritize the Fourth Industrial Revolution as a route for development, South Africa needs to acknowledge that issues of migration are not only a security issue, but a pressing developmental issue that must on different levels incorporate all those that contribute. By failing to see the humanity in the ‘other’, we set the precedent for low levels of social cohesion, create harmful narratives, and fail to recognise the reality of globalisation.

But we know what the responses will be; a flimsy letter of acknowledgement will be issued by the South African government, or in this case a justification for “illegal” immigrants to be rightly dealt with. Task teams will be mandated, meetings will be had, and frustrated academics like myself and so many other stakeholders will be having conversations in echo chambers, with no real effective attempt from those that can make changes to redirect the narratives around African migrants in South Africa.

From a personal perspective, it is deeply saddening to know that a place that I have called my home for the past 10 years fails to make me feel like I belong. Like myself and so many other African migrants that come to South Africa, it is a paradox to feel unwelcome in a country that has embedded ideologies of pan-africanism and decolonisation in its social fabric. 

Critical self-reflection needs to be done amongst South Africans to understand why there is a pervasive need to create physical and psychological boundaries between those that are not South African. Although it is true that everyone is a foreigner somewhere, let us reframe the discourse so that no one needs to be a foreigner anywhere. That way, a more inclusive and cooperative South Africa can be a space for their brothers and sisters to no longer be ostracized.


Ijeoma Opara is a 2017 Mandela Rhodes Scholar, and an MA International Relations Candidate at the University of Cape Town. She is currently working on completing her dissertation, which is titled “Deconstructing the ‘Other’: A Critical Analysis of West African Diaspora’s Modes of Citizenship in Post-Apartheid South Africa”.