Protesters carrying the flags of their respective countries march toward the parliament building during an anti-xenophobia demonstration in Cape Town, South Africa, in April 2015[Ashraf Hendricks/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images]

Since the dawn of democracy in South Africa in 1994, the country has witnessed periodic incidents of xenophobic violence against foreign-national African migrants, the worst of which, in 2008, displaced 100,000 people across the country. Examining the phenomenon of xenophobia in South Africa, Nozipho January-Bardill considers what it can teach us about the causes and remedies of such violence wherever it occurs.

 “We further affirm that all peoples and individuals constitute one human family, rich in diversity. They have contributed to the progress of civilizations and cultures that form the common heritage of humanity. Preservation and promotion of tolerance, pluralism and respect for diversity can produce more inclusive societies.”
—The Durban Declaration, United Nations World Conference against Racism (2001) 

 My reflections on the topic of xenophobia are motivated by a number of experiences including several United Nations discussions and processes since the 2001 World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa; my 12 years of service on the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination; the legacies of racism and the surge of violent xenophobia in my country of birth, South Africa; and a deep sense of the need for a world that is free of social injustice and inequality, in particular, racism and sexism and other forms of oppression that diminish and erode the very core of our identities.

Dictionary definitions of xenophobia describe it largely as a phobia or fear, dislike and, sometimes, hatred of foreigners. Foreigners are often stripped of all other aspects of their identity, viewed only as “outsiders” who “flood” others’ territory to either “scrounge” off the state or cause trouble of one sort or another. Nonnationals become “frustration scapegoats,” seen as a threat to jobs, housing, education and healthcare. They get blamed for ongoing deprivation, poverty, personal frustrations and other social ills.

Scholars who have studied xenophobia and other forms of discrimination have questioned attempts to reduce the issue to a pathology. These scholars are of the view that approaches to understanding xenophobia need to be contextualized in the concrete historical, political and socioeconomic environments of our nation states. Xenophobia, unlike agoraphobia and claustrophobia, is not a psychological condition, disease or illness. Turning it into a pathology does not serve any one of us in the work we do to combat human rights violations.


A wolf sculpture in Dresden, Germany, that is part of the exhibition “Die Wölfe sind zurück” (The Wolves Are Back) by artist Rainer Opolka; consisting of 66 life-size metal sculptures of wolves, the art project aims to inform people of the dangers of xenophobia, hatred and right-wing extremism [AFP/Robert Michael]

In addition, ideologies of superiority and inferiority and structures and systems designed to dominate and subjugate fellow human beings in the ages of slavery, colonialism, imperialism and apartheid have continuing effects. There is no region, no continent and no ideology that has automatically insulated itself from racism, xenophobia and related intolerances.

It is in this light that I wish to demonstrate how specific historical, political, economic and social circumstances in South Africa have developed into a situation where violent xenophobia is integral to the nation-building project that the country embarked on in 1994. The South African experience is no different from that of other nations across the globe. What is described here is simply one example among many.

Xenophobia in South Africa

South Africa has always attracted migrant workers. The mining industry has a history of laborers from neighboring states. Since the demise of apartheid in 1994, many more migrants have been attracted by South Africa’s reputation as a free, democratic and open developing country. Many of the migrants have been refugees: in the 1980s, Mozambicans; in the early 1990s, Nigerians and others from Angola, Rwanda and Burundi; in the late 1990s, they came from the Democratic Republic of the Congo; and more recently from Zimbabwe, fleeing from the political and humanitarian crisis in that country. With the demise of apartheid, the Bill of Rights in the new South African constitution ensured that legally, migrants and refugees enjoy the same social and economic rights as South Africans. However, despite the many international, regional and national policies as well as legislation and instruments that protect migrants and refugees, insufficient administrative measures have been put in place to promote and protect their rights.

As in many other situations, name-calling and labeling has been a mechanism used to marginalize, humiliate and intimidate African migrants. South Africans have called them “makwerekwere” or “amagrigamba.” Most peculiar, however, is that violence has characterized South African xenophobia. Violent xenophobia has not only shocked the nation but also the rest of the world. The specific outbreaks of violence in May 2008 in Alexandra township in Johannesburg resulted in the death of 62 people. Seven hundred people were injured, and 100,000 were displaced. It is notable that most of that violence has been aimed at other African nationals and not against foreigners in general. It has been confined to the urban informal settlements characterized by high levels of poverty in South Africa’s major cities.


Alberto, an immigrant to South Africa from Mozambique, after he narrowly escaped becoming a casualty of the xenophobic violence in 2008; community members of the informal settlement where he lives near Johannesburg risked their lives to save him from a xenophobic mob [Brent Stirton/Getty Images]

Many scholars have situated this xenophobia within South Africa’s past and recent history, particularly the racism of the apartheid system. The apartheid state is notorious for having turned its own black citizens into aliens whose use value was exploited in the most inhuman of ways. Citizens were guests of the Republic and could not live in white urban areas. The country’s entire town and urban planning was informed by racist notions of insiders and outsiders whose movement was strictly regulated by the state through removals, harassment and exclusion from politics and certain spaces.

Furthermore, the isolation of South Africa as a pariah state under apartheid resulted in a separation from other African countries, which created an ignorance of Africans from beyond the borders of South Africa.

Researchers argue that a culture of violence under apartheid has made it normal and acceptable to use violence as a means of resolving conflict. The treatment of migrants by some locals can be compared to the past harassment of black South Africans that was often justified by the inferiority and superiority complexes instilled in black and white South Africans respectively.

Some of the local media have also contributed to the problem by blatantly using stereotypes to confirm these notions of inferiority and superiority as well as the inherent criminality and untrustworthiness of specific nationals. National origin is what marks the difference between citizens and noncitizens in the media. A study by the Southern African Migration Programme concluded in 2000 that much of the media “typically produces/reproduces three stereotypes—that of migrants stealing jobs, creating crime and being illegals.”

The power of perceptions, myths and rumors to mobilize collective actions has been recognized everywhere, and, indeed, South Africa is no exception. The result of this is that exclusion, alienation and hostility operate in a complex, ongoing spiral. Through xenophobia, foreigners feel foreign, and this in turn not only alienates and excludes them further from South African society but also contributes to foreign hostility and possibly violence towards South Africans.

Scholars have also linked the violence against migrants to poor service delivery in South Africa. The government’s inability to build adequate state-funded houses, provide enough water and electricity and create jobs has been a cause for much concern. However, it has also been observed that the violence meted out to foreigners was not always directly associated with the poverty and relative deprivation felt by South African nationals in these depressed areas. They argue that violence is not an inevitable outcome of poverty; it does not explain why all poor communities with migrant residents did not explode during outbreaks of xenophobic violence, such as in 2008.


Residents of Khayelitsha in Cape Town, South Africa, demonstrate against xenophobia in April 2015, after incidents of violence against foreign nationals broke out around the country [Ashraf Hendricks/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images]

The Effects of Nationalism

Scholars have also made convincing arguments that link the violence directly to the nation-building project that South Africa embarked on in 1994. The African National Congress government, in its attempts to overcome the divisions of the past and build new forms of social cohesion, embarked on an aggressive and inclusive nation-building project in 1994 to create a nonracial and nonsexist democracy free from ethnic violence and other forms of oppression.

Nationalism, however, can feed on the myths of a collective identity and can create wrong expectations in the minds of citizens especially if, alongside building the nation, they are not made aware of the challenges of prospering in diverse social and cultural environments. In addition, inefficient and under-capacitated provincial and local government institutions—the providers of local services—dashed the hopes of many who believed that the new dispensation would deliver better services fast and improve the quality of their lives.

Scholars argue that this nationalism, alongside the frustrations of continued social and economic deprivation, migration patterns, the transition to democracy and the media all contributed to the hostility toward those who were never seen as part of the nation. The rapid rate at which xenophobia has spread among South Africans in the past decade as well as its violent expression against the African population has much to do with aspects of the nation-building project and the limitations of the new state in fulfilling the promises made to its struggling citizens.


The following are suggested interventions that, in my view, are relevant to all governments who aim to rid their societies of xenophobia and racism.

Government interventions: The government should, through its communications structures, publicly acknowledge and condemn all threats of xenophobic violence at the highest level of the state as well as at the level of provincial and local governments.

Awareness raising and education: There is a need for public information campaigns tackling myths and misperceptions about foreign nationals as well as education on diversity within the school curriculum. Such campaigns should actively promote respect for the integrity of all who reside within the country’s borders and attempt to increase understanding of the root causes of migration. The public needs to be informed and reminded of the rights of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.

Conflict resolution and prevention strategies: The lack of effective mechanisms to address the causes of tensions and conflicts delays the ability to make appropriate interventions at community level.

Access to justice for the victims of xenophobic violence: There is a need to improve the accountability of perpetrators of xenophobic violence by fast-tracking such cases through the courts.

Disaster management: Disaster management systems can improve the response to xenophobic violence and other social conflicts. Food, shelter and other humanitarian resources are often hard to access once people have been displaced.

Recourse to justice: Robust laws are needed to promote and protect the rights of migrants.


South African school girls walk past a trash bin bearing a sticker against xenophobia in Alexandra township in Johannesburg in 2009 [Paballo Thekiso/AFP]

It is clear that in contrast to many other developing countries, noncitizens in South Africa enjoy relatively extensive formal rights under the 1996 constitution and its Bill of Rights. However, the gap between the provisions of the constitution and their practical application is very wide, and only the government can make a difference in creating an environment that enables its institutions and the people of South Africa to challenge and change the current status quo. The nation-building project should be more inclusive and can focus on the value that foreign nationals add to the development of the country.

In addition, migrants should be given the legitimacy to voice their grievances and play a more active role in articulating their rights and asserting their membership of the communities in which they live. If both migrants and members of the host country can create an institutional platform of interaction between them, there is hope for arriving at an integrated strategy for dealing with the issue of xenophobia.


Nozipho January-Bardill served as a member of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination for 12 years. She was an antiapartheid activist in exile for many years and remains engaged in the antiracist movement as well as the struggle for gender justice in South Africa. She was South Africa’s ambassador to Switzerland and currently serves on corporate, public sector and NGO boards as an independent, nonexecutive director.

Courtesy of Common Threads