Xenophobia: How South Africa got here

Xenophobia is the irrational fear or hatred of people perceived to be foreign. Oxford dictionary defines it as 'dislike of or prejudice against people from other countries'. Webster's dictionary defines it as 'unreasonable fear or hatred of the unfamiliar'.

The South African Human Rights Commission has defined a kind of xenophobia, termed afrophobia, in the case of the recent animosity and violence enacted upon foreign nationals from other parts of the continent.

A brief history in South Africa

May 2008

In May of 2008, violence began in Alexandra township, when locals attacked immigrants from other African countries. In weeks following this, the violence spread across the country to other settlements in Gauteng, Durban and Cape Town. Amid mass looting and destruction of foreign-owned homes, property and businesses, at least 62 people were killed and 100 000 displaced.

Former South African president, Thabo Mbeki promised to never allow the tragic events of 2008 to happen again. In a speech addressing the attacks he had the following to say:

We have gathered here today to convey to all Africans everywhere, to all African nations, severally and collectively, to our own people, and to the families of people who were murdered, our sincere condolences, and our heartfelt apologies that Africans in our country committed unpardonable crimes against other Africans.

Former President, Thabo Mbeki

January 2015

In January of 2015, Siphiwe Mahori, a 14-year-old Soweto boy, was allegedly shot and killed by a foreign shop owner for trying to rob the store. This was followed by unrest and violent looting of foreign-owned shops in Soweto. Residents of different townships followed suit in targeting foreign business owners and so called spaza shops in Kagiso, Alexandra, Tembelihle, Langlaagte and other settlements.

The unrest spread to other parts of the country, including settlements in Cape Town, and claimed at least six lives in total, including that of a baby. Hundreds of foreign nationals were displaced and at least 178 people were arrested in connection to the violent attacks.

Some government officials denied that the looting in Soweto earlier this year was xenophobic violence, claiming rather that it was opportunistic criminality. The SAHRC put forward that it was not simply a law and order issue and advised that correctly acknowledging the root cause of the violence was critical in dealing with the challenge.

As the unrest settled, the SAHRC called on law enforcement to ensure the safety of non-nationals and their property and also commended them for their quick response and intervention in minimising the anarchy.

Explore the Eyewitness News story map, Soweto Attacks: As they happened, as they began in Snake Park, on Monday 19 January 2015.

April 2015

In April 2015, foreign nationals were targeted in Durban. Two Ethiopians were petrol bombed in Umlazi, which ignited violence in KwaMashu, Pinetown and a Dalton hostel.

The violence spread to parts of Johannesburg and a total of eight people were killed and over 2 000 have been displaced. Four refugee camps were set up by the provincial government in KZN to house the displaced foreigners, including at a local Chatsworth soccer stadium set up by the eThekwini Municipality. Some non-nationals still remain in the camps, whilst hundreds have been voluntarily repatriated.

A 14-year-old boy, caught in the cross fires of the violent attacks, was shot dead in KwaMashu. The boy was allegedly killed during a confrontation between two guards and a group that were looting a foreign-owned store in the area.

On Tuesday 14 April, non-nationals from Malawi, Pakistan and various places gathered in the Durban CBD with pangas and other weapons in defense of their livelihoods.

President Jacob Zuma called for calm amidst the xenophobic attacks in parts of Durban, and tensions in Johannesburg.

We cannot accept that when there are challenges we use violence particularly to our brothers and sisters from the continent.

President Jacob Zuma

The South African National Defence force was deployed to Alexandra on 21 April 2015, following the murder of Mozambican national Emmanuel Sithole. It is reported that over 300 people were arrested in connection with the xenophobic violence.

Zulu King’s remarks

King Goodwill Zwelithini recently made a speech in which he called for foreign nationals to return to their countries of origin. It has been suggested that the violence directed at non-nationals in Durban is causally related to this address. The Zulu Monarch is quoted as calling on foreigners to leave South Africa as they were causing problems in the country.

On 20 April King Zwelithini hosted an anti-xenophobia imbizo at the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban that was met with mixed response.

Watch the video by the Independent Media Online which offers a translation of the King’s speech:

Operation Fiela

Following the outbreak of xenophobic violence, the government established a national inter-departmental task team with the aim of eliminating criminal activities across the country. The task team, named 'Operation Fiela' (which, translated, means operation 'sweep clean') has executed several raids across the country, which have been criticised by some for allegedly targeting foreign nationals and the use of force. The task team includes some the role players listed below.

Who are the relevant role players

The Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco)

Dirco is responsible for the protection of refugees and upholding policy on the 1998 Refugees Act. South Africa stands as a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention as well as the Organisation of African Unity conventions on refugees.

Efforts to protect and assist refugees and asylum-seekers, in particular by providing them with access to health facilities, schools and social services, fall under their main objectives.

The Department of Home Affairs (DHA)

DHA is responsible for providing all the country's immigration services, including administering admissions into the country, determining the residency status of foreigners and issuing permits thereof, custodianship of refugee affairs.

The South African Police Services (SAPS)

SAPS is responsible for protecting all people in the country from any criminal threat and creating a safe and secure environment for them. They have been dispatched over 800 police to KZN to control the violence across the province. It is reported that some non-nationals from informal settlements in Germiston, Gauteng, have sought shelter at police stations over night.

SAPS have announced that Joint Operational Centres are being activated across the country to help deal with the latest flare-up of xenophobic violence.

The SAHRC's recommendations

The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) published an investigative report following the xenophobic violence in May 2008. The report considered the preparedness and response of major state departments and contained the following summarized recommendations for them, respectively:

Department of Home Affairs (DHA)

  • To prevent future administrative injustices, it was recommended that they conduct a thorough and transparent evaluation of the challenges faced during the 2008 crisis and formulate an action plan for future improvements, to be provided to the SAHRC.
  • It was also recommended that the DHA provide the SAHRC with annual assessments of all their immigration related cases.
  • The DHA was advised to ensure that legal counsel is provided to non-nationals who are being deported, prior to their repatriation.The SAHRC recommended that they eliminate undue administrative delays to such consultation.
  • It was recommended that the DHA develop specific guidelines on their legislated xenophobia prevention and deterrence mandate.
  • Through the Counter-Xenophobia Unit (CXU), it was proposed that they assist in municipal and local integrated development planning for social cohesion.

South African Police Services (SAPS)

  • It was recommended that SAPS create a training guideline for their officers and stations by establishing a national task team of police to compile a documentary record of institutional learning during and after the May 2008 attacks in consultation with affected stations and provincial offices.
  • The SAHRC proposed that they revise existing orders and operational protocols used in the policing of social conflict in light of the experience of stations and provincial-level police in May 2008.
  • It was advised that SAPS, together with the SA National Defence Force (SANDF), draw up best practice guidelines for reference in the event of a future request for cooperative service in conditions of civic violence. This would inform and outline an incident profile of the scale and nature of incidents that would require the deployment of soldiers.
  • SAPS, jointly with the National Prosecuting Authority, where tasked with compiling an evaluation of the 2008 joint agreement on xenophobia-related cases and the challenges in its implementation.

Department of Human Settlements (DHS)

  • It was recommended that DHS facilitate and engage with residents of informal and RDP settlements in order (a) to raise awareness of existing policies and (b) obtain information about the challenges faced in this regard, with a view to developing appropriate policies to manage the ownership, sale and rental of shacks and RDP houses.

Department of Education (DoE)

  • It was recommended that they work with DHA and the SAHRC to incorporate issues of migration and xenophobia into the national syllabus.

The latest reports by Eyewitness News

Visit the EWN live blog feature, covering the latest news on the ongoing xenophobic attacks across South Africa.

Africa Day: Voices from the Camps

As part of the Africa Day celebrations on 25 May 2015, almost a month after the unrest settled down, EWN published a series of five testimonial videos created by Doctor's Without Borders (MSF), titled Voices from the Camps.


This article first appeared on 702 : Xenophobia: How South Africa got here


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