Xenophobic attacks in South Africa: Not a completely new phenomenon

For more than one week South Africa has been shaken by violent attacks against migrants. According to the police, more than 40 deaths are already recorded. Hundreds of people - among them women and children - were attacked, injured, raped, and their homes were plundered and burned down. -> Recent articles and publications on Africa. 

The ongoing attacks on foreigners in various townships around Pretoria and Johannesburg as well as in the Johannesburg city centre have forcefully brought the extent of xenophobia towards specifically black foreigners in South Africa to the front. But attacks on foreigners do not represent a new phenomenon in South Africa. During the mid-1990s there were several attacks on foreigners in various parts of the country, not unlike what we are witnessing at the moment and over the years, there have also been various sporadic attacks on foreigners, particularly in the Eastern Cape and the Western Cape (see timeline at the end of this document). However, what we are seeing at the moment is a much more widespread, intense and sustained campaign of attacks concentrated in the Gauteng Province. It is difficult to say with any certainty why these attacks have flared up at this precise moment and why with such intensity. There has been speculation and it has now been confirmed by a statement from the MEC for Safety and Security in Gauteng, that there are political motivations behind the attacks on foreigners, but who is precisely responsible remains unclear.

The attacks on foreigners in South Africa first received prominent and high-level attention in 1998, when the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) convened a Consultative Conference and adopted the Braamfontein Statement, which argues the following:

No one, whether in this country legally or not, can be deprived of his or her basic or fundamental rights and cannot be treated as less than human. The mere fact of being an [alien] or being without legal status does not mean that one is fair game to all manner of exploitation or violence or to criminal, arbitrary or inhuman treatment. Foreigners in our midst are entitled to the support and defence of our law and constitution.

Our Constitution states that we seek to construct a society where “human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms” are abiding values. The Bill of Rights confers certain rights to “everyone”. These are the rights to equality, human dignity, the right to life, freedom and security of the person, and the right not to be subject to slavery, servitude or forced labour.

[The] manifestation [of xenophobia] is a violation of human rights. South Africa needs to send out a strong message that an irrational prejudice and hostility towards non-nationals is not acceptable under any circumstances. Criminal behaviour towards foreigners cannot be tolerated in a democratic society.

In addition to the actual attacks on foreigners that had taken place, some of the indicators of the levels of xenophobia in South Africa, discussed during the Consultative Conference, came from a survey conducted by the Southern African Migration Project (SAMP) in 1997. It discovered that 25% of South Africans wanted a total prohibition of migration or immigration and 22% wanted the South African government to return all foreigners presently living here to their own countries. 45% of the sample called for strict limits to be placed on migrants and immigrants and 17% wanted migration policy tied to the availability of jobs. In the same survey, some 61% of respondents agreed that migrants put additional strains on the country’s resources. These findings suggest that levels of xenophobia or at the very least, anti-immigrant sentiments were very high. These xenophobic sentiments were confirmed in a similar survey conducted in 2006 in which respondents continued to consider foreigners to be a threat to the social and economic well-being of South Africa. 

In the 2006 survey, more than two-thirds said that foreigners used up resources such as water, electricity and health care destined for citizens. Two-thirds of respondents felt that foreigners from other African countries committed crimes and close to one half (49%) said that foreigners brought diseases such as HIV to South Africa. Thus, like in the 1997 survey, respondents in 2006 appeared to continue to have a negative view of the impact of foreigners on the country, and in fact it would appear that this view on certain issues has hardened with greater percentages saying that foreigners take up resources meant for citizens.

Whenever there have been violent attacks on foreigners, many politicians and government officials have tended to downplay the significance of xenophobia, preferring to label such attacks as opportunistic crime and 'conflicts over resources'. While crime and resource conflicts clearly play a part in provoking these attacks, it is also apparent that the attacks are targeted primarily at black foreigners, which confirms the xenophobic and racist nature of the attacks. The argument is also made that these attacks are as a result of the anger and frustration of communities 'boiling over' suggesting that they have just taken place 'spontaneously'. However, there is nothing spontaneous about these attacks. If anything, it appears that they are well organised and part of an orchestrated campaign that targets foreigners living in some of South Africa's poorest communities, using the argument that foreigners steal jobs, are involved in crime and are a drain on resources to whip up anti-foreigner sentiments that ultimately result in the kind of violence that we are seeing today.

In the light of this, the setting up of a Task Force consisting of various provincial government departments to probe the causes of these attacks is an important and necessary initiative and we hope that as part of its mandate, the Task Force will seriously investigate the extent to which there may be an organised group that is deliberately orchestrating and supporting these violent actions. The statements made by various political leaders and parties during the past week in which they condemned the attacks on foreigners are also a positive development. In particular, the visits by senior national and provincial government leaders to the townships, where some of the attacks have taken place, serve as an important message of solidarity with and support for the victims of xenophobic violence. However, there does still appear to be some reluctance on the part of political leaders to admit to the xenophobic nature of these attacks and perhaps in some ways this is not surprising. Apart from the obvious embarrassment of admitting to high levels of xenophobia, these attacks also fly in the face of South Africa's attempts to become more integrated and to assume a legitimate and accepted leadership role within and on behalf of the African continent.

The problem, of course, is also the fact that unless political leaders, the government more generally and citizens face up to and acknowledge that xenophobia is a problem in South Africa, it will be difficult to persuade them of the need to put in place a comprehensive set of counter-xenophobia strategies and programmes with adequate resources to implement it successfully.

There is some concern that the violence could spread to other parts of the Gauteng Province and to other parts of the country as well. While this is a possibility, particularly given (unconfirmed) reports of possible threats to foreigners in both the Western Cape and Kwazulu-Natal, it is encouraging to note that the law enforcement authorities are taking potential threats seriously and have taken the necessary steps to prevent or nip further violence in the bud. In addition and on a more positive note, South African citizens have begun to rally and mobilise in opposition to the xenophobic attacks with vigils being planned in both Cape Town and Johannesburg as a means of protesting against xenophobia and to support the victims of the xenophobic attacks.

Every effort must be made to stop the current wave and to prevent further violence. In particular, pro-active strategies and plans need to be put in place to prevent the violence from spreading to other parts of Gauteng and other parts of the country, including the need for dialogue within and between government and civil society organisations to devise appropriate responses and strategies to the current situation. In the long-term and to prevent the outbreak of similar incidents in future, consideration has to be paid to revising South Africa's immigration policy particularly with respect to the need to articulate the rights of migrants more clearly and to promote migration as a tool for growth and development. This has to be done in conjunction with ongoing public education programmes as well as human rights and counter-xenophobia training, particularly within those communities where xenophobic violence is more likely to occur.

The following chronology looks back at the problem of xenophobia since South Africa's first democratic elections in 1994:


  • The Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) threatens to take "physical action" if the government fails to respond to the perceived crisis of undocumented migrants in South Africa.
  • IFP leader and Minister of Home Affairs Mangosutho Buthelezi says in his first speech to parliament: "If we as South Africans are going to compete for scarce resources with millions of aliens who are pouring into South Africa, then we can bid goodbye to our Reconstruction and Development Programme.
  • In December gangs of South Africans try to evict perceived "illegals" from Alexandra township, blaming them for increased crime, sexual attacks and unemployment. The campaign, lasting several weeks, is known as "Buyelekhaya" (Go back home).


  • A report by the Southern African Bishops' Conference concludes: "There is no doubt that there is a very high level of xenophobia in our country .... One of the main problems is that a variety of people have been lumped together under the title of 'illegal immigrants', and the whole situation of demonising immigrants is feeding the xenophobia phenomenon."


  • In a newspaper interview, Defence Minister Joe Modise links the issue of undocumented migration to increased crime.
  • In a speech to parliament, Home Affairs Minister Buthelezi claims "illegal aliens" cost South African taxpayers "billions of rands" each year.
  • A study co-authored by the Human Sciences Research Council and the Institute for Security Studies reports that 65 percent of South Africans support forced repatriation of undocumented migrants. White South Africans are found to be most hostile to migrants, with 93 percent expressing negative attitudes.
  • Local hawkers in central Johannesburg attack their foreign counterparts. The chairperson of the Inner Johannesburg Hawkers Committee is quoted as saying: "We are prepared to push them out of the city, come what may. My group is not prepared to let our government inherit a garbage city because of these leeches."
  • A Southern African Migration Project (SAMP) survey of migrants in Lesotho, Mozambique and Zimbabwe shows that very few would wish to settle in South Africa. A related study of migrant entrepreneurs in Johannesburg finds that these street traders create an average of three jobs per business.


  • Three non-South Africans are killed on a train travelling between Pretoria and Johannesburg in what is described as a xenophobic attack.
  • In December The Roll Back Xenophobia Campaign is launched by a partnership of the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), the National Consortium on Refugee Affairs and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
  • The Department of Home Affairs reports that the majority of deportations are of Mozambicans (141,506) followed by Zimbabweans (28,548)


  • A report by the SAHRC notes that xenophobia underpins police action against foreigners. People are apprehended for being "too dark" or "walking like a black foreigner". Police also regularly destroy documents of black non-South Africans.


  • Sudanese refugee James Diop is seriously injured after being thrown from a train in Pretoria by a group of armed men. Kenyan Roy Ndeti and his room mate are shot in their home. Both incidents are described as xenophobic attacks.
  • In Operation Crackdown, a joint police and army sweep, over 7,000 people are arrested on suspicion of being illegal immigrants. In contrast, only 14 people are arrested for serious crimes.
  • A SAHRC report on the Lindela deportation centre, a holding facility for undocumented migrants, lists a series of abuses at the facility, including assault and the systematic denial of basic rights. The report notes that 20 percent of detainees claimed South African citizenship or that they were in the country legally.


  • According to the 2001 census, out of South Africa's population of 45 million, just under one million foreigners are legally resident in the country. However, the Department of Home Affairs estimates that there are more than seven million undocumented migrants.


  • Protests erupt at Lindela over claims of beatings and inmate deaths, coinciding with hearings into xenophobia by SAHRC and parliament's portfolio committee on foreign affairs.


  • Cape Town's Somali community claim that 40 traders have been the victims of targeted killings between August and September.
  • Somali-owned businesses in the informal settlement of Diepsloot, outside Johannesburg, are repeatedly torched.


  • In March UNHCR notes its concern over the increase in the number of xenophobic attacks on Somalis. The Somali community claims that 400 people have been killed in the past decade.
  • In May more than 20 people are arrested after shops belonging to Somalis and other foreign nationals are torched during anti-government protests in Khutsong township, a small mining town about 50km south-western of Johannesburg.
  • According to the International Organisation of Migration, 177,514 Zimbabweans deported from South Africa have passed through their reception centre across the border in Beitbridge since its opening in May 2006.


  • In March human rights organisations condemn a spate of xenophobic attacks around Pretoria that leave at least four people dead and hundreds homeless.

Sources include: Human Rights Watch, SAMP, SAHRC, Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation

The author Vincent Williams is currently among the most cited experts in this topic in South Africa. He is working on the project SAMP (Southern African Migration Project) which is supported by the South African regional office of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftug.