How xenophobia took root in South Africa

Foreign nationals watch after their shacks were set on fire by alleged looters at Marabastad, near the Pretoria city centre, South Africa, on September 2 during the latest xenophobic attacks. PHOTO | AFP 

“Once upon a time humanity used to roam the planet unhindered. There were no borders to prevent him from making contact with other cultures. The only obstacles were flooded rivers. Until colonialism and racism came, humanity did not have any fears in making contact with other cultures. Then borders were drawn and racism became the human quality. I expect civilisation where humanity will not see each other in terms of which country they come from.” (Somali refugee 2003.)

Since 1869, the South African economy has been dependent on migrant labour to work on the country’s diamond and gold mines. Migrant labour, mostly from Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi, has ensured a supply of cheap wage labour to the mining sector and its secondary industry, a system which has been condemned throughout the world. In 1904, the South African government started importing Chinese labour to satisfy the ever-increasing demand for cheap labour in the mines.

The use of migrant labour is by no means exclusive to South Africa and is to be found in various forms in the Middle East, western Europe, North America and India.

Before 1994 black immigrants faced discrimination from locals and they were referred to as “foreigners”. Between 1984 and the end of hostilities in that country, an estimated 300,000 Mozambicans fled to South Africa. While never granted refugee status they were technically allowed to settle in Bantustans created during the apartheid era.

The reality was more varied with the homeland of Lebowa banning Mozambican settlers outright while Gazankulu welcomed refugees with support in the form of land and equipment. Those in Gazankulu, however, found themselves confined to the homeland and liable for deportation should they officially enter South Africa and evidence exists that they were denied access to economic resources.


Unrest and civil war likewise saw large numbers of Congolese migrate to South Africa, many illegally, in 1993 and 1997. Subsequent studies showed indications of xenophobic attitudes towards these refugees.

After majority rule in 1994, contrary to expectations, the incidence of xenophobia increased.

More than half a century ago, Frantz Fanon wrote of the “black man” as a “phobogenic object, a stimulus to anxiety” among whites. Since the collapse of apartheid, the phantom of Makwerekwere has been constructed and deployed in and through public discourse to render Africans from outside the borders orderable as the nation’s bogeyman.

Waves of violence against Makwerekwere (slang for foreigners) have been rocking South Africa since 1994, the largest of which broke out in May 2008 in the shantytown of Alexandra in Johannesburg. It quickly spread throughout the country.

The militants were black citizens who exclusively targeted African foreign nationals, with some witnesses reporting grotesque scenes of sadistic behaviour.

This week violence flared up again when hundreds of people marched through the Central Business District of Johannesburg plundering foreign-owned shops and torching cars and buildings. The violence then spread to Pretoria and some eastern suburbs. At least five deaths have been reported following the violence. Nigerians seem to have fared worst in the latest spate of attacks with many of their businesses suffering loss.

The two nations were once very close with Nigeria being so supportive of the anti-apartheid movement that it imposed a “Mandela tax”, a mandatory deduction from civil servants that went to help South Africans. The Nigerian government has lodged a formal protest. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has condemned the violence terming it “unacceptable”.

Today, it is a fair comment to suggest that Africans are phobogenic unto themselves, that Africa is a stimulus to its own anxiety. The victimisation of black South Africans for more than 300 hundred years is being replaced by the victimisation of African foreigners who are perceived to be taking jobs away from black South Africans and being responsible for violent crime. Not only do black South Africans loathe African foreigners, but they show a lot of respect to white people because to them they are the creators of wealth.

There are about 3.6 million immigrants in South Africa out of a total population of 50 million. Of this number, less than three million are Africans mainly running small shops, vending and service industries and controlling less than one percent of the national wealth. On the other hand, about 4.5 million whites control 85 percent of the South African economy.

Years of colonial domination, apartheid and economic marginalisation have left the black South African deeply scarred and waddling in poverty. For many years South Africa was isolated under economic sanctions leaving the black population ignorant of the outside world. Sudden exposure to the outside world after 1994 left the African vulnerable and afraid of even fellow Africans.

Gaps in the education system for blacks especially in the aftermath of the Soweto students uprising in 1976 created a whole generation of young people whose schooling was irretrievably interrupted leaving them with no education or vocational skills. This generation was already in adulthood by the time majority rule was achieved in 1994, as a disillusioned lot.

South African xenophobia contains characteristic features of Afrophobic self-contempt. It is symptomatic of apartheid power asymmetries that produced a colonised self among blacks.

We in Kenya are possessed of an indomitable spirit with a strong sense of identity and nationhood which unfortunately occasionally escapes us when we near elections.