South Africa: Immigrants are not the Enemy

Politics and Society

South Africa: Immigrants are not the Enemy

The year 2008 remains a dark memory for the outbreak of xenophobic violence in South Africa. Now, 10 years later, there has been yet another resurgence in anti-immigrant rhetoric and sentiment.



It has been 10 years since the outbreak of xenophobic attacks in South Africa’s major cities, when more than 60 immigrants were killed. Victims were beaten, stabbed, set on fire and chased from their residences. Their small shops were looted and vandalised. It remains a painful memory for many.

The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) defines xenophobia as a “deep dislike of non-nationals by nationals of a recipient state”. Of course xenophobia is not limited to South Africa, but hatred for immigrants seems to be particularly violent and entrenched in that country – and it has been happening for decades. Anti-immigrant sentiment has been recorded since 1984, aimed specifically at Mozambican and Congolese refugees. Since then, there have been flare-ups of physical violence towards immigrants in Gauteng, the Western Cape, the Eastern Cape, Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal and the Free State. It has been more than 30 years since Mozambican refugees were either banned from entering certain homelands, denied access to healthcare and employment, or threatened with deportation. The underlying sentiment since then has not changed or gone away. This time, it has become a tool in the hands of political figures.

Anti-immigrant rhetoric has increased globally over the past three years.

Anti-immigrant rhetoric has increased globally over the past three years, with far-right politicians and parties gaining power and visibility in America, Europe and now South America. Calls for immigrants to return to their countries have presented them as threats to national security and menaces to society. They are branded criminals, tax evaders and con men who are hell-bent on exploiting the wealth of the country at the expense of good and righteous citizens. In this construct, immigrants are the enemy. They are the cause of poverty and unemployment and must be removed from the equation.

Read: South Africa: Xenophobia triumphs in Gauteng


A group of protesters trying to displace immigrants were confronted by police as they attempted to enter a predominantly Somali neighbourhood in Pretoria West. Police separated the groups and released stun grenades and tear gas to disperse the crowds. Photo: Groundup

The anti-immigrant rhetoric of politicians

Herman Mashaba, the mayor of Johannesburg, has been presenting immigrants as the enemy since 2016. He has painted illegal immigrants as criminals unwilling to follow South African law. Mashaba has become synonymous with anti-immigrant rhetoric, but he is not the only political figure guilty of this. Aaron Motsoaledi, the Minister of Health, recently stated that illegal immigrants were overrunning the public health system. The Democratic Alliance (DA) opposition party has drawn up a plan to stop all illegal immigrant from entering the country, complaining about South Africa’s “porous” borders. More recently, the Department of Home Affairs has proposed legislation that would not give children whose parents are foreign nationals a birth certificate. Instead, they would get a “confirmation of birth”. Although all the parties mentioned above have defended their statements, saying that they were referring to illegal immigrants, their words are dangerous in a country where there already is distrust and dislike for people who are not South African.

Read: Xenophobia in South Africa: why it’s time to unsettle narratives about migrants

Targeting poor African immigrants

However, this dislike is specific. The flare-ups of violence are specifically aimed at poor African immigrants. The rhetoric of political parties targets poor African immigrants. They are a vulnerable and easily accessible group, unable to move to safer and more affluent areas, and unable to publicly defend themselves and speak out. They are targets of physical and verbal attack because, ultimately, their lives and their deaths are just not that important in a country that already hates them. They are bodies onto which people can project their frustrations, their anger and their fears, without punishment. For government officials, poor African immigrants are the perfect scapegoat. They present them as a faceless horde, stealing what rightfully belongs to South Africans. Government policy and inefficiency cannot be blamed for widespread socio-economic inequality. No, no, it is those damn migrants. Widespread poverty and the lack of access to resources cannot be blamed for the high crime rate. Those illegal immigrants are responsible for all crime. What is dangerous about this populist rhetoric is that it works. It is easy to shift blame onto someone who is less powerful than you are.

Afrophobia: South Africa betrays legacy of Ubuntu and Pan-Africanism champions. Cartoon: Damien Glez

Turning against former anti-apartheid allies

The xenophobia is especially painful to witness because when South Africa most needed help from her neighbours, they were there. Mozambique, Zambia, Lesotho, Swaziland, Tanzania and Zimbabwe were key allies in the fight against apartheid. It would have been easy for them to just send thoughts and prayers, especially after they had already won their own independence, but they did not. ANC freedom fighters and leaders were able to enter their countries – using the same “porous borders” that current politicians are railing against. They set up military training camps in these countries, gave fighters easy transport through their countries and, in the spirit of Pan-Africanism, publicly declared their support for South Africa’s fight for freedom.


Samora Machel Photo:

The open association and support for these fighters often made these countries targets of the apartheid government’s violence. The National Party government backed Renamo fighters in Mozambique, triggering a decades-long war. It bombed buildings in Harare in 1986, resulting in the death of a Zimbabwean woman. Mozambique’s then president, Samora Machel, may have died because of the support he gave to South African freedom fighters – but 22 years later, a Mozambican man, Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave, was burned alive in Ramaphosa informal settlement. Xenophobia erases a history of inter-country cooperation. It ignores the historical, cultural and social ties that connect us and the fundamental belief that we are all united in our goal for growth, development and solidarity. For the country of Ubuntu, it makes no sense that xenophobia – a mentality that refuses to recognise the humanity of others – still has such a foothold.

A vulnerable group of poor African immigrants is not responsible for the deep-rooted problems of poverty, unemployment and the lack of access to resources.

A vulnerable group of poor African immigrants is not responsible for the deep-rooted problems of poverty, unemployment and the lack of access to resources. Immigrants, illegal or not, have never been the enemy. They are not here to steal jobs, commit crime and overrun the country. They have run away from their homes, a place that is no longer safe. They want an opportunity to provide for themselves and their families. They do not want to cause trouble or attract anger. Ultimately, they are human, and they are trying to stay alive and safe. That is all they want. That is all they ask.

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