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Politics and Society

South Africa’s problems are not caused by foreigners

Concrete measures to strengthen the rule of law are necessary to prevent outbreaks of public violence.

Institute for Security Studies (ISS)



For more than a decade corruption, poor policy choices and deteriorating governance have weakened South Africa’s criminal justice institutions and its economy. The recent outbreaks of violence, mostly against foreigners in the cities of Tshwane, Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni, are a warning sign that the government cannot afford to ignore.

Levels of public violence in general are rising, and foreign nationals living in under-developed and crowded areas are particularly vulnerable when the poor face increasing hardship and frustration. In the medium to long term, prioritisingeconomic growth and fixing basic service delivery are key. In the meantime, government needs to act decisively to counter public violence, often directed at foreign nationals, by strengthening the rule of law.

The violence is driven by a toxic mix of increasing unemployment and inequality, deteriorating trust in government and especially the police, and growing desperation among the poor and jobless.

Public violence in South Africa is rising, and foreign nationals are particularly vulnerable

This situation is exacerbated by a decade of ‘state capture’ and high-level corruption during which law enforcement agencies were hollowed out to enable the large-scale theft of many hundreds of billions of rand meant for public upliftment. While attempts to rebuild parts of the intelligence service and criminal justice system are under way, the going is slow and inadequate resources are proving to be a major stumbling block.


The general frustration among the population is evidenced by the growth in incidents of public disruption or violence. The annual count at which the Public Order Policing Units have had to intervene in such incidents has increased by 376% in the past decade. This is almost 10 incidents every day on average, up from two per day in 2008/09.

Among this growing tide of dissatisfaction and anger are those who seek easy targets to blame. While most South Africans are not xenophobic, there are a sizable minority who are. Unscrupulous politicians, looking to distract from their failures, fuel these sentiments by blaming foreign nationals for crime, unemployment and a range of other social ills. This makes foreigners particularly vulnerable to attack.

Many police officers hold xenophobic attitudes and turn a blind eye to attacks on foreigners. This actively encourages further violence. Of course, not all victims are foreign nationals as criminals take advantage of the public chaos to loot shops and destroy property indiscriminately.

Unscrupulous politicians, looking to distract from their failures, fuel xenophobic sentiments

The lack of decisive action by government, especially the investigation and prosecution of suspects involved in all forms of public violence and looting, including against foreigners, ensures that the problem continues. Rebuilding the rule of law is key – not only in response to public violence but also to hold those involved in corruption accountable. Only when politicians, government officials and business people go to prison for corruption will public trust in the criminal justice system take root.

Five areas of action are needed to reinforce the rule of law. First, the Treasury must exempt the South African Police Service (SAPS), the Hawks and National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) from planned austerity measures. These institutions must operate at full capacity as they are the bedrock of the rule of law and if they weaken further, organised crime, corruption and public violence will continue to increase.


Second, a dedicated plan is required to build public trust in the police. A National Police Board is needed to ensure that all of the 230 police generals are highly experienced, skilled persons of unquestionable integrity. Greater resources must be given to the SAPS Integrity Management component and Anti-Corruption Units to root out police involved in crime and corruption. Crime intelligence must be overhauled and a focus given to strengthening the detective service and Public Order Policing Units.

The lack of decisive action by government enables attacks on foreigners to continue

Third, the country’s leadership must speak with one voice to dispel the myths that foreign nationals are the cause of various social ills in South Africa. The focus should be to acknowledge the important contribution they make to our economy, and our diverse and vibrant culture.

Fourth, in the medium term, the country needs to re-establish the peacebuilding networks that existed in the run-up to South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994. At the time political violence risked breaking the country apart and peace committees were established across the country in high-violence localities. They played an important role in preventing violence and encouraging constructive civic activism and engagement. This is one way to change mindsets that contribute to high levels of public violence.

Fifth, we need a scale-up of evidence-based violence prevention projects, particularly those that protect children and women. Most violent behaviour is learnt in the home and in communities. Children who are victims of, or are exposed to, violence are far more likely to behave violently as adults. Violence prevention work by civil society, government and some private companies needs to be prioritised and rolled out to scale.

In 2008 South Africa witnessed wide-scale public violence during which 69 people were killed and many thousands displaced. After three days of chaos the military had to be called in to quell the destruction. While the violence primarily targeted foreign nationals, one third of those who died were South Africans. Recent events show we are again heading in this direction unless clear action is taken.


Gareth Newham, Head, Justice and Violence Prevention, ISS Pretoria