Straatverkoper in township Alexandra, Zuid-Afrika
Straatverkoper in township Alexandra, Zuid-Afrika

On xenophobia in South Africa

Essay by Dawu Sibanda

Xenophobia is on the rise. In South Africa it is even visible on the political level. South African researcher and human rights activist Dawu Sibanda, who also workes for FOS, shines her light on the issue with this essay.

Tightening the grip on migrants - the case of South Africa and Belgium

The South African Constitution is considered one of the most progressive in the world, the recent amendments to refugee laws however, cast doubt to this view.   Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi gazetted the Refugees Amendment Act, which came into effect on January 1 2020.  In South Africa asylum and refugee process is governed by the Refugee Act (1998).  The Amendments which include changes relating to an age limit for dependents of refugees, exclusions, the abandonment of applications, the conditions for the withdrawal of refugee status as well as the curtailing of certain liberties particularly the banning of refugees from participation in political affairs of their home countries. The amendments also include clamping down on business, and regulations on work and study which refugees may apply among others.  The changes are very restrictive, bordering on the unconstitutional.   This is in stark conflict with the South African Constitution which provides unlimited rights to freedom of association and expression.

Civil society voices

What is particularly disturbing about the amendments is the banning of refugees from participating in political affairs of their home countries, whose penalty is deportation.    To do so, refugees and asylum seekers will need to seek and gain permission from the Minister of Home Affairs.  Also of concern is the lack of consultation of relevant stakeholders.  African migrants living in South Africa decried lack of consultation. “We did not know about any public hearings that were conducted on this matter,” Ngqabutho Mabhena, chairperson of the Zimbabwe community in South Africa[1]. While one may have been forced out of their home country, they still belong and identify with their country of birth, undermining their heritage, their belonging.  ‘Social and political memory’ is part of humanity to define ourselves by what we do and to do what we are.  Most refugees still have family back in their home countries and would want to go back some day.

Vusumuzi Sibanda, Chairperson of the African Diaspora Forum (ADF), a formation consisting of a number of organisations representing African migrant communities living in South Africa, echoes  ‘if you are going to disenfranchise them from taking active part in the politics, you are basically saying they cannot fix what is wrong in their countries[2].”

The Amendments undermine human rights ethos and integration efforts including various international protocols aimed at combating  combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. They also undermine government’s own National Action Plan against Racism and Xenophobia.

Sharon Ekambaram of the Lawyers for Human Rights sees the amendments not only as curtailing liberties, but an excuse to draw away scrutiny from the challenges within the refugee system;

“The problem with that is that the asylum system in South Africa is in crisis and these amendments are not looking at addressing that problem. What we see is that many of these amendments that are coming into regulation are actually intended to place more restrictions and to deny human beings, people who are fleeing conflict on the continent, who are facing serious trauma; that their human rights and human dignity is further coming under attack in South Africa[3].”

The amendments came hot at the heels of widespread xenophobic attacks aimed [mostly] at Black African migrants.  The latest ‘wave’ of attacks being experienced in Diepsloot, a township north of Johannesburg.  A ‘wave’ of xenophobic violence experienced between September and October 2019 left an estimated 800 people displaced[4].  FOS partner, Casual Workers Advise Office (CWAO) were not spurred. They suffered extensive damage when a mob stormed their offices, looting and damaging property. Luckily no causalities were suffered.   While there is no conclusive proof whether they were targeted or this was a ‘random’ act; CWAO organises precarious workers irrespective of nationality.

Historical relations of migration in the region

South Africa and the region have a long history of migration, dating back to pre-colonial times.  However, much documented history only starts with the emergency of labour migration in the mid-19th Century.   The founding of South African diamond and gold mining industries marked the beginning of the country’s trek towards a modern industrial economy.    Even then, migration was tied to exclusion, with migrant workers restricted to compounds. The migration framework is still exclusionary.

South African’ themselves have a history of migration to other countries in the region. The African National Congress (ANC)’s ANC itself was politically active and supported in the struggle while in exile in neighbouring countries, which makes the banning of refugees in political activity or their own countries ironic.

Divide and rule

The anti-migrant rhetoric has taken a divide and rule tactic of playing immigrants against each other, as witnessed in Diepsloot, pitting documented migrants against undocumented ones.  Those without documentation are portrayed as criminal elements. Both the criminality   and the notion of the ‘other’ narratives are concerning as they feed on the ‘them’ and the ‘us’ divide.   Polarisation of migrant voices undermines attempts at organising and integration of immigrants.

Although FOS partners, the Commercial, Stevedoring, Agricultural and Allied Workers Union  (CSAAWU),  the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union ( SADSAWU) and CWAO’s  core business is not organising migrants, their organising cuts across nationality and documentation divide, deconstructing the perception that African immigrants are the threatening other.

Anti-refugee rhetoric

I argue that the state craft is exclusionary. The growing anti-migrant sentiments from the government through its ministers and some public officials over the last while is enough to cast doubt over the government’s argument that the new regulations are aimed at  preventing asylum-seekers from abusing the refugee protection systems.

As scapegoats migrants help preserve the post-apartheid project’s legitimacy by providing convenient explanations for widespread crime, unemployment and disease.  The (now former) mayor of Johannesburg, Herman Mashaba is infamous for blaming anything from  rising crime levels in Johannesburg  to the  Ebola virus on migrants, a sentiment which he was later compelled to apologise for.  The current Minister of Home Affairs, Aaron Motsoaledi who in his previous portfolio as the Minister of Health is on record of accusing Black African migrants of fleecing the health care system “South Africa needs to re-look at its immigration policies to control the number of undocumented and illegal immigrants in the country.[5]” This abject immigrant portrayal of Black African migrants is without doubt one of the contributing factors of xenophobia and prejudice, institutionalised and otherwise. You see/ show a people over and over as one thing and that’s what they become.

Oudere in township Alexandra, Zuid-Afrika
Beeld uit township Alexandra, Zuid-Afrika

South Africa is a strategic partner in the continent.  Given her position as the biggest economy in the region and the second biggest in the continent as well as a relatively peaceful and stable political landscape it is to be expected that she presents greater opportunities for social and economic refuge therefore attracts a number of migrants from the region and beyond.  Furthermore, she boasts of progressive legislation on homosexuality[6]. South Africa was the country in the continent to decriminalise homosexuality; this in a context where homosexuality carries a death sentence in most of the continent.  Perhaps the question should be; how does South Africa as a leading/ strategic country partner in the region ensure that all have equal opportunities in the land of their birth?

Scapegoating foreigners for failures of the state: Foreign nationals and the economy

The dominant view in South Africa across citizens, political parties and organised labour tends to adopt national prejudice which views refugees and migrant workers from African countries as a source of a low wages, criminal activities and other undesirable activities in the country as opposed to seeing refugees and migrant workers as victims of oppression that have to be organized to build solidarity within South African borders.  These views are in general uninformed; for example, despite the lack of evidence of the true impact of foreign nationals on South Africa’s unemployment crisis; views persists that Black African migrants reduce economic opportunities [for nationals].

Speaking in a radio interview in 2019, the Small Business development minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni made reference to country’s formal and informal retail sector and how it has changed over the last couple of decades. “If you look at the retail sector, when we all grew up our spaza shops were run by ourselves, by our neighbours, we took over shops from our mothers… If you (look) now then that is not the demographic of who is running our spaza shops.” [7] (In reference to Black African migrants running spaza shops)[i]. This then begs the argument, whose jobs immigrants are stealing if they are working in the informal sector. This argument also fails to question who is running large cooperations, which are of course owned by foreign companies of western origin.

In an article titled ‘Progressive International: Challenging the rise of right-wing nationalism’, Carilee Osborne reflects on the rhetoric of the countries’ leading political parties; the African National Congress (ANC), the Democratic Alliance (DA) and Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leading up to the 2019 General elections, whose rhetoric was common, scapegoating foreigners for the failures of the state including its economic woes.

Xenophobia or Afro phobia – a scholarly debate

The negative framing and perceptions of migrants are not only major points of conversation in many countries receiving immigrants and migrants, but have also generated scholarly investigation.

Academics have raised theoretical questions around the nature of the attacks, which have been mainly directed at Black African immigrants.  There is a growing body of work which argues that the attacks are a new form of racism and the context is misplaced and we should rather talk of Afrophobia than xenophobia. See Masenya (2015[8]); Gumede (2015[9]) and Tafira (2016[10]).   The tendency of perceiving all foreigners especially black African foreigners in South Africa as illegal immigrants is a root concern. This has created a narrative whereby there is a distinction between ‘us’ (South Africans) and ‘them’ (foreigners or makwerekwere[ii]).

Jean Pierre Misago, Loren Landau and Silindile Mlilo, academics at the African Centre for Migration & Society at the University of the Witwatersrand, where they manage a project called Xenowatch argue that the attacks cannot be termed xenophobia, a more befitting term would be Afrophobia as the hate is directed towards Black African migrants.  Phobia has also been questioned as it denotes fear of the unknown however in this circumstance its hate of the known[11].

Looking West - the Belgian experience

The ‘migration problem’ is not only a problem in South Africa, it is a ‘problem’ in the developed world as well. In America there is Donald Trump, the American President quite popular for his non-immigrant stance, a stance openly racist and xenophobic.  In America and indeed other parts of the world including Europe, migrants are widely seen as a security threat.  As such, they have resorted to increasingly fortifying borders.  Notably the concept of security is widening in its characteristics to include socio-economic and political threats.

Belgium is another country that has taken to increasingly excluding migrants. While the Belgian migration experience landscape is not as well documented as South Africa’s, there are similarities and differences too.

Negative perceptions of immigrants have manifested in negative socio-economic consequence. The general perception of immigrants particularly those of lower income standing, including refuges and asylum seekers, is that they are not valuable members of the European society.  Instead they are portrayed as being synonymous with laziness and fleecing the system, unduly reaping social support meant for nationals.

Just like in South Africa, immigrants in Belgium are being scapegoated over failures of the state and other global challenges facing the world today. Migrants in Belgium face salient and hidden forms of xenophobia.  They continue to be blamed for anything from cultural decay to diminished government social services.  While both South Africa and Belgium offer social support to nationals, such as child support grant, subsidised housing, free health care the support is different due to the differences in the economic and political set up of the two countries. The refugee and asylum processes in the two countries differ, in South Africa asylum seekers and refugees have a right to work and study while in Belgium this right is limited.

Fear of the other

There is cultural based racism as a result of increased culture contact and intermixing of people of other identities. This entrenched in cultural differences articulated by dissimilarities in nationality, ethnicity, religion, language, dress, customs, social and territorial origins, speech patterns and accents. These differences are deepened by perceived threats to socio- economic services such as social protection.

The portrayal of refugees as being synonymous with fleecing the system are present in Belgium too.  Tensions within the precariat are setting people against each other, preventing them from recognising that the social and economic structure is producing their common set of vulnerabilities. For example a long-term resident of a low-income urban area will easily be led to see incoming migrants as taking better jobs and leaping to head the queue for benefits. Grumbles of  “we can’t uphold pensions, welfare checks, public housing and even health care because of migrants’’; ‘’they get it all, and we get nothing”  dot the low income landscape. The fear extends to perceived threats over losing out on child support grants. It is not uncommon to hear tales over ‘‘refugees coming to Belgium and were able to buy a house’’! They arrive in Belgium and just get enough money to buy a house!’’  (From their child grants).  Of course these views are uninformed but incited by right wing political parties. They are frustrations among local people are expressed thorough economic grievances, which however mask the preceding fear and disdain of the ‘other’

Man voor informeel huis landelijk Zuid-Afrika
Een man staat voor zijn informeel huis in Stellenbosch, Zuid-Afrika

Just like South Africa, Belgium’s response to migration is paternalistic. Belgium is moving towards policy reforms to legitimatise the exclusion of immigrants. The new right wing, the Flemish government, is using migration as a political score card.   The Right wing party is quick to point out ‘the cost of refugees’ on both the economy and the cultural milieu, clearly forgetting that the asylum process is embedded on a human rights and social justice basis.  Although the move failed then a seed has been planted. A policy making process driven by right wingers to justify the exclusion of migrants is in motion. The Flemish government, among governing parties, has adopted a resolution to adjust social protection for asylum seekers. What makes this particularly worrying is that the resolution was not preceded by wide consultations but is in fact based on false anecdotal evidence.

In South Africa, the dominant narrative is that immigrants under cut wages and undermine the decent work agenda in general by accepting poor standards of employment; in Belgium the dominant view is that they are a lazy group heavily dependent on and place undue pressure on the welfare system. In essence however, this scapegoating from addressing real issues facing the country such as equality, fair taxes, decent work.

While the conditions of, and official response to refugees and asylum seekers in South Africa and Belgium are similar, Belgium has a measure of integration programs. Language programmes are offered although this only fits within the official asylum seeking trajectory, which is only open to those come to the system through official channels, a process which is increasingly becoming difficult given the exclusionary nature of the refugee framework.  For those lucky to access the system, they often struggle to secure employment due discrimination and other forms of prejudice.  One of the leading Belgian newspapers recently published an article about a French doctor, who despite their qualifications and a teacher shortage in Belgium still cannot find a job.  The right wing discourse is that newcomers need to adapt, which is of course an excuse to exclude.


  • Include foreigners in intervention measures –migrants are continuously marginalised on issues that affect them, and that an exclusionary agenda continues to frame the migration landscape. For any sustained intervention, migrant communities need to be an active part of the solution.
  • Pre migration programmes – civil society organisations in South Africa could work with people intending to migrate to South Africa by preparing for life South Africa educating them on migration framework. FOS partners could work through their partners in the region.


In conclusion, I will borrow from radio presenter political analyst, lecturer and writer; Eusebius McKaiser who in and a commentary on the rights of queer communities states; ‘Our collective humanity is what shines through when the rights of minorities are affirmed[12].

Auteur: Dawu Sehlaphi Sibanda

[1] South Africa: New refugee laws ’target political dissidents’ Available at (accessed 22 January 2020).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Lawyers for Human Rights to challenge the amendment of Refugee Act. Available at: Accessed 21  January 2020

[4] Working together to address xenophobic violence in South Africa. Available at: .  Assessed 29 January 2020.

[5] Foreign nationals are burdening SA health system: Motsoaledi. Available at (assessed 19 January 2020).

[6] Although legislation does not discriminate based on sexual and gender identity, the LGBTIQ + community still face stigma as well as challenges in accessing their rights.  The states own application of the law has been poor.

[7]  Radio interview with  the Small Business Development Minister, Khumbudzo Ntshavheni

[8] Afrophobia in South Africa: A General Perspective of Xenophobia, Malesela J Masenya, Bangladesh e-Journal of Sociology. Volume 14, Number 1. January 2017, pp. 81 -89.

[9] Afrophobia, moral and political disguises : Sepa leholo ke la moeti, TD : The Journal for Transdisciplinary Research in Southern Africa, Volume 11, Number 4, 1 December 2015, pp. 83-98(16)

[10] Kenneth Tafira. 2016.  Unpublished Concept paper.

[11] Working together to address xenophobic violence in South Africa. Available at . Accessed on 29 January 2020.

[12] Decriminalising same-sex sex is good for all of us. Available at Accessed 19 January 2020.

[i] Spaza shops is a term used to denote small business in the township providing communities with readily available goods.

[ii] A derogatory term used mostly in reference to Black African immigrants in South Africa.