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Nothing new, only worse

by Jens Blank


A policeman walks past a burning shack after xenophobia attacks in a Johannesburg squatter camp in May this year

A policeman walks past a burning shack after xenophobia attacks in a Johannesburg squatter camp in May this year

Two years ahead of the Football World Cup in South Africa, a wave of xenophobic violence is sweeping the country. Xenophobia has been part of South African life for a long time, however, as politicians and the media have been stirring this climate for years. [ By Jens Blank ]

Xenophobic attacks are nothing new in South Africa. Offences rooted in this hostile attitude have been reported almost every month since the end of Apartheid. Nevertheless, riots escalated to a previously unknown scale in May. Nationwide, more than 60 African migrants were killed, and some 37,000 were displaced. Poverty and rising food prices may have contributed to the intensity of violence, but they are not enough to explain the xenophobia among South Africans. Nor do they explain why it is African foreigners who are bearing the brunt.

The results of the World Values Study of 1995 and studies done by the Southern African Migration Project from 1997 to 2006 show that xenophobia is widespread in South African society. Moreover, a close look at the data reveals that the relatively affluent white South Africans differ only slightly in their attitudes from the black majority.

Since 1994, both the media and politicians have been fuelling feelings of rivalry among the local people, along with a sense of being swamped by foreigners. According to estimates, a large number of the African migrants living in the country came to South Africa without valid documents. However, there is no reliable data on exactly how many such migrants there are. Nonetheless, officials and academics seem happy to quote statistics. For example, one study in 1994 concluded that there were about nine million foreigners in the country, the equivalent of 20 % of the total population. Half of them were said to not have valid papers.

Academically accurate research, however, puts the number of foreigners at closer to six to 12 %. Nor is there any empirical support for the claim that about 3 million Zimbabweans have fled to South Africa. That would amount to one quarter of Zimbabwe’s total population.

Nonetheless, South African media are quick to pick up unreliable figures and turn them into sensationalist headlines. Again and again, there have been reports on the increase in undocumented immigration, often with inflammatory language such as “invasion”, “hordes”, “waves” and “floods”. On average, South Africans who were questioned on the issue in 2001 estimated the share of foreigners to be about 27 %.

Since the end of Apartheid, politicians have continuously put the blame for any evil in the country on African migrants, thus exploiting – and promoting – xenophobic sentiments. In 1994, for example, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, then home minister, stated that all Nigerians were criminals and drug dealers. Three years later, he said that unemployment, then at 34 % in South Africa, would not be an issue were it not for the illegal migrants.

South Africans have developed a new sense of nationalism, and this nationalism may be contributing to a climate of xenophobia. Studies show that South Africans are extremely proud of their nation. Research on prejudice, however, has shown that a high level of nationalism often goes along with little tolerance of foreigners.

The South African government must rise to these challenges. Xenophobia is not only an important political issue. It also has economic relevance. There is no doubt that South Africa depends on skilled labour from other African countries.