Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version

If Steve Biko – the iconic leader of South Africa’s Black Consciousness Movement - were alive today, what would he make of the Afrophobia/xenophobia in South Africa? Would he stridently denounce it – unlike South Africa’s leaders – and seek to foster a new sense of self-love in the transformed slogan: “Black is Beautiful! Be Proud of your Blackness and the Blackness of other Africans!”?

Xenophobia or Afrophobia is a cancer that is dangerous to the future of Pan-Africanism in the twenty-first century. I state this as someone who considers herself a Pan-Africanist, yet I must also confess an uncomfortable “love-hate” relationship with South Africa. My ambivalence towards South Africa has been shaped by experiences in that beautiful country –“Mzansi for sure!” [1] - as well as the treatment of non-South Africans, that is other Africans described in the townships as “Makwerekwere” - a derogatory term that refers to other black non-South Africans as “foreigners.”

The purpose of this article is to reflect on the current conjuncture of South Africa in regards to xenophobia/Afrophobia, for in the last seven years I have made many trips to South Africa. It is a phenomenon that gravely undermines the struggle for continental unity in a similar manner that the ideology of “Ivorité” in Ivory Coast sought to exclude Ivorians with family antecedents in Mali and Burkina Faso from citizenship rights in the country by claiming a presidential candidate had to have both parents born in Ivory Coast. It was soon exclusively used to refer to people from the South and East with the implicit assumption that Northerners were not “indigenous” to the country and were therefore “outsiders.”

My most recent trip to South Africa was to give a keynote address at the colloquium of the University of the Free state on 24 February 2017 on the theme, “The Political and Liberation Struggle History of The Free State.” My paper was entitled” How African Countries Assisted the South African Liberation Struggle: 1963-1994.”  I was to learn on the following day that there had been anti-illegal immigrant protests in Pretoria on the same day of the colloquium.

Returning to the UK to read electronic and newsprint reports on the anti-illegal immigrant protests, I also received via WhatsApp the condemnation of the protests by Nigeria’s former President, Olusegun Obasanjo, that was in circulation. Obasanjo threw down the gauntlet to President Zuma by stating that Zuma not only had to make public examples of those who incite xenophobic sentiments and instigate such acts, but that South Africa is one of the most advanced countries (if not the most economically advanced in Africa) and if South Africa could not accommodate other Africans, it does not deserve to be a leader. This pronouncement was followed by applause. 

During the euphoria of South Africa’s first multi-racial elections in April 1994, it was unimaginable when the entire African continent celebrated with South Africa that we would see a policy of hostility unleashed towards other Africans in South Africa under Mandela, Mbeki and Zuma.

The recent protesters marched to the South African Department of Home Affairs and submitted a memorandum demanding that foreigners be prohibited from opening up businesses; and condemning immigrants for drug smuggling and crime. Bangladeshi and Somali shops were attacked and looted.

The global rise in xenophobia

South Africa is not the only nation on the earth to have some of its citizens express xenophobic sentiments. In Britain, among the factors that led to the Brexit vote in June 2016 was resentment of Eastern Europeans in that small island that at one time in history colonised much of the globe. It is noticeable that in the immediate aftermath of the vote, some sections of the white British community who voted to leave the EU now felt empowered to openly and publicly demand of foreigners, who included Eastern Europeans: “get packing”, “white power”, “time for you to leave”, “get out, we voted leave.” Several Eastern European migrants were publicly attacked and several subjected to hate crime which in one incident led to the tragic death of a Polish immigrant.

Similarly, beneath the rhetoric of President Donald Trump’s mantra of “America First” is a populist and racist notion that he wishes to restore jobs to white Americans who have lost out to non-white citizens. Inevitably the wall Trump seeks to build on the southern border with Mexico will keep out the Mexican “rapists,” as will his Executive Order which places a 90-day ban on Muslims from six Muslim majority nations to allegedly preserve the security of the American nation from future terrorist attacks.

In early February 2017 the far right leader, Geert Wilders in The Netherland brazenly referred to Moroccan migrants as “scum” as he launched his election campaign.

In France, the leader of the far right, Marine Le Pen, has publicly stated that the children of illegal migrants should not expect a free education and health service in France.

The “open door” refugee policy of the government of Mrs Angela Merkel in Germany was rejected vociferously by the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) that became popular in September last year, winning the highest share of the vote for the far-right in Berlin since the Second World War (around 14%).

Therefore, the developments of South Africa, in which there were xenophobic outbursts in May-June 2008, July 2010, April 2015, together with the February 2017 anti-immigrant protests, are part of a global phenomenon and should be seen as part of the ramifications of the global capitalist and imperialist world that we live in. Such a world creates political and economic insecurity in which some citizens flee for economic and political reasons and are then scapegoated for doing so and categorised as “legal” and “illegal” migrants, refugees/asylum seekers, “undocumented workers”, and so forth. The attacks that commenced in Durban in April 2015 and spread to Johannesburg were allegedly provoked by the Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini who urged that foreigners should go back to their countries, have parallels around the world.

Capitalist globalization has spawned deepening inequalities as it demands outsourcing, low wages, zero hour contracts and increasing exploitation of the poor and low paid, as well as those with little or no rights in host communities, other than their labour power.

White Britons blamed Eastern European migrants for housing and job shortages in parts of the UK prior to the Brexit vote, in a similar fashion to residents in Bottlebrush and Unity Avenue informal settlements of Chatsworth in Durban. Similarly, white Britons are unprepared to pick strawberries and pears in the fields of Kent in Britain for the same low wages that diligent and reliable Eastern European migrants are prepared to earn.[2] A similar phenomenon exists in South Africa where Mozambican and Malawian immigrants are prepared to work for 20 Rand a day, whereas local workers demand 100 Rand and believe they are being undercut by immigrant workers.[3]

The scholarship of Francis Nyamnjoh locates the phenomena of xenophobia within the paradoxes and forces of globalisation that advocates untrammelled movement of capital and labour, yet simultaneously denies labour total freedom of movement whilst introducing immigration laws and denying citizenship rights to migrants which has given rise to uncertainties, as well as fear of “outsiders” versus “insiders.”[4]

Explaining the attacks

In South Africa there has emerged a growing discourse attempting to explain the root causes of xenophobia. To date, four broad interpretations of the rise of xenophobia abound that give emphasis to different factors. Among them are the structural perspectives [5] which locate the xenophobic outbursts of 2008 and 2010 in “material processes that are too rarely tackled in the public or policy spheres, and that have also been difficult for researchers and critical civil society forces to comprehend and counteract. These processes include a glutted labour market, housing shortages, township retail competition, highly-gendered cultural differences, and apparently intractable regional geopolitical tensions.”[6] In short, growing unemployment, poverty, poor services provided by municipalities, the preference of non-South Africans by employers who perceive them as cheap non-unionised labour are the structural or systemic causes of xenophobic violence. 

The cultural anthropological perspective of Jason Hickle whilst it acknowledges the validity of the structural perspectives in locating xenophobic violence as a reaction to neoliberalism, contends that “we can only fully understand the phenomenon by grappling with peoples’ particular representations of otherness”[7] that “open up the possibility of violence.”[8] His fieldwork among residents of Cato Manor sheds light on cultural specifics that structuralist/Marxist explanations fail to examine for there was not only a perception among black male South Africans in Cato Manor that “foreigners” undermine the economic opportunities of local citizens, but there is also a perception that male foreigners “steal their women with cash.”

In addition are beliefs about witchcraft that frame their treatment of immigrants who they believe have special powers to steal the blessings of others, thereby denying locals of good things/blessings. Similar to witches, immigrants are believed to participate in forms of accumulation that are considered immoral and anti-social as they enrich themselves at the expense of others. That immigrants send some of what they earn in remittances to their respective home countries is not acknowledged, nor the fact that many immigrants contribute services to their communities. With unemployment high within informal settlements, many young men are reduced to “umnqola – a mamma’s boy” when they remain under the roofs of their mothers for failure to have find a job and sufficient money to transition to “umnumazane”- a responsible and respectable working class family man, having paid bride-price for a woman.

The gender dimension of this analysis in which a crisis of masculinity is experienced by these young vigilante men who carry out xenophobic violence requires recognition, alongside the fact that some local women contribute to this crisis of masculinity in complaining that their husbands, who may be unemployed, are not carrying out their responsibilities as “real men.” In the moral economy of the residents of Cato Manor, the explanation for their xenophobic violent actions lies in the fact that they liken the immigrant to a witch who needs to be physically expunged in order to morally correct the immorality in their community. Therefore, the bodies and houses of immigrants will be burned in moral cleansing in which the “other” is objectified and dehumanised in order to kill. [9]

Another explanation for the rise in xenophobia lies in the interpretation of Michael Neocosmos who locates its origins in not only a nationalist discourse on exclusion from 1996 onwards, but that South African politicians from across the political spectrum considered illegal migrants a threat to the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP); as criminals and murderers and the South African press also contributed to manufacturing and structuring of a “hegemonic xenophobic culture throughout society.”[10] He contends that “illegal migration” was part of a process of nation-building in which insiders – or the “indigenous” were demarcated from “foreigners” i.e. those to be excluded. [11] For Neocosmos, the ANC’s attempts to deal with nation building has produced xenophobia in that government immigration legislation has empowered the South African police, officials at the Department of Home Affairs with further powers to harass and intimidate people on the streets of South Africa. [12] It has also enabled corruption at border posts, in the Home Affairs Office, police stations and in the repressive Lindela holding camp for deportees.

Of the myriad explanations put forth to account for xenophobia in South Africa, whilst there exists validity in the aforementioned, particularly the structural interpretations that locate socio-economic grievances with the inadequacy and slowness of redressing inequalities of apartheid which engenders sections of the black masses turning against other Africans (or Makwerekwere), the question is: why do the black wretched of the earth in the squalor of the townships not vent their anger at the wealthy black comprador elite and their complicit white counterparts who live in gated luxurious houses with security guards and their large four-wheel drive cars? Why do they not direct vengeance - or rather seek socio-economic justice - by targeting the corrupt tenderpreneurs and those who siphon the wealth of the country into their own bank accounts? Another similarly perplexing question is: if we assume that poverty of citizens inevitably causes xenophobia, why is it, as Abebe Zegeye correctly asks, Zambia which is one of the poorest countries in Africa, which provided military bases to Zimbabwe, South Africa and Namibia has no documented history of xenophobic attacks on “foreigners”? [13]

The perspective of David Matsinhe borrows from Frantz Fanon and Matsinhe’s theorisation of “Afrophobia” may enable us to see another more disturbing dimension to the layers of the aforementioned interpretations. He contends that it is necessary to interrogate the “psychosocial dynamics of group relations at work” in the waves of violence against Makwerekwere as well as the post-apartheid ideology of South Africa’s alleged “exceptionalism.” He locates “Afrophobia” in the colonial and apartheid notions of Africans as “other”, “different”, inferior, ugly, alongside the white apartheid notion of “we” vis-à-vis the rest of Africa. This led to the spurious post-apartheid belief that South Africa is akin to a Southern European or Latin American country and the equally spurious belief that its people have lighter skinned complexions than Africans from the rest of the continent.  Matsinhe contends that we cannot overlook the history of colour group relations which have reconfigured into a Fanonist self-loathing in which “the self-loathers also loathe those who resemble them most.”[14] This hatred of other Africans is based on the ideology that is intolerant towards difference and dislikes the physical differences of Makwerekwere. The latter are “strange”, “too dark,” “they dress funny” and their dialects are often ridiculed.[15]

Matsinhe states:

“Lucky Dube was killed [on 18 October 2007] because the killers mistook the South African reggae star for a Nigerian. The killers had the nerve to say this to the court. Did they hope to elicit public sympathy with this excuse? Did they believe killing Makwerekwere was culturally acceptable? Where do these beliefs come from? With a few exceptions the South African public displayed no moral indignation.”[16]

Abebe Zegeye believes that “the masses of black South Africans are only able to murder black foreigners with impunity because they are protected by their leaders as well as the conservative media that see in every black foreigner a criminal, drug dealer or poacher.”[17]

In essence, anti-black racism is currently manifesting itself around the globe, and in the context of South Africa it has taken on the form of “Afrophobia”, that is a loathing of other African nationals residing in South Africa and who may be there legally or perceived as “illegal” and “criminal.” It is “Afrophobia” as it denotes that black Africans are targeted as opposed to xenophobia that implies that foreigners of different races are also targeted. The extreme act of this loathing can transform into killing as it did in May 2008 and April 2015.

However, there are also other forms of this “Afrophobia” that manifest in what I would term the gaze of hostility that I have experienced on a number of occasions whilst in South Africa. Six months after the attacks on Africans in April 2015, I was in Johannesburg. It was not the first time I felt rather uncomfortable as an individual walking publicly in the busy Sandton mall with Margaret Nasha, Botswana’s First female speaker in the National Assembly of Botswana (from 2009-2014). Nasha and I were wearing African attire as we sauntered through the mall and came under the South African gaze that was not particularly friendly, nor overtly hostile. If we had been in Kenya, Ghana, Senegal, Nigeria, or The Gambia, our attire would not have caused such looks. In fact, in the aforementioned countries it is common to see the citizens of those countries wearing African attire in the market as well as in a mall. Certainly, we looked different: we were two dark skinned African women walking in African attire. What thoughts were going through the minds of those who stared at us? Were they aware they were doing so and why?

Why silence of African governments on xenophobia in South Africa?

Writing in the aftermath of the May 2008 attacks, the late Pan-Africanist, Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem observed:

“A country that sees itself as the beacon of African renaissance, originator of the New Partnership For Africa’s Development (NEPA) and chief lecturer on human rights, democracy and constitutionalism should be ashamed of itself for treating other Africans so appallingly. This is especially tragic in light of the fact that many South African leaders were themselves refugees or migrants in other African countries for several years.  The bigger shame, however, will go to other Africans, should they remain silent in the face of this brutality and gross abuse of their rights.”[18] (emphasis mine)

According to Zegeye, “In the SADC region, neither Harare who is always vociferous against the West, nor the Mozambican government whose citizen was burnt and became the living emblem of South African xenophobia, has ever uttered a word of protest against the South African authorities.” Nor could the governments of Ethiopia, Nigeria and Kenya mobilise other African heads of state to condemn the 2008 attacks and this, for Zegeye, “reveals the complicity of these African governments.”[19]

But he generalises when he contends that “South Africa’s black middle class condones xenophobia and colludes in the state’s failure to deliver real independence to the masses of unemployed South African blacks” and that “many of South Africa’s black academics collude in the popular discourse that accuses black foreigners of taking their jobs and their women.” [20] Yet in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 attacks in the area of Durban, assistance to the displaced victims of the attacks came from church groups in the areas who helped with housing and feeding the displaced. The Durban Action Against Xenophobia (DAAX) was set up by a group of students and lecturers via Facebook among other civic groups.

Zegeye points out he does not seek “to demonise South Africa; it is, however, to indicate that the ruling elites have power to stop xenophobic violence against black foreigners. It is this power that the ruling elite does not use or rather deliberately abrogates to the masses who then feel enabled and permitted to act.”[21] Rather, he argues, the elite collude with xenophobes by failing to insist that migrants bring much needed skills and contribute to the society in the service sector, the building sector and in banking and education.

An even more controversial and far more alarming proposition is that by Nyamnjoh, who writes:

“Just as there is a hierarchy of whiteness (since Rhodes and his imperial times when the Boers and others were put in their places as inferior whites), so too is there a hierarchy of blackness, which, in some cases has resulted in violent ethnic cleansing and could degenerate into genocide” in South Africa.[22] (emphasis mine)

What is to be done?

There is much that South Africa could have learnt and should learn from the rest of post-colonial and neo-colonial Africa and averting genocide should be primary. South Africa should not repeat the mistakes of other African countries, but appears to be doing so.  The authors Amisi et al provide a lengthy list of long-term solutions to the problem of xenophobia that they locate in the material process of local, national and regional contexts which generally relate to recommendations for greater provision of employment, housing, increasing a basic income grant – among other measures. [23]

In seeking to address this problem, Neocosmos poses the critical question:

The issue is rather what kind of politics is most conducive to an overcoming of xenophobia? A politics which treats people differently depending on whether they are citizens or not, or a politics which stresses that ‘South Africa belongs to all who live’ in it as the Freedom Charter stated?”[24] (emphasis mine)

He is of the view that “a liberal conception of politics and a human rights discourse” [25] has failed to address the issue of xenophobia for it has anaesthized political agency of the individual and created amorality and “a passive humanism.”[26] He advocates “a recovery of active politics” in the creation of “a democratic universal emancipatory politics”[27] that should be initiated – not by the state – but by democratic political organisations and self-organised migrants with South Africans who appreciate the positive contributions of other Africans.

However, South Africa does not exist in a vacuum for, “No one [African] country can be a sustainable miracle if its neighbours are in hell.”[28] Therefore, integral to developing a new emancipatory people-centred politics must be the need to cultivate a genuine Pan-African citizenship across the entire African continent alongside decolonizing the minds of black South Africans (and all Africans!). Both are long-term projects in transforming mindsets in which people become, as Steve Biko urged, “conscientized” to think and act as subjective agents and not objects of other people’s largesse, desires and agendas.  

If Steve Biko – the iconic leader of South Africa’s Black Consciousness Movement - were alive today, what would he make of the Afrophobia/xenophobia in South Africa? Would he stridently denounce it – unlike South Africa’s leaders – and seek to foster a new sense of self-love in a transformed slogan: “Black is Beautiful! Be Proud of your Blackness and the Blackness of other Africans!”?

There is an urgency for Pan-Africanists to re-examine our legal, political, cultural and social attitudes about citizenship in Africa as a means to address not only the problems of Afrophobia but to harness the economic resources of Africa for the people of Africa.  A Pan-African citizenship would open the doors of opportunity for the enjoyment of full citizenship rights to ALL Africans wherever they may be – from Cape Town to Cairo and rid us of the terminology of who is an “indigene”, a “resident,” “documented”, “undocumented”, “legal”, “illegal migrant,” “refugee” and “Makwerekwere” that disempowers and dehumanises fellow African citizens.

What is required is a fundamental revolution not only in economic redistribution, but also a revolution in psychological consciousness. Integral to this long-term project must be a deep understanding of African history and respect for other Africans by ALL Africans. Reclaiming and reinvigorating Ubuntu is also central to this project to revive Pan-Africanism in the twenty first century and heal our mutilated minds from internalised racism, fears and insecurities that continue to oppress us.

* Dr Ama Biney is a historian and political scientist living in the UK.


[1] “Mzansi” is a Xhosa word for South Africa.

[2] See ‘Who Will Pick Our Fruit?” in The Guardian 13 June 2015 accessed 8 March 2017.

[3] See ‘Xenophobia and Civil Society: Durban’s Structured Social Divisions’ by Baruti Amisi, Patrick Bond, Nokuthula Cele and Trevor Ngwane, in Politikon, October 2010.

[4] F. B. Nyamnjoh, Insiders and Outsiders Citizenship and Xenophobia in Contemporary South Africa CODESRIA & Zed Books, 2006.

[5] See ‘Xenophobia and Civil Society: Durban’s Structured Social Divisions’ by Baruti Amisi, Patrick Bond, Nokuthula Cele and Trevor Ngwane, in Politikon, October 2010.

[6] Ibid.

[7] See “Xenophobia” in South Africa: Order, Chaos, and the Moral Economy of Witchcraft” in Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 29, Issue 1. P. 104.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid, p. 113-114.

[10] See M. Neocosmos, ‘From ‘Foreign Natives’ to ‘Native Foreigners’ Explaining Xenophobia in Post-apartheid South Africa, CODESRIA, 2006, p. 83 and p. 113.

[I1] bid, p. 90.

[12] Ibid, p.97.

[13] See A. Zegeye ‘Rehearsals of genocide in South Africa: thinking with and beyond Francis Nyamnjoh and Michael Neocosmos’ in African Identities Vol. 10. No. 3, August 2012, p.333.

[14] D. Matsinhe, ‘Africa’s Fear of Itself: the ideology of Makwerekwere in South Africa’, in Third World Quarterly, Vol. 32 No. 2, 2011, p. 302.

[15] Ibid, p. 303.

[16] Ibid, p. 304.

[17] See A. Zegeye, ‘Rehearsals of genocide,’ p. 337.

[18] See Speaking Truth to Power Selected Pan-African Postcards compiled by A. Biney & A. Olukoshi, Pambazuka Press, 2010, p. 109.

[19] Zegeye, ‘Rehearsals of genocide’, pp.343-344.

[20] Ibid, p. 329.

[21] Zegeye, ‘Rehearsals of genocide,’ p. 340.

[22] F. Nyamnjoh, #Rhodes Must Fall,2016, p. 113.

[23] See ‘Xenophobia and Civil Society: Durban’s Structured Social Divisions’ by Baruti Amisi, Patrick Bond, Nokuthula Cele and Trevor Ngwane, in Politikon, October 2010

[24] Neocosmos, M. ‘From ‘Foreign Natives’ to ‘Native Foreigners’, p. 103.

[25] Ibid, p.115.

[26] Ibid, p. 120.

[27] Ibid, p.128.

[28] Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem, cited in The African Union: Pan-Africanism, Peacebuilding and Development by T. Murithi, Palgrave-Macmillan, 2005, p. 8-9.



* Please do not take Pambazuka for granted! Become a Friend of Pambazuka and make a donation NOW to help keep Pambazuka FREE and INDEPENDENT!

* Please send comments to [email=[email protected]]editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org[/email] or comment online at Pambazuka News.