Xenophobia in South Africa: myths and realities


The recent spate of attacks on foreign-owned shops in some South African townships raises uncomfortable questions about xenophobia, as did similar attacks in 2008. According to some politicians, the latest attacks are not connected to xenophobia, but are driven by criminals who take advantage of moments of crisis and chaos. Is this true?

To what extent can South Africa’s inconsistent immigration policy be blamed for xenophobia? Do foreigners really ‘steal’ South African jobs? Do foreign-owned small businesses have an unfair advantage over those owned by South Africans?

Speakers at the seminar considered these and other questions in an attempt to separate myth from reality and understand the ‘xenophobic’ attacks and crimes in South Africa. Dr Hamadziripi Tamukamoyo from the ISS’ Governance Crime and Justice division chaired the event. Speakers were:

Although South Africa is an attractive destination for foreign nationals and asylum seekers, only 4% of the working age population between 15 and 64 years in the country are foreign nationals according to the Migrating for Work Research Consortium. Although less than two out of 10 people who own an informal business in Johannesburg are foreign nationals, they play a positive role, not least of all by employing more people than local businesses, according to the Gauteng City-Region Observatory. If effectively integrated, this small but industrious entrepreneurial group could contribute substantially towards economic growth in South Africa.

Patricia Erasmus explained how xenophobia impedes the integration of immigrants into the communities where they settle. She noted that the generally hostile and unhelpful attitude of home affairs department personnel makes if difficult for immigrants and asylum seekers to regularise their stay in the country. As a result many end up as illegal residents, which limits their ability to contribute to the society.

According to Sicel'mpilo Shange-Buthane the practice of closing down asylum and immigrant reception centres in towns and relocating them to the margins of the country demonstrates that government does not recognise the contribution that foreign nationals can make.

Research by the Gauteng City-Region Observatory refutes the myth that foreign nationals take South Africans’ jobs. Instead, according to Sally Peberdy, foreign nationals tend to take the jobs that locals don’t want – these are typically unstable jobs without benefits and employment contracts. Peberdy’s research found that foreign nationals actually create jobs for South Africans in the informal sector.

Some speakers noted that foreign nationals were specifically targeted in the recent spate of attacks on shops, and that there was an element of organisation behind the attacks.

Speakers agreed that government does not seem to have learned from the past. Rather than tackling xenophobia, the South African authorities have tended to accept it. Ingrid Palmary noted that in some instances the recent immigration reforms read like apartheid laws that aim to stem the flow of black Africans to South Africa’s cities. Palmary believes the country needs progressive, inclusive immigration reforms that will propel economic growth and create an exchange of skills and knowledge.

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