Xenophobia is commonly defined as an irrational fear or hatred of foreigners or strangers, and more generally as a fear of anything strange or foreign(http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/xenophobia). In a publication for youth education, the Council of Europe describes a basic model of xenophobic thinking:
A xenophobic perception of the world reduces complex social and cultural phenomena to simplistic good and bad scenarios. “We” (the locals) = the model, the good and normal ones, the reference who everyone should look, feel, think like – versus “Them” (the strangers) = the delinquents, the threat, the disturbance, the vagrants, the violent ones, the burglars, the invasive ones, etc. “We” (the locals) are the good ones versus “Them” (the others), the bad ones. It is obvious that we attach value to the perceptions we have of others and ourselves, such as “We” = positive and “They” = negative (http://www.eycb.coe.int/compass/en/chapter_5/5_4.html#2).
Xenophobic perceptions are often based on social constructs rather than actual facts, and can lead to irrational reactions. These reactions can take on a number of different forms, including verbal or violent attacks against foreigners, ethnic cleansing, genocide, as well as political movements and legislative actions.
It takes only a brief review of current world news to see that xenophobia is a widespread phenomenon in both developed and developing countries. For example, in 2010 French officials launched a controversial deportation of hundreds of Roma Gypsies in an effort to curb an outbreak of violence in transient communities. Critics claimed that the Roma were unfairly targeted simply because they are seen as foreigners and outsiders by much of the French majority population (http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2011848,00.html). In the United States alone, there are a number of examples of what many would consider xenophobia, including recent cases of anti-immigration legislation, as well as anti-Muslim and anti-Middle Eastern racism in the post-September 11thera. The body of this page looks at connections between xenophobia and immigration in South Africa in order to better understand the social climate of the post-apartheid era.
Immigration in South Africa
South Africa has a long, complicated history of immigration. Beginning in the mid to late 1600s, after the Dutch East India Company landed at what is now known as the Cape of Good Hope, Europeans, particularly the Dutch and English, immigrated to South Africa. Often they brought with them Indian or Malay slaves, setting an early stage for an ethnically diverse nation. However, it is the more recent immigration of millions of people from other African nations to South Africa that is noteworthy when discussing xenophobia.
Estimates of the illegal immigrant population of South Africa range from as few as 800,000 to as many as eight million. The precise number is not as important as the understanding that there has been a high influx of immigrants in the short period of time since South Africa become a democratic nation. Immigrants are coming from other African nations, particularly Zimbabwe, but also Mozambique, Malawi, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, and Somalia, among others. Immigrants from Zimbabwe are often escaping mounting instability at home, while immigrants from other countries come to South Africa looking for economic and social opportunities.
This high influx of immigrants has come directly after the apartheid era, where for years the government strictly regulated interactions between people of different races, creating racial isolation throughout the country. Add to the mix a sky high unemployment rate of an estimated 25 percent, coupled with already inadequate public services and housing, and not surprisingly, some South Africans have reacted with distrust towards these immigrants.
Distrust towards immigrants and other xenophobic sentiments came to a head in May 2008, when a series of riots began in Alexandra, a township in the northeastern part of Johannesburg. During these riots, locals attacked immigrants from Mozambique, Malawi, and Zimbabwe. Over the next few weeks, the violence spread throughout the Gauteng Province, and then further to the coastal cities of Durban and Cape Town, ultimately killing over 60 people, injuring hundreds, and displacing hundreds of thousands more (http://mg.co.za/specialreport/xenophobia).
There was a steady flow of xenophobic violence in South Africa both before and after the May 2008 attacks. The Forced Migration Studies Programme at Wits University reports that between 2008 and 2010, there was at least one attack a month on groups of foreign nationals (http://mg.co.za/article/2010-07-06-xenophobia-and-the-world-cup). This ongoing violence against foreigners illustrates a fundamental point about the state of post-apartheid South Africa. Although the basis of the anti-apartheid movement was the eradication of racism, one of the legacies of apartheid is racial tension.
What We Saw
The statistics, history, and news stories do not tell the complete story of xenophobia and immigration. It is also important to consider the experiences and perceptions of people in South Africa. Here, I would like to share a relevant story from my time in the country. It is important to note that this example is the personal experience of one individual, and should be treated as such. This is not meant to be a generalization of South Africa as a whole, nor is it meant to replace facts. These perceptions simply offer some personal insight into one individual’s experience.
During a cab ride in Johannesburg, myself and other members of our group had a brief conversation with the driver, who happened to be from Zimbabwe. He shared some of his opinions about politics, and made an interesting and outright statement – that the majority of people we would come across in the service industry would be from Zim (common shorthand for Zimbabwe). I found this interesting at the time, not knowing the background of immigration in South Africa and the high influx of immigrants from Zimbabwe. Sure enough, the cab driver was right – many of people that we met in the service industry, including hotels, restaurants, bars, and taxis, were originally from Zimbabwe. Although this is a simplistic and expected observation, it is one that is important to me, and I believe it illustrates an important point about learning about a foreign place. Putting a face and a person to a phenomenon changes everything. I cannot help but think of that cab driver when discussing immigration or looking at xenophobic violence. Personal experiences, coupled with facts and figures, can lead to a much better understanding of a place.
Author: Cassandra Ratti
Please use hyperlinks throughout the text to learn more about South Africa, as well as immigration and xenophobia.
For more photos of xenophobic violence, please see the Mail & Guardian gallery: http://photos.mg.co.za/view_gallery.php?gid=224
For another take on immigrants in South Africa, please check out the following blog entry by Dr. Donald Rallis: http://regionalgeography.org/101blog/?p=2359