Richard Poplak is a Canadian journalist and filmmaker based in Johannesburg.
In one of those weird socio-political twists that only comes as a shock if one operates under the assumption that formerly oppressed peoples should somehow know better, it turns out that postapartheid South Africa has a xenophobia problem.
The country has long been home to rolling campaigns of harassment targeting Black economic migrants from elsewhere in Africa. Often, these pogroms spill over to harm Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Chinese shopkeepers, who run small businesses in the townships on the fringes of South Africa’s cities. White migrants – who, as always, are conferred the honorific “ex-pat” – are spared this street violence, although semi-official government policy makes it nearly impossible for even highly skilled foreign nationals (Black, white or otherwise) to make South Africa their home.
Globalism, Pan-Africanism and non-racialism has slowly given way to something closer to MAGA-ish racial and ethnic nationalism. And it’s getting worse. A new anti-foreign pseudo-political formation called Operation Dudula, led by a serial grifter named Nhlanhla (Lux) Dlamini, is gaining support. And last year, after the jailing of former president Jacob Zuma on contempt-of-court charges, the country suffered a bout of insurrectionary-tinged riots that killed 354 people, kicked off by attacks against foreign truck drivers.
According to Statistics South Africa, there are about 3.95 million foreign-born people living in the country, out of a population estimated at around 60 million. They should not be considered safe. On two occasions at least, organized xenophobia has flared into significant and sustained violent episodes. Over the course of several weeks in May, 2008, Malawian, Zimbabwean and Mozambican nationals were attacked in the township of Alexandra in Johannesburg, resulting in multiple deaths. The violence spread across the country until it the worst of it was quelled a month or so later, but not until around 60 people were murdered and 1,400 or so arrested.
A second major flare-up occurred in 2015, when the late Zulu regent, King Goodwill Zwelithini, made forceful nativist noises, including demands for foreign nationals to leave the country. Across the economic hub of Gauteng, along with Kwa-Zulu Natal and elsewhere, businesses were ransacked and razed, and at least seven people murdered. The attacks were made horrifically visceral when the murder of a Mozambican named Emmanuel Sithole was captured on film by the photojournalist James Oatway, and published in the weekly Sunday Times newspaper. South Africa was once again forced to reframe itself as a place of industrial-strength anti-Black hatred.
I have witnessed much of this violence with my own eyes, and there are two phenomena which suggest that previous episodes have just been a warm-up. First, animosity targeted at foreign nationals is endemic – it never stops, it happens across the country, and it’s nearly ubiquitous. Second, because most victims are undocumented, much of the violence remains a secret. In 2012, along with the South African journalist Kevin Bloom, I investigated the murder of three Chinese nationals who were burned alive in their shop in a far flung community called Ganyesa. Complicating matters, the Chinese authorities refused to advocate on behalf of the victims’ families, fearing that this would disrupt the relationship with the South African authorities, an important geopolitical ally. When we traced the families of the victims to a third-tier city in Fujian province, we were warned off the story by our fixer – this tale, we were told, could not be touched. As is so often the case, the people burned alive in their store had lived and died in a state of constant precarity, with no support from officialdom either at home, or abroad. They did not became a statistic, because they were never on the ledger in the first place.
These Chinese victims notwithstanding, anti-Black African sentiment constantly bubbles under the political discourse, threatening to explode into a renewed bout of mega-violence. Zimbabweans are scapegoated as criminals; “Nigerian” is synonymous with “drug dealer”; Somalis are characterized as stingy shopkeepers. Much of the terminology on Twitter and other social-media platforms is lifted nearly verbatim from European antisemitism after the First World War, from Rwanda prior to the genocide, or from far-right movements in the contemporary United States and Eastern Europe. A hashtag widely circulated on Twitter, mostly from a handle @uLerato_pillay, run by a dismissed member of the South African National Defence Force named Sifiso Gwala, spiked during the violence of 2021, dragging well-worn tropes firmly into the disinformation age.
Opposition politicians now bolster their entire platforms on the stern iron of xenophobic sentiments. ActionSA, a conservative nationalist party run by a successful entrepreneur named Herman Mashaba, is virulently anti-foreigner – it has become a credible electoral threat to the governing African National Congress (ANC) in several regions. (Mr. Mashaba enjoyed a short-lived tenure as the mayor of Johannesburg, where he blamed foreign nationals for ruining the inner-city.) The crypto-fascist Economic Freedom Fighters, run by the charismatic firebrand Julius Malema, recently (and inevitably) shed the cloak of Pan-Africanism for the battle armour of exclusionary nativism. Meanwhile, outside of some wonderfully soaring rhetoric, the ANC has never made a credible attempt to protect either migrant lives or livelihoods, even though the Constitution is clear on the fact that foreign nationals and asylum seekers are subject to the protection of the law.
Are Zimbabwean, Nigerian and Somali and other foreign nationals disproportionately involved in illegal activity, as so many nativists avow? Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is nothing to back up these assertions. In 2017, South African Police Service (SAPS) Gauteng Provincial Commissioner Lieutenant-General Deliwe de Lange insisted that about 60 per cent of suspects arrested for violent crimes in the province were undocumented foreigners. (There is no designated “violent crime” category in official policing terminology, which should have served as an early red flag.) This statement followed a intra-ministerial dragnet called Operation Fiela, which targeted undocumented migrants and resulted in the arrest and repatriation of 15,396 people. What Operation Fiela revealed is not that foreign nationals committed more (or most) crimes, but that they were arrested in numbers far disproportionate to their percentage of the population. Tragically, in Gauteng, 75 per cent of murders and 80 per cent of aggravated assaults go unsolved. Which is another way of saying that the authorities have no idea who the bad guys are.
These spurious claims are easy to dismiss, as they are in most places. The underlying impetus for xenophobia, less so. The phenomenon is linked to catastrophic mistakes in economic policy making, the near non-existence of foreign policy making, and a porous border that remains a thoroughfare of corruption and gangsterism.
As far as the economics are concerned, at the outset of the democratic dispensation in 1994, political hegemony belonged almost entirely to the governing African National Congress. Various finance ministers and advisers over the course of the nineties and aughts deferred to the Clintonian model of low deficits, balanced budgets and manic liberalization. Under then-president Thabo Mbeki, South Africa became a bizarre amalgamation of austerity-based neoliberalism and a welfare state – an experiment that, hopefully, will never be attempted again. In lieu of any real restitution for the victims of apartheid, the idea was to maintain economic stability while creating a class of Black moguls and industrialists. Through a process known as Black Economic Empowerment, they would come to own chunks of white-owned legacy businesses, mostly in mining and in the financial sector.
This created a small hyper-class of politically connected plutocrats, while leaving untouched the wealth of apartheid’s white beneficiaries. (This was infinitely worsened by insane levels of corruption, which often targeted pro-poor programs and investment vehicles, stripping them bare and enriching connected officials.) Mr. Mbeki assumed the wealth would trickle down. It didn’t. In tandem with this process, a massive subsistence grant system was established – nearly 17 million South Africans cash around $50 a month in various benefits in order to service their basic needs.
Meanwhile, as a result of neoliberal imagineering, poor labour policy, worse industrial policies, a dying electricity grid and rampant crime, South Africa is not a great place to do business. The official unemployment rate has soared to 34.5 per cent, while youth unemployment now nudges 60 per cent. (Imagine, for a second, what Canada would look like with those figures.) South Africa is one of the first experiments in creating a postemployment society. By reliable measure, it is now the most unequal country on Earth.
Meanwhile, the ANC looked north across the great expanse of Africa and … yawned. Squandering the moral and often the fiscal authority to influence policy in neighbouring Zimbabwe, the ANC watched as the ruling ZANU-PF robbed their country into penury. (This long preceded the notorious confiscation of white farmland that so excited the international media and ushered in crippling economic sanctions.) Ordinary Zimbabweans, often more educated than their South African contemporaries, were in many cases left with no choice but to move south and make a life for themselves. Willing to work for less money and for longer hours, they began to fill up formal service industry jobs and informal piece work, just as the formal work force was shrinking. That said, according to a 2018 World Bank report, for every job taken by a migrant, two were created for a South African. Nor does the much of the informal work they do conform to the Decent Work Framework of the International Labour Organization.
South Africa’s northeastern neighbour, Mozambique, provided a large part of the labour force on the mines that built modern South Africa. These men worked in brutal conditions, returned home broken and received none of the (albeit paltry) compensation that accrued to unionized South African mine workers over the years. Mozambique remains one of the poorest countries on Earth, even though it lives alongside one of the richest in Africa – its people must still cross the border for work. But the ANC has promulgated a monolithically ahistorical vision of the liberation era, one that the historian Charles Van Onselen has described as “pornographic shorthand.” The ANC’s triumphalism leaves no space for other Africans who either suffered under the regime, or helped the liberation movement in its efforts to topple it. This nationalist fantasy excludes the Somalis, Congolese, Ethiopians, Nigerians and other foreign nationals who work and live in South Africa from a wider narrative suffering, and thus from any hope of belonging.
During the attacks in 2015, I visited townships and informal settlements that had chased out foreign nationals and burned their shops, only for the locals to find that they now had to travel for miles to buy food and other sundries. Their foreign victims were both interlopers and vital members of their community. They were people their assailants had known for years, an uneasy co-dependency that rendered the violence a form of self-harm and self-hate. No one was winning this war.
In these communities, the symptoms were most obvious, but the causes were completely obscured. And as we’ve noted, South Africans have legitimate grievances. The country’s land borders are long and barely policed, its custom officials almost entirely corrupt. Traders who are able to import crates of goods and bribe their way out of paying duties open up a second economy of unfairness – they have the means to provide Chinese and Indian sundries for low costs that South Africans could never hope to beat. Big Brand stores, listed on the stock exchange, owned by hysterically overpaid CEO-lebrities, riddle the malls fringing predominantly Black communities, blowing out even the whiff of competition. Informal traders were recently run out of Johannesburg’s central business district, and operation that was intended to “reduce crime.” The hatred focused on Makwerekwere – a onomatopoeic pejorative that refers to unfamiliar foreign languages – comes from the fact that there are so few resources to share, so little space in the economy, and no promise of anything better in the future.
South African xenophobia is thus a scream into the dark, an expression of rage that is both incoherent and unfair, but also rooted in clear policy failure. And the country is hardly exceptional in this regard. But it does have the conditions for violence on a staggering scale. On July 15, the United Nations issued a report warning that South Africa is “on the precipice of explosive xenophobic violence.’” It referenced an incident that occurred last April, when a mob in a township outside Johannesburg banged on doors demanding to see visas, and subsequently burned alive a 43-year-old Zimbabwean national, a father of four. Not long after that, in a suburb called Yeoville, one of Johannesburg’s most vibrant markets was razed in order to “cleanse” it of the foreigners who have traded there for years. Finally, South Africa has a common language: fire.
What the UN clearly fears is a singularity event, a countrywide performance of brutality from which there is no return, and from which the democratic project cannot be salvaged. It’s simmering, one can taste it in the air. But there are no shortcuts. To save the migrants living in South Africa, South Africa itself must be saved.
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