Politics and Xenophobia in South Africa


“Most government leaders do not want to speak out on this matter because they are scared of losing votes….”

 “As the king of the Zulu nation, I cannot tolerate a situation where we are being led by leaders with no views whatsoever. We are requesting those who come from outside to please go back to their countries….”

“The fact that there were countries that played a role in the country’s struggle for liberation should not be used as an excuse to create a situation where foreigners are allowed to inconvenience locals….”

Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini, 2015.


Following these xenophobic comments by the Zulu king Goodwill Zwelithini at the end of March, 250 people have been attacked and foreign-owned shops have been looted in the port city of Durban in South Africa.


Furthermore, an estimated 1000 African migrants have fled their homes. Some have sought refuge in police stations and others have found shelter in tents provided by government and well-wishers.


A tent for displaced foreigners in Durban



It has emerged that President Jacob Zuma’s son, Edward Zuma also expressed anti-foreigner sentiments when he stated, “we [South Africa] are also unnecessarily accommodating illegal immigrants in this country.” He also stated, “you never know whether they [foreigners] are funding ISIS [Islamic State in Iraq and Syria] and al-Shabaab.”


Nevertheless, what is xenophobia, and when did it rear its ugly head in South Africa?


By definition, xenophobia literally refers to a phobic (anxious) attitude toward foreigners.


Now, according to researchers, the origins of South Africa’s xenophobia can be traced back to 1994 when thousands, perhaps even millions, of other Africans entered into South Africa looking for opportunities under the new majority ANC government.


Yet as early as 1998, reports emerged that a mob of South African nationals had attacked and killed non-South Africans for the reason that “they were stealing their jobs.’”


Still, since the recent reports of xenophobic violence in Durban surfaced, many have joined the “stop xenophobia” campaign. However, how do you treat a disease if you do not know its causes?


Moreover, in this particular instance, is xenophobia a sickness in itself or is it symptomatic of greater social dysfunction?


Arguably, the causes of xenophobia are:

  • The perception of foreigners as a threat to physical security
  • Racism
  • Radical nationalism
  • Political scapegoating (which is exemplified by the Zulu king Zwelithumi’s utterances that foreigners must pack up and go because they are interfering with the social development of South Africans)
  • A lack of knowledge about foreign nationals and their rights.


Now let us acknowledge that xenophobia occurs in all parts of the world. For instance, reports reveal that in Germany “far-right extremists” carried out 162 attacks against asylum seekers and their houses in in the year 2014.


Even in Australia, where that government has a zero tolerance stance on refugees, asylum seekers are referred to in derogatory terms such as “boat people” or “queue jumpers.” South Africans also use derogatory terms like “makwerekwere” to refer to African foreigners.


Nevertheless, the question at hand is whether in South Africa, xenophobia stems from an inherent resentment of foreigners solely on the basis that they are foreign.


This is unlikely, because incidents of xenophobia such as those that we are witnessing in Durban arguably occur predominantly within the lower socio-economic bracket where there is a scarcity of resources and opportunities.


South Africa Imiigrant Attacks
Machete Wielding South Africans in Durban



On the other hand, could it be that xenophobia is inspired by basket of factors such as: poverty among South Africans, a lack of service delivery in South African communities, and inflammatory political populist scapegoating that is exemplified by the utterances of Goodwill Zwelithini and Edward Zuma?


            A South African Township


Whichever it is, there are two points we must all consider.


Firstly, xenophobia is wrong and should be condemned in the strongest terms. It is another form of prejudice that casts a dark shadow on the South African notion of “Rainbow Nation.”


Having said that, secondly, xenophobia is not going away any time soon. If anything, it will get worse with time. As mentioned earlier, incidents such as those we are seeing in Durban have been occurring since 1998. We all remember the incidents of 2008, and the death of Mido Macia, a Mozambican, in South African police custody in 2013.


Apart from the abovementioned, there are isolated incidents of xenophobia occurring across South Africa everyday.


The fact is that the influx of foreigners into that country has provided aspiring community leaders with cheap political petroleum for petty populism.


Simply put, every time the South African grassroots decide to “toyi toyi” over the lack service delivery, we’ll find that the local politicians will follow the examples of Goodwill Zwelithini and Edward Zuma and blame it all on the foreigners; particularly African foreigners.


In Summary, the xenophobic occurrences in South Africa should serve as a forewarning to leaders across the continent. It is it time we all roll up our sleeves and do what needs to be done to create jobs in our own countries, and to make our own economies globally competitive.


Tau Tawengwa

Executive Director


Donate to Zimrays by clicking
the paypal button below.

Our email address is

PayPal Donate Button