The New Face Of South African Xenophobia Explained


Producer’s Note: The author of this post wished to remain anonymous for safety reasons as an African foreigner living in South Africa. Submissions about this topic can be sent to

 Freedom of speech is fast becoming a fading idea. Patriotic Journalism in South Africa is widely understood as putting the country’s best foot forward – even if this flies in the face of what is right and true, in aid of not presenting South Africa to the international community in a negative light. President Jacob Zuma has come out as saying that the image published of Emmanuel Sithole being stabbed to death is irresponsible reporting by the media of South Africa. It is their greatest bane that what has happened has been, and continues to be, so vividly communicated to the world and all they can do now is damage control.

The truth is an important tool for transparency and accountability in any form of government system – without the watchdogs the masses would only be made aware of the things that occur out of the public domain.  What these images have done is put a real face to the key people affected by xenophobia – the attackers and the victims. Photojournalist James Oatway is to be commended – not berated for publishing the images. It was easier to talk over and around the issue when it was just statistics being reported but now there is a tangible view of the extent of how bad the situation is. It is reminiscent of the image of the Burning Man in the 2008 spate of attacks of this nature.

As it is, people can have no confidence that the death/attack toll that has been announced is the total number of people who have been killed/affected – we can only rely on the number that is shown in the images we have seen because these have occurred in the public domain. No doubt the incidents that are occurring where there is no camera and no social media are not reported to the world.

The seemingly inciting incident for the spate of xenophobic attacks was the statement made by the Zulu ‘King’ Goodwill Zwelithini. “We are requesting those who come from outside to please go back to their countries.” Words that he has (even under the mounting pressure from local, regional and international communities) yet to completely retract or apologise for. Let’s not even get into the ridiculous paradox of how democracy can co-exist with monarchy in a Republic – that is an argument for a calmer time.

The President’s own son, who ironically was born in Swaziland and not South Africa, has been quoted as reinforcing these statements fuelling the fire of attacks on foreign nationals. I say “seemingly” inciting because it is categorically incorrect to assume that there were no undertones of violence prior to this speech made by the Zulu monarch. It is an anger that is within the people that has not been addressed.

This is a country that was liberated from apartheid after decades of violent and non violent rebellion by the freedom fighters. Apartheid was a dehumanising and degrading situation and while Nelson Mandela and his comrades negotiated a peaceful transition into democracy – it seems the new government underestimated the residual anger that remained in people’s hearts. The Truth and Reconciliation Committee was put in place to further manage apartheid era grievances and resentments but there are people even today who are still very angry about it.

Respect has long been a value that is not simply given by one person to another; it has and always will be a value that is earned. High ranking government officials have come out to say, in support of the initiative by Department of Home Affairs to reintegrate the foreign nationals into the communities from which they were displaced, that foreign nationals need to respect the citizens that live around them and that they should not do things to incite them to argument or violence. These people who were chased out of the communities they had come to call home are now being led back to a situation that has not been resolved. The tone from the top, whether it be verbal or by example, is one of tacit condonement of violence and obtaining results through violence. Simply put, they have taught the people that the only way to be heard is to make a grand spectacle.

The blame game does not serve any progressive purpose but for the sake of argument let’s analyse three of the main reasons why this is happening:

  • The government has fundamentally failed to educate the masses of people who are impoverished in South Africa. A culture of entitlement exists that is furthered by the grants system and the general feeling of “we are owed these free services by a government we helped to put into power- a government that we continue to vote into power”. School leaving youth are not all interested in pursuing higher education. The reality is that, year on year, there are a large number of school leaving youth who have no interest in pursuing further education and are content to live off social grants or participate in the informal sector. More than half of children enrolled in school at Grade 3 do not make it to matriculation in Grade 12; the grade 2-to-matric throughput rate was 40.4% in 2013. President Jacob Zuma himself in a statement to press earlier this week admitted that the African National Congress (ANC) failed to ensure that the citizens of South Africa understood the role that its neighbours played in the bid to end apartheid. So while the Presidency and the government acknowledge the role that other African states played in assisting South Africa in their bid to attain freedom from apartheid, it took longer than was reasonable for them to respond appropriately and this contributes further to the growing crisis.
  • South Africa is currently faced with an unemployment rate of 25.4% (2014) and this has largely been attributed to a shortage of adequate skills as well as insufficient opportunities for employment creation. With an ever declining pass mark for matriculation – it doesn’t look like there is hope that South Africa is even growing a skilled work force in the short or long term. But some of these foreigners that have been looted did not come here and take jobs – they created new opportunities for themselves. As for the jobs that are available – there are not enough people with the relevant qualifications who are citizens. Having interviewed several employers about this position I have found that the going assumption is that South Africans are lazy and that foreign nationals generally cause less trouble at work. This is not true for ALL citizens just as it is incorrect to say that they are ALL part of xenophobic attacks – it is simply a general feeling.
  • We must never underestimate two things about people – their innate selfishness and envy. It’s a universal concept – when there are too few resources for too many people, fighting for these resources will ensue. What remains is the justification for the fighting – a bigger cause that addresses some ‘noble’ cause that is reasonable to fight over. We have seen examples of this the world over – there are many faces to it. Religious differences, racism, colonisation and land reform to name a few. In this context, it’s convenient to blame the foreign nationals for a lack of resources. Foreign nationals are an easy target – plain and simple.

In many interviews conducted with high ranking government officials such as the Minister of Home Affairs Malusi Gigaba, there have been mentions of a ‘third force’. An individual or group of individuals who is/are orchestrating the violence being visited on foreign nationals in South Africa. There is even subliminal messaging to reinforce this point in the form of a third force being scripted into a local soap opera’s storyline (A serial that is known for scripting topical issues in very unimaginative ways and is mostly funded and managed by the ruling party ANC).

A government that finds justification in conspiracy theories is one that is not one that interested in solving the root cause of the problems happening in South Africa. If indeed there is this third force, what is their end game? How are they orchestrating these events? Why has the matter never been investigated thoroughly? There are no answers to these questions because the premise itself is unfounded and is just another distraction to keep people blaming anything or anyone else but the government for the situation happening in South Africa.

This is sad day for the peace that Nelson Mandela, Samora Machel and many others so bravely stood up to instil and uphold. All one can do is hope that humanity will return to them and that the government will pay more than lip service to ensure that this is resolved at a root level and that it never happens again.