Mandela Rhodes Scholars
Mandela Rhodes Scholars

South Africans are xenophobic

By Matthew Beetar

Now is rightly a time for action — to protect lives and end violence, urgently. But there will come a time in the near future for discussion and serious reflection on the recent attacks against “foreign” nationals, and I wonder whether South Africans are willing to have this discussion with themselves.

I wonder this because across social media are messages and hashtags of shock, disbelief, pain and support. These, I have seen, are often coupled with sentiments that the “savages” (in the words of one of my contacts) are “out there”, not online. That this isn’t how South Africans behave — it’s not “us”.

And this view is precisely a part of the problem. You see, South Africans are xenophobic. Not a minority of “them”, a majority of “us”.

Research conducted by the Southern African Migration Project (Samp) suggests that up to 90% of South Africans feel that there are too many migrants in the country. Xenophobia is not just “out there” in a mob, it festers beneath the surface of our day-to-day attitudes and encounters.



So when South Africa, in its state of shock, begins to have discussions will it recognise this festering? Will it recognise its own normalised xenophobia?

Because it’s there when outrage is expressed at violent acts but no action is taken to challenge the administration or to challenge Home Affairs, which is mandated to enforce and monitor (rather than protect). It’s there when leaders are not held accountable by those with the economic and/or social means to hold them accountable. It’s there when solidarity is only shown when one is at the receiving end of prejudice.

It’s there when one says “this is Afrophobia, not xenophobia” — because while it’s important to recognise that this is violence directed towards (some) Africans, claiming that it’s not xenophobia merely buys into a rhetoric that denies the possibility that South Africans can be xenophobic. It buys into a decade-old system of denial, and in turn it perpetuates a warped sense of exceptionalism: South Africans aren’t xenophobic, they’re *Afrophobic*.

It’s there when one refuses to acknowledge the painful truth that those who have been oppressed are capable of oppression, and that those who have historically oppressed continue to oppress in different ways. It’s there when one refuses to acknowledge that privilege and disprivilege sit hand-in-hand.

It’s there every time someone mentions how exceptional South Africa is — a nationalistic pride based on how the country’s history makes it “better than” the rest of Africa.

It’s there every time someone buys into exclusionary nationalism — how proud one is to be South African and if you don’t buy into that then just leave the country (!). For to set up the parameters of South Africanness means to fundamentally define who does NOT belong.

So yes, it’s a minority of people who remain eager to use violence against migrants (only about 11% of the population by Samp accounts).

And yes, reasons for such violence are varied and complex. No simple economic or social combination of factors can explain it all. (In fact, the reports above also suggest that between 2006 and 2010 xenophobic attitudes decreased in lower-income groups and increased in higher-income groups).

And indeed, xenophobic violence can be argued to be a symptom of absolute social discontent and disempowerment (without legitimising the violence, of course).

But as important as addressing the social and economic factors that contribute to xenophobic outbursts are the psychological considerations for our collective next step forward. The journey ahead is not short and easy, but a necessary starting point is acknowledging that South Africa has historically been a xenophobic space, and that in 2015 everyday South Africans are, to varying degrees, complicit in attitudes of xenophobia.

The illusion of exceptionalism must be stripped away.

This is a painful admission, for it goes hand-in-hand with recognising a collective failure to create a fully inclusive society over the last 25 years.

But this failure also presents a key opportunity. It gives “us” a chance to honestly confront our own prejudices, and our own intersectional positions in society, and ultimately work towards creating a truly inclusive space — a space which, importantly, transcends the bounds of artificial and random nationhood.

Matthew Beetar is a 2008 scholar. He is currently a PhD researcher at the University of Sussex. His research focus on xenophobia and homophobia in South Africa and potential strategies for mediated intervention.

Image – Foreign nationals protesting against the recent xenophobic attacks on April 8, 2015 in Durban, South Africa. (Gallo)

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    • philosoraptor

      There’s more: Not only are we xenophobic, we relate more to people in our “gangs” than to others in our own “tribes”. Rich men relate to other rich men much closer than they relate to poor people whether they are fellow-Zulus or fellow-South Africans. The fellow-rich gang members can be anybody – even Indians or Russians or Sicilians – they will further their interests. The poor can get lost. Ubuntu? That only exists among the poor. The very poor.
      And people think Cyril is a SOLUTION? Forget it. Unless you’re very rich, fear the day Cyril comes into power. He’ll be another Zuma, just much better at what Zuma is doing.

    • Pan Jandrum


      Xenophobia: the Fear of ‘others’

      Racism: the Hatred of ‘others’.

      This mob violence is driven by Hatred, not Fear. These are Hate crimes.

      Please join me in my mission to change the innacurate terminology repetitively used by media, opinion writers and analysts.

    • DavyH

      In fairness, it’s more a question of sticking with people one can relate to. Common ground makes for far more comfortable conversations.
      That doesn’t explain the outright hatred though. In almost every country I’ve visited in Africa, no-one could care less where you come from. Sadly this is going to change very soon thanks to the obscenities we are now seeing in South Africa.

    • Stan Greer

      This is not Xenophobia (a fear of foreigners because their culture/ beliefs/ habbits is unfamiliar/strange to you). This is people venting their anger and frustration at an easy target, while the real target should be the #ANC government who has not delivered in 21 years.

    • Masana Ndinga

      “It’s there when one refuses to acknowledge the painful truth that those who have been oppressed are capable of oppression, and that those who have historically oppressed continue to oppress in different ways.”

      I agree whole heartedly with this… and it is not unique to South Africa. The world over, even where there are no racial fault lines, the oppressed can become the oppressor. Or in the words of Mamdani – victims can become killers.

    • philosoraptor

      You’re making my point: Two guys go to similar schools, get similar education, one gets rich and one stays poor. They can’t relate because . . . ?
      Cyril does not go home and eat pap with this clan members. He eats caviar with the Ruperts and catches trout with the Oppenheimers. He’s sticking with people he “can relate to” – right?

    • philosoraptor

      The real targets should be the leaders of ALL the countries involved. ALL these countries are being looted by their leaders. The top few in the WaBenzi clans are taking LOTS and the poor are gettin EffAll. So the poor end up competing and fighting while the three-piece suits tut-tut.

    • RSA.MommaCyndi

      Why is thinking that we have too many people wondering over the border, without bothering to go through a border post, considered ‘ xenophobic’ ?

      Every South African citizen is required to have identification documents and, should we go to another country, we are required to apply for visas or work permits or temporary residency permits. Is it really ‘xenophobic’ to expect the same thing to happen in our own country?

      Whilst the despicable violence may be a problem with South Africa, the dissatisfaction with huge influx of foreigners is a world wide issue. This is not to say that it is the fault of the migrants. The migrants are simply desperate people who are trying to survive. The problem lies with our government who was told what the problem was, way back in 2008, but chose to ignore it …. as per usual

    • Heinrich

      I am with you on the terminology thing. Politicians always choose – and then promote – terms which cast them in a good or innocent light.
      But “hate” is also too simplistic.

      What would the local reaction be if millions of people of all kinds just walked into a place like Norway? How would we react if all kinds just started squatting in our backyards? Not hate… I don’t think. Self preservation, perhaps?