Why is violent xenophobia on the rise in South Africa?

On 7–8 February 2018, the South African Human Rights Commission (‘SAHRC’) convened a National Hearing on Migration, Xenophobia and Social Cohesion. The hearing invited evidence from a number of organisations within South Africa; as part of a previous role volunteering for an NGO in Johannesburg, I contributed to a report on xenophobia which was given as evidence during the National Hearing. Over the next three weeks this blog will seek to explore some of the themes relating to xenophobia in South Africa with a view to assessing whether South Africa’s legislation and policy does enough to address the causes of xenophobia and mitigate its impact.


South Africa has long been known to have a problem with xenophobia—in particular the violent attacks on foreigners of black African descent. With one of the biggest economies in Africa, it is a magnet for economic migrants and those seeking refuge from war. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (‘UNHCR’), it presently hosts around 91,043 refugees and 218,299 asylum seekers. These figures however, do not account for the large number of undocumented migrants living in South Africa illegally.

Despite South Africa’s strong economy, 30.4 million of its own population were said to be living in poverty in 2015. According to Statistics South Africa, this accounts for 55.5% of the total South African population living on the equivalent of £60 (R992) per person per month in 2015 prices. Among those most affected are children (aged 17 years and younger), black Africans, females, people from rural areas and those with little or no education. It has been suggested that such poverty results in conflict between South Africa’s own poor population and those migrants coming in from the rest of the African continent.

Rise in violent incidents

Between 2000 and March 2008, at least 67 people died in what were identified as xenophobic attacks. According to the UNHCR, at least 120 foreign nationals were killed, five of them burnt alive, 100 were seriously injured, at least 1,000 displaced, and 120 shops and businesses permanently or temporarily closed through violence or selective enforcement of bylaws in 2011. In 2012, the number of violent incidents increased with at least 250 recorded resulting in 140 deaths and 250 serious injuries.

In 2013, an average of three major violence incidents were recorded per week and an estimated 300 incidents of violence against asylum seekers and refugees had been reported up to March 2014 with an estimated 200 shops looted and 900 persons displaced. In 2015, xenophobic attacks against migrants and refugees resulted in at least seven verified deaths, with at least 5,000 migrants and refugees displaced. Violence against foreign nationals again broke out in 2017 with houses belonging to foreign nationals burned down and shops destroyed and looted.

It is therefore undeniable that South Africa has a problem with xenophobia with a worrying trend of an increase in the number of such incidents in recent years and much of the violence targeted at foreigners of black African descent. The next blog post will focus on some of the factors fuelling the rise in xenophobic attacks.


SAHRC: https://www.sahrc.org.za/index.php/sahrc-media/news-2/item/1143-media-advisory-national-investigative-hearing-on-migration-xenophobia-and-social-cohesion

UNHCR:  Protection from Xenophobia, An Evaluation of UNHCR’s Regional Office for Southern Africa’s Xenophobia Related Programmes, 2015

Statistics South Africa: http://www.statssa.gov.za/?p=10334

SALC: https://southernafricalitigationcentre.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/SALC-SAHRC-submission-2017-only.pdf

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