Forthcoming South Africa’s national elections, which will be held on the 8th of May 2019, will be one of the most contested elections in the country’s history. Forty-seven political parties will challenge the ruling African National Congress (ANC) – who held 62% of the vote in the last general elections – for control of the National Parliament. As the various electoral candidates canvass the villages, townships and suburbs ahead of these important elections, the media has revisited the contested subject of xenophobic violence. This new interest was spurred by riots that targeted foreign nations in eThekwini – one of the country’s largest cities. These latest attacks were directed at the small Malawian community in the eThekwini’s Sydenham suburb and forced hundreds to seek refuge after residents attacked their homes and businesses.
One of the most disturbing aspects of the Sydenham attacks was their banality – this latest eruption was just another in a long list of similar attacks that have occurred in the last decade and half. And although the Sydenham attacks received significant media attention, many similar incidents do not. The authorities don’t collect data on levels of hate crime in South Africa and, consequently, it is difficult to know how many xenophobic attacks occur each year. However, the Xenowatch platform – a tool developed by the African Centre for Migration and Society at Witwatersrand of the University – does provide some empirical evidence on this important question. Gathering data from media reports and crowd sourcing, the platform tracked forty-two xenophobic attacks in 2018 alone. Twelve people died in these outbreaks while a hundred and thirty-nine shops were looted and more than a thousand were displaced. Of course, Xenowatch’s method of data collection is not exhaustive and there may be many incidents of xenophobia that go unrecorded by the platform.
South Africa has a growing international migrant community. The positive rate of change in the foreign-born population for the period 2010-2015 was 9.6% according to demographers at the United Nations. The international migrant population was estimated to be four million in 2017. Many in the country believe this growing foreign-born population uses up valuable resources and cause unemployment. Research report by the World Bank, however, shows that this group has a positive impact on South African jobs and wages. Indeed, the report went so far as to claim that each immigrant worker generates a labour market multiplier effect, creating approximately two jobs for locals. The positive economic impact of foreign nationals is obviously weakened by a climate of prejudice and violence. However, efforts to redress this climate are being undermined by the government’s current response to the problem.
The eThekwini municipality have denied that the violence in Sydenham was xenophobic – stating, instead, that it was “criminally motivated”. While on the campaign trail, the ANC President (and current National President) Cyril Ramaphosa backed up the municipality. Speaking about the recent violence, he told journalists “it erupted because of criminal elements […] The violence was being spread by people with criminal intent, South Africans are not xenophobic”. This is a common response from the authorities and has been repeated often in the past decade. It wasn’t always this way. Before the late 2000s, the government was more open to discussing the problem of xenophobia. The Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Foreign Affairs even held open hearings on the size and scale of xenophobia in 2004. So what changed?
In May 2008 anti-immigrant riots erupted in Johannesburg and spread throughout the country's urban centres. The police proved unable to contain the violence and the military had to be deployed to stop the bloodletting. By the time the violence had been contained, sixty-two foreigners were killed and thousands had been displaced. Surveying the destruction, government leaders found themselves incapable of admitting that the violence was symptomatic of a larger problem. Former President Thabo Mbeki declared that “[m]y people are not diseased by the terrible affliction of xenophobia, what is happening are acts of criminality”. By denying xenophobia as a cause, the Mbeki administration could refute the existence of widespread antipathy to foreigners at the grassroots level. When the Ramaphosa administration denies the existence of xenophobia in South Africa, it is merely embracing the approach of its predecessors.
To understand whether it is possible to classify some subset of the South African population as xenophobic, look at public attitudes towards anti-immigrant violence. To achieve this, we can draw on a nationally representative public opinion survey series – the South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS). In 2015, SASAS respondents were asked: “Have you taken part in violent action to prevent immigrants from living or working in your neighbourhood?” Here, the definition of xenophobia is reduced to a very narrow extent (i.e. violence driven by prejudice). A small share (2.4%) reported having perpetrated such violence in the year prior to interviewing (late 2014-late 2015) and a further 3.4% stated that they had engaged in such behaviour in the more distant past. More than a tenth of the adult population (13%, or an estimated 4.9 million adults) said that they had not taken part in such an action but would be prepared to. SASAS included this item about violence in its questionnaire in its 2016, 2017 and 2018 rounds. The outcomes of each round were relatively consistent with the 2015 results and this demonstrates the durability of public attitudes on this issue.
Empirical public opinion evidence reveals a problematic willingness to engage in xenophobic violence by a small but significant subset of the country’s adult population. This type of sentiment represents a clear and present threat to social cohesion in South Africa and should be a serious topic of discussion ahead of the 2019 National Elections. However, none of the major political parties contesting the election have shown a sincere willingness to tackle this important issue. Most have either ignored the issue or blamed their political enemies for its existence. But South Africa desperately needs a comprehensive strategy to address the serious problem of anti-immigrant violence. Any strategy developed to address anti-immigrant aggression must not underestimate the scale of the challenge. It is vital that the resources dedicated to combating xenophobia in South Africa be equal to the size of the problem.