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Policy Thoughts

13 May, 2015


‘Xenophobia’ and Being a ‘Proud’ Citizen in

Post-Apartheid South Africa


by Sayaka Kono


Much has been written on the plight of immigrants from various African countries resident in South Africa following the eruption of xenophobic attacks in April 2015. These attacks started in Durban or Kwazulu-Natal area, especially following the so-called xenophobic sentiments expressed by King Goodwill Zwelithini. Barely a few days after such sentiments a horde of South Africans rushed out, attacking foreigners and looting their shops demanding that they “go back home”. This was sensationally described in the print media in South Africa as “looting for our king!”

In this article, firstly, I critique the response of both the host country, in this case, South Africa, and the sending country, that is, Malawi, following these attacks. I argue that the response by the South African government was rather slow, lukewarm and, above all, characterised by denialism about the existence of xenophobia. The same response was notable after the 2008 xenophobic attacks. On the part of the Malawi government, I am of the view that much as it came in promptly, it would have been much better to transform from reactive to proactive approaches in as far as the socio-economic plight of Malawians is concerned. The Malawi government sounded to be very caring in responding to the needs of Malawian migrants who fell victim to these attacks. But looking at the bigger picture, the question would be: Why not impart the promised skills to Malawians for use in their day to day lives in order to prevent the mass exodus of unskilled and semi-skilled Malawians in the first place?

Secondly, I examine the dilemma facing Malawian migrants displaced from South Africa by these attacks: should they go back to South Africa? If yes, such a move would be tantamount to risking their lives in case of fresh xenophobic waves. Or should they forget about South Africa and settle down in Malawi? But, practically, what will they be doing by way of earning a living? If it were that easy, would they have emigrated to the xenophobic, dangerous and, therefore, life-threatening South Africa in the first place?

Xenophobia has emerged as a deep-rooted social phenomenon in South Africa, especially after the collapse of Apartheid in 1994. Many South Africans seemed to have developed hatred against foreigners, blaming them for a host of ills in society: that they are bringers of diseases, especially HIV/AIDS; take way jobs and contribute to systemic low wages since they grab anything that comes their way; to such extreme claims that they snatch women from them. However, with time it has become apparent that this hatred carries a racial tag. These xenophobic attacks are particularly directed at foreigners of African origin, that is, fellow blacks from African countries. In addition, fellow South Africans from the north of the country, for example, the Shangaan and the Pedi, have also fell victim in the process simply because the Zulu largely rely on ‘street language tests’ and whoever fails to prove proficiency in isiZulu is deemed to be ‘a foreigner’.



The aftermath of attacks in Botshabelo, 2012

Being proud of one’s own country is not a bad thing, but it can be a dangerous thing as well, since it might let people be blind to where they are in the world. And I believe that this is exactly what is happening to many of the people who have grown up in South Africa. During the apartheid era, people were isolated from information. Media was monitored by the government. Education was also controlled by the government. Thus people were forcefully kept ‘ignorant’ by the apartheid government. A similar situation continued in the poorer areas even after 1994. Education is corrupted, and the access to information is very limited there. The little change is that all the people know that ‘ANC ended the apartheid and we have freedom’. The structure of the oppression has not changed yet as I mentioned above. However, since they still live in a very narrow world which is arbitrary limited, many people easily believe that the migrants from the neighbor countries come to South Africa because South Africa is ‘nice and rich’, without seriously thinking about how these migrants perceive their life there.

Allow me to use the example of the Zimbabweans I met in South Africa. Some of them are educational elites at university. Others are street venders and factory workers. Very few among them told me that they were comfortable living in South Africa. Although many of them want to stay in South Africa for economic or political reasons, they miss their country. Mealie meal which is not GMO, kitchen gardens which you can hardly see in South Africa, daily conversation which is not always materialistic. They could list up so many things they miss in their country. From this list, I had the impression that the major difference they mentioned are caused by the neoliberal culture in the post-apartheid era. I became more confident with this impression of mine when I visited Harare. Most of the people with small informal business on the streets had experienced staying in South Africa, or have close relatives there. Although they admit political and economic hardship in Zimbabwe, they prefer to stay in their country at the time of my interviews, not only because of their family and friends but also the difference of the sense of value, life style and so on.



A kitchen garden in Harare

Here I am not saying which country is better, but pointing out that there are different values which many Zimbabweans cherish, and many South Africans do not know. Furthermore, these differences might be what South Africa has lost by their adoption of neoliberalism. This might be what the ‘proud’ South African poor do not understand. They would not understand what the migrants sacrifice to come to South Africa. They are left behind in the competition, but they are not even allowed to realize what they have lost.

My point is the feeling of despair which has been strengthened through their ‘ignorance’. They are suffering from poverty. But they know their country is developed and ‘rich’, and they are proud of it. They can even see their ex-fellow comrades owing huge houses and driving very expensive cars. The ANC says that this is a free country and that apartheid is over. Many migrants from ‘poor’ countries are working here and there. So they should also be able to get benefit from it. They should also be able to improve their lives, but the reality expressed by many is, “South Africa should be the best country, and I am a citizen of that best country. But why are we struggling to get a job?”

I would not apply this perception to all the South African people. Nonetheless, I cannot help but be left with the impression that many South Africans are locked up in a very small world bound hand and feet by the complex apartheid legacy. There are various grass-roots movements protesting the structure of the oppression. The South African government, however, does not have time to waste. Yes, it has been only twenty years since the abolishment of the apartheid laws. Yet, people’s dissatisfaction is growing faster than the country is changing. The explosion of the hopelessness and anger expressed through the attacks towards foreign nationals will not stop until the fundamental issues are seriously acknowledged and addressed.


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