Fear Grips the Rainbow Nation

Hiding out from the violence in squatter camps, South Africa's immigrants take stock of their future in a country that doesn't want them.


JOHANNESBURG — The sun had barely set, bruised and blue, over the rambling neighborhood of used car lots and corner stores east of downtown Johannesburg Friday night when the mob began its work. The knot of men — at times more than a hundred deep — moved quickly from block to block, using crowbars, hammers, and machetes to pry open the metal gates of foreign-owned shops and smash their way inside.

Some made off with an eclectic bounty: sacks of rice and packets of synthetic hair, deep freezers and lawn chairs, hubcaps and cases of Red Bull. But others took little, leaving their message only in shattered glass and splintered furniture.

“We all look to South Africa as the most advanced country in Africa, but I don’t think this is the best model of advancement,” said Ifeanyi Jones, a Nigerian immigrant in Johannesburg, as he surveyed the punctured windows of his auto parts shop the morning after it was looted. “If this country has the capacity to send peacekeeping forces to other countries, they have the capacity to stop this from happening. But here we are.”

The nights of pillage that destroyed Jones’s shop and dozens of others in Johannesburg late last week are a part of a broader wave of violence against foreigners that has swept the country since late March, claiming seven lives to date and displacing thousands more, most of them from the eastern port city of Durban. For South Africans, however, the scenes of refugee tent cities and shattered storefronts are chillingly familiar, conjuring dark memories of a spate of attacks in May 2008 that also targeted foreigners and killed at least 62 people, as well as several smaller waves of violence since.

But if xenophobia seems to be the rainbow nation’s seasonal illness, its causes have proven singularly difficult to treat. Fueled in large part by the same violent alchemy of poverty and hopelessness that drives much of the crime in this country, many argue that the attacks on immigrants are less about a foreign presence than the bitter indignities of being destitute in a land of plenty.

“These events are of course appalling, but the sentiments they represent are latent in our society, and are unlikely to change until we deal with the very real brutality of daily life for many black South Africans,” says Suren Pillay, an anthropologist at the Centre for Humanities Research at the University of the Western Cape and one of the authors of a comprehensive government-backed study of the 2008 violence. “For people in the most vulnerable parts of this society, it’s perhaps understandably very difficult to receive the message of tolerance and acceptance.”

Indeed, the 307 people arrested so far in connection with the violence have come almost exclusively from the squatter camps and decrepit worker hostels that line the fringes of South African society, places left largely untouched by the radical rebirth of Nelson Mandela’s “miracle” nation two decades ago. And the violence they carry out in the name of “xenophobia” seems at times exceptionally unfocused, with South Africans often counted among those killed, injured, and looted in attacks.

“They’re calling this xenophobia, but what does that mean?” asks Zanele Mananze, a South African who was chased from her home near Johannesburg last week, ostensibly because her daughter’s father is from Mozambique. “That word doesn’t mean anything. This is just my neighbors hating me.”

On Saturday, Mananze joined more than 700 other displaced people in a field outside the police station in the town of Primrose, east of Johannesburg. As South African contractors hastily set up tarp tents for the displaced, a live wire of grief and anger sizzled through the camp, with residents quietly tallying the things they’d left behind: passports, work permits, winter jackets, family photos. “How am I going to stay here without any documents?” asked Happy Mhosi, a Zimbabwean. “I’m going to leave this country. There’s no other way.”

But many of those in the camp bore a complicated relationship to their adopted country — life is hard here, they said, but life at home was even harder. Xenophobic violence was easier to run from than Boko Haram or al-Shabab. Those opinions are borne out by South Africa’s status as one of the world’s leading destinations for migrants fleeing conflict, with nearly 244,000 asylum seekers and more than 65,000 refugees in the country as of July 2014, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

One of Africa’s most developed economies, South Africa is also significantly easier to enter for many migrants. South African census data places the total number of foreigners in South Africa around 1.7 million, out of a population of 52 million, though some argue the number of undocumented immigrants could drive the true figure much higher. But the country also ultimately turns away many of those who seek refuge within its borders, approving far fewer asylum applications than the global average, according to the humanitarian news agency IRIN.

Local and national South African politicians, meanwhile, have frequently been accused of stoking or abetting anti-foreigner violence. In January, for instance, after a spate of attacks in Johannesburg’s Soweto townships, the minister of small business development, Lindiwe Zulu, told reporters that “foreigners need to understand that they are here as a courtesy and our priority is to the people of this country first and foremost,” demanding that they “share” trade secrets with locals.

And many have laid blame for the most recent round of attacks on the shoulders of the Zulu king, Goodwill Zwelithini, who said in a speech on March 20 that all foreigners must “pack their belongings and go back to their countries.” The violence began just five days later, though Zwelithini claims the press has distorted his words.

Many of those victimized by the attacks have expressed irony at the cold attitude toward outsiders shown by the country’s leaders, given the prominent role South Africa’s neighbors played in ending white rule here.

Jones, the owner of the looted auto shop, remembers his primary school teachers in northern Nigeria passing around a collection basket, asking students to pitch in a coin to “help liberate” South Africa. “There isn’t a country in Africa that didn’t do what it could for South Africa during apartheid,” he says.

But if a legacy of shared struggle is stitched into South Africa’s relationship to the rest of the continent, the country’s past is also replete with explanations for its current xenophobic attitudes. Indeed, most analyses of contemporary anti-foreigner sentiments begin with apartheid, the original sin of modern South African history.

For decades, the argument goes, South Africans of every color were taught to draw rigid boundaries around identity. Stark racial divisions were inscribed into nearly every element of life, from the hospital one was born in, to the jobs he could acquire, to the cemetery where he would be buried. The end of apartheid didn’t end those divisions, it merely displaced them — South Africans on one side, foreigners on the other. “One of the great legacies of apartheid is that many of us have bought the story that the rest of Africa is a violent place with nothing to offer,” Pillay, from the University of Western Cape, says. “There’s a certain sense of superiority or exceptionalism here.”

Apartheid made racial difference a national obsession, but it also helped inscribe xenophobic violence on contemporary South Africa in another way: its brutality. South African criminality is particularly violent: its rates of murder, violent robbery, and rape, are among the highest recorded in the world (though indeed reliable statistics are not available for every country). Such a culture of violence, experts note, has deep roots in both apartheid’s oppressive institutions and the guerilla tactics that eventually helped unseat it.

But as Gareth Newham, head of the governance, crime, and security research unit at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, has argued, xenophobic violence is also tangled up in some contemporary myths of South African life, namely that foreigners are stealing jobs from locals, and that they’re the source of the country’s criminal scourge. Though neither is true — one study claims 82 percent of the country’s working population between 15 and 64 are “non-migrants” — the rumors continue to animate much of the xenophobic rhetoric flowing out of poor communities.

Many foreigners say, however, that while they may never feel wholly at ease in South Africa, the ebb and flow of xenophobic violence isn’t enough to drive them away. Jones, for instance, is married to a South African woman he met at his church, and has two children born here. South Africa is a “more organized society than Nigeria,” he says, and anyway, his entire life is here now.

“Things are good here, it’s quiet,” says Samson Varaigwai, a Zimbabwean at the Primrose camp, as he surveys a queue of his countrymen forming to sign up for a bus, paid for by the Zimbabwean government, that will take them back there. “I have no problem with South Africans or their country. I am applying for citizenship. It’s only those people with no money and nothing to do who are coming after foreigners and making trouble for everyone.”

Photo Credit: Marco Longari / AFP

Ryan Lenora Brown is a freelance journalist based in Johannesburg, where she covers southern Africa for the Christian Science Monitor and other publications. Twitter: @ryanlenorabrown

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