Attacks Against Labour Migrants in South Africa Show the Unfortunate Universality of Xenophobia
South Africa, a country infamous for its legacy of colonialism, racism, and policy of apartheid has struggled with mounting xenophobic sentiments towards migrant workers from other African nations along with South Asia. Some individuals have even gone to the extreme, resorting to violent attacks against migrants in the name noncompetitive employment eligibility for native South Africans.
It goes without saying that South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the modern world. This fact can be seen throughout nearly all facets of South African life. Still, despite the infamous legacy created by centuries of racial inequality that lead up to decades of government sanction apartheid¬, or ‘separateness’ between races, the self-proclaimed Rainbow Nation has struggled greatly with xenophobic attacks against nonwhite foreign nationals. These attacks have increased in the years since the African National Congress was elected into power, implementing the first black majority government under the late Nelson Mandela in 1994.
While xenophobia in South Africa has been on the rise since the government’s democratic transition, it is important to note that it did not rear its ugly head only recently. In terms of immigration policy, during apartheid and prior, immigrants where let into the country on the basis of whether or not they could ‘assimilate’ with the white minority population. Hence, white immigrants where welcomed while black immigrants were granted the status of migrant labourers who were unable to gain permanent citizenship and residency rights. Similarly, white immigrants have not been included in xenophobic attacks.
South Africa has had a tumultuous relationship between both foreign and domestic migrants since the beginning of its colonial migrant labor system in the 1820’s. According to Peter Delius with the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of African History, during this period of time and for centuries in the future, “migrancy and racism fed off of each other […], shaping the lives and deaths of millions of people.”
The greatest incident of unprecedented attacks against foreigners took place in May of 2008 as an attempt to drive foreign populations out of poor South African communities. These attacks “left at least 62 dead, 670 wounded, dozens raped, and more than 100,000 displaced.,” and are characterized by the public murder of Mozambican Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave. Nhamuave was stabbed and burned alive in South Africa’s Ramaphosa informal settlement during the wave of brutality. No arrests have been made in relation to his case. Naturally, the violence against outsiders, most notably foreign shopkeepers and workers of Mozambican and Zimbabwean origin, did not end there.
“We hid them in our house. My mom actually went and fetched them out the township while [the attacks were] happening. They were friends of our domestic worker at the time.”- Richard, a South African, describing his family’s response to the 2008 attacks against Zimbabwean migrants.
In 2011, the UNHRC Regional Office of South Africa reported, “154 reported incidents of xenophobic attacks, 99 deaths, 100 serious injuries, and 1,000 people displaced.” Over the course of one year, this rose to “238 incidents, 120 deaths, 154 serious injuries, and 7,500 people displaced.” And in 2013, “250 attacks, 88 deaths, 170 serious injuries [occurred,] and 7,000 [were left] displaced.”
“[Foreigners] "should pack their bags and go back home,” said King of the Zulu ethnic group Goodwill Zwelithini, responding to the perception that migrants are criminals who steal jobs from ordinary South Africans.
Another wave of violence targeting foreigners began in January 2015, after a Somali shop owner shot and killed a 14 year old South African who was caught stealing. In response, people protested and foreign-owned shops were attacked and looted from. In March, foreigners in one town were forced to abandon their shops after being threatened with being burned alive and their shops destroyed. In April, two Ethiopian brothers were trapped inside their shop, a shipping container, and then set on fire. Attacks of this nature continued on a large scale throughout 2015, with incidents still occurring more sporadically.
It can be argued that modern-day xenophobia targeting African and Asian foreign nationals instead of white immigrants can be explained by the causal relationship between scarce resources, i.e. little job opportunity, and a large unemployed population. To put it simply, local residents believe foreign nationals are stealing jobs that they are entitled to on the basis of national origin. Evidently, in 2010 the Southern African Migration Program found that 60 % of individuals believe that immigrants are taking their jobs.
According to Jean Pierre Misago, a researcher with the African Centre for Migration and Society, “this perception is stronger among the majority of citizens living in poor townships and informal settlements where they meet and fiercely compete with equally poor African immigrants for scarce resources and opportunities.” Statistics South Africa reported that the unemployment rate for the fourth quarter of 2017 was 26,7%. Recently, the unemployment rate for international migrants was only 14,7%. This may be due to the fact that foreign nationals are more likely to accept exploitative jobs that locals are unwilling to take for less money, as is the case in most societies where migrant labour is prevalent.
Additionally, 32,7% of migrants work in the informal sector, which is nearly double the participation rate for South Africans, and are more likely to be in precarious employment situations regardless of skill or education level. These individuals mostly make up the agricultural, trade, construction, and private household sectors when compared to their counterparts. They raise other people’s children and work in diamond mines hundreds or thousands of kilometers away from home, living in migrant workers hostels or shack settlements in hopes of sending remittances back to their families.
This reality is true for the many individuals who find themselves in precarious situation as migrant workers. From the perspective of natives, it is important to realize that migrants are not stealing jobs, but are being chosen by employers for a multitude of reasons. They contribute to the livelihood of the economy, and can help to create more jobs for the general labour force. Labour migrants are being attacked as a scapegoat for societal conditions outside of their control, which is something we see time and time again across the globe.
Alexis is interning with MKC's Migration, Labor, and Working Conditions section. She will be graduating with a Bachelors degree in International Relations and minor in Conflict Studies from the State University of New York at Geneseo in December 2018. She studied at the University of Cape Town, South Africa during 2017.