South African xenophobia has increased significantly since the 1994 Democratic election. Although there was a lack of direct data, a study published in 2004 by the South African Migration Project (SAMP) perceived the increase in xenophobic attacks.
The African National Congress (ANC) government, during the reign of President Nelson Mandela, attempted to surmount the past divisions of the apartheid era and construct new practices of social unity. The new government started aggressive and comprehensive projects for the Rainbow Nation in an attempt to unite the people. During this time, there was an increase in the unforeseen byproduct of intolerance toward outsiders. In communities, especially those around underdeveloped townships, there was a visible division caused by bitter feelings and distrust, which began to spark violent action against foreign citizens.
In the study, based on a survey by participating citizens across the country, many South Africans expressed a harsh sentiment toward foreigners. Up to 64 percent of people were in favor of the government settings limits on the number of foreigners entering the country.
The study revealed that police officers in Johannesburg were of the opinion that up to 87 percent of those accused of crimes were undocumented immigrants involved in criminal activities. There is no substantial statistical evidence of this claim.
Immigrants realized that the police could not offer protection and reported that the officers mistreated, stole from them and made unfounded allegations. This was reported to a Burundian refugee representative in March 2007.
There was violence before the first May 2008 xenophobia attacks. Human Rights Watch reported from neighboring countries that during January 1995, foreign nationals living in the township of Alexandra were assaulted physically. Logal armed gangs began the task of identifing migrants who had no legal documentation. The locals then took the migrants to police stations to try to free the community of immigrants. The 1995 campaign of ridding foreigners was known as Buyelekha (Go Back Home). The locals blamed immigrants for the rise in unemployment, sexual attacks and crime.
In September 1998, a group of South Africans blamed immigrants for the spreading of AIDS and crime and threw two Senegalese and a Mozambican man out of a moving train. During 2000, over a five-week period, up to seven immigrants were killed at the infamous Cape-Flats establishment in South Africa. The killings were labeled as due to xenophobia, instigated by a fear that local property would be claimed by foreigners.
During October 2001, at the informal Zandspruit settlement, the locals ordered Zimbabweans to leave within ten days. When the immigrants failed to do so, the locals burnt the shacks and forcefully removed them from the settlement. The local members expressed being annoyed that the foreigners had worked while they remained jobless.
At the end of 2005 and stretching into the first days of 2006, there were reports that two Zimbabweans were among the four people that died in the township of Olievenhoutbosch. A local man’s death was blamed on the foreigners. Once again, the shacks were burnt and looting occurred.
In the Western Cape, during August 2006, an appeal by Somalian refugees for protection was made after the killing of six traders. The police dismissed the idea that the murders were a result of xenophobia.
Throughout 2007 and early 2008, attacks on foreigners increased. A severe incident occurred in January 2008 in Eastern Cape Town in South Africa, when two Somalian traders were massacred. During March 2008, several shacks and shops were set on fire, causing the death of seven people, including a Pakistani, Zimbabwean and a Somalia.
The 2008 riots were perhaps the worst; spreading from Durban, Mpumalanga and Gauteng. It is recorded that 62 people died, and several hundred were injured. Destruction of property and setting shacks and businesses alight was recorded.
The violence continued to spread throughout the townships and in Alexander, a township north of Johannesburg, killing several more foreigners and injuring dozens. During this rioting period, there was a report that local attackers were singing the campaign song of President Jacob Zuma, “Umshini Wami,” or “bring me my machine gun” in Zulu.
The government deployed armed forces to assist the police in an attempt to quell the rising violence. The 2008 xenophobia riots triggered the government to send troops out into the streets to stop the unrest. Temporary camps of safety were set up for foreigners escaping the fighting. The conditions of these camps were condemned for having no infrastructure and necessary facilities. Political parties condemned the 2008 xenophobia attacks, and reports indicate that more than 1,400 people were arrested in relation to the violent attacks on foreigners.
Foreigners remained under threat of violence, and little was done to address the cause of the attacks. In May 2009, the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa (CORMSA) complained that the government of South Africa showed a lack of public inquiry and no accountability. Political parties blamed each other for the attacks. The Gauteng ANC leader said that the unrest was targeted against the ANC. A rioter said that he was paid to commit violent acts against immigrants. Other parties condemned the accusation and pointed out that crowds singing the Zuma song were associated with the ANC Youth League. Zuma condemned the attacks
Rumors of new attacks spread in 2009 with a possible resurgence of xenophobia-related activities in the Western Cape. These issues were brought into the open by the Anti-Eviction Campaign, who organized a series of meetings to deal with the cause of the crisis. A rumor that xenophobia attacks would be carried out at the end of the 2010 Football World Cup did not come to fruition.
During July 2012, new attacks took place in parts of Cape Town and Free State. On May 20, 2015, a Somali shopkeeper was stoned to death. During June 2013, there were reports that three Somali traders had been hacked to death.
The attacks continued and in June 2014, a 50-year-old Somali was stoned to death, and two others were severely injured when angry mobs attacked their shop. Once again, locals looted the foreign businesses. The xenophobic attacks have never stopped, and government has done little to assure the safety of foreigners in South Africa. Perhaps the new xenophobic attacks mushrooming around the country this month, April 2014, will force the Zuma administration into taking decisive action to ensure people can live in safety.
It might be said that the influx of foreigners from neighboring countries since the 1994 Democratic election was due to outsiders seeing an opportunity in South Africa to live a peaceful life away from the conflict in their own countries. The immigrants who entered South Africa obviously took a chance to live under the shadow of the Rainbow Nation.
The government has realized this is a spiraling problem, and a security risk akin to terrorism and organized crime. The lax border controls, corruption and financial drain of social grants by foreigners are problems the government of South Africa has to take care of.
Opinion by Laura Oneale
Image by Geradine Farah