Kya Sands Township in Johannesburg, South Africa
Kya Sands Township in Johannesburg, South Africa. | Photo: Johnny Miller/Unequal Scenes | CC BY-SA 4.0

Xenophobic violence and spatial inequality in South Africa

In recent violent attacks against African foreigners living in South Africa 12 people were killed. While xenophobic rhetoric has become increasingly normalised in the country’s political discourse, the latest violence has had domestic and international implications. Importantly, this violence must be seen in context of the continuation of South Africa’s colonial and apartheid era structures, which still play a crucial role in most South Africans’ everyday lives. Given that land reform is an unfinished and hotly discussed political project, we argue that intense economic and spatial inequality as remnants of the past are important contributors to recent violence, specifically against foreigners in South Africa.

Xenophobia in South Africa

Xenophobic sentiments have been growing in South African society since 1994. They reached a gruesome peak in 2008 when 62 people were killed in violent attacks against African foreigners. Despite a national outcry and important national discussions, violence flared up again in 2015 and seven people died in xenophobic attacks in Johannesburg and Durban. Earlier this year, just before the national elections in May, anti-immigrant political rhetoric of leading politicians was followed by some violent acts against African foreigners. Importantly, though xenophobia refers to a general “fear of foreigners”, in South Africa anti-immigrant violence is specifically targeted at black African foreigners of low socio-economic standing. White or highly skilled foreigners remain untouched of hostile discourses or attacks.

In South African domestic politics xenophobia has increasingly become a go-to cause to rally political support. A protester engaged in the recent xenophobic attacks highlighted how international discourses may be used to justify xenophobic violence domestically by arguing: “Kuzabakho uxolo mhla ugovernment lo usiphetheyo wathatha amaforeyna wawabeka lapho asuka khona.” [There will only be peace when the government in charge of us deports all the foreigners back to their countries.] He concluded by saying “In America, there were talks of building a tall wall to prevent foreigners from entering their country. Why should we not do the same?” It appears that international anti-immigation discourses and an arguably increasing trend towards nationalist politics is affecting and even fuelling domestic xenophobic rhetoric and violence in South Africa.

Within South Africa, xenophobic or anti-immigration rhetoric has become relatively normalised in political and media discourses. Political leaders of the two main parties in national, provincial and regional government have specifically contributed to this. For instance, Johannesburg’s mayor Herman Mashaba of the biggest opposition party Democratic Alliance blamed foreigners for the high crime rates in the city, while former health minister Aaron Motsoaledi blamed foreigners for overcrowding hospitals. Most recently, during this year’s run up to national elections, anti-immigrant rhetoric was highly prevalent and included hostile statements by most major political actors, including President Ramaphosa.

Impacts of xenophobic violence on neighbour states and African relations

Effects of the xenophobic violence have been wide ranging beyond the domestic politics of South Africa. Botswana, Nigeria and Lesotho issued travel alerts for citizens headed to South Africa. Nigeria as Africa’s largest economy, took an even stronger stance by calling for sanctions and, as a sign of protest, remained largely absent from participating in the World Economic Forum in Africa, which took place in Cape Town in September. The attacks also bred more violence abroad, as South African companies such as MTN or Shoprite were attacked as retaliation in Lagos and other cities in Nigeria.

Moreover, the xenophobic attacks have started to destabilize neighbouring countries’ fragile peace. Mozambique has been especially affected, given the economic dependence on South Africa and its own fragile political landscape. The recent violence in South Africa was partially targeted at foreign truckers, affecting foreign trade with Mozambique heavily. 2,000 Mozambican long haul truckers were unable to work due to security concerns of driving across the border, causing daily losses of up to 1 million U.S. dollars. This has endangered the livelihoods of traders in the capital Maputo, as many vendors source their products in neighboring South Africa. Consequently, goods are gradually becoming scarcer and prices have started to rise. In an already volatile economic and political climate these developments are further putting pressure on precarious living conditions and could even lead to further escalation of local conflicts.

South African nation building and continuities of a violent past

The recent acts of violence need to be seen in the context of South Africa’s violent past and continuities of past inequalities matched with its specific nation-building attempts. On the one hand, ironically, the national reconciliation project of the “rainbow nation” has been an unfortunate contributing factor to xenophobia. The modus operandi of the nation-building project aiming to unify and democratise a divided society, has been an increase in nationalist exclusionary rhetoric. The rainbow-nation philosophy of “we are one” aims to cross bridges in a context of extreme societal inequality. However, given that the “New South Africa” has so far not meant socio-economic advancement for most people, one way out of the paradox is the scapegoating of those who supposedly do not belong and are an easy target.

On the other hand, the idea of a real rainbow-nation with equal opportunities for all remains an unfulfilled ideal. Despite much investment into transforming South African society, meaningful economic change has been crucially lacking. Though not completely divided along racial lines anymore, it is estimated that the top 10% of South Africans own about 95% of all the wealth, while 80% own no wealth at all. Moreover, despite having the second-largest economy on the continent, the rate of unemployment is extremely high in South Africa, up to 38%. Nevertheless, given its relative prosperity and stability in the region, the country has become a major destination for migrants and refugees especially from neighbouring Lesotho, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe. Poverty and low levels of formal education both amongst South Africans and migrants, has arguably affected a scramble for lower skilled jobs, affordable housing and access to services.

Spatial inequalities as violence

Many analysts and commentators have highlighted how the high poverty levels in the country create circumstances in which African foreigners are made scapegoats for lack of services, employment and housing. However, the specific interaction of poverty with spatial inequality and the ways that history continues through lack of physical transformation of the spaces in which people in South Africa live in, has mostly been neglected. Under Apartheid, black South Africans were forcibly removed from their homes and had to live crowded in small and little serviced areas as far away from economic city centers as possible. This directly contributed to high levels of poverty, lack of social structures, no public services and intense spatial inequalities that continue to persist.

Centuries of colonial rule and an extraordinary violent racist regime have brutalised South African society. While blaming the past cannot be the only explanation, it plays a crucial role as a continuation of living circumstances. The country’s land distribution still mirrors Apartheid era levels of inequality. According to the World Bank, as much as half of South Africa’s population still live in townships and informal settlements, almost all of them black, including African foreigners. Arguably a form of violence in itself, these existing residential structures enable the extraordinary high levels of violent crime in the country in general and of xenophobia specifically. Jacky Chiller from the Institute for Security Studies highlights this: “This [violent] situation has its roots in the history of South Africa. People were removed from their homes and dumped far away to areas where there was nothing, no society no shops, nothing.”

Recent criminal statistics of 2018-19 show a further increasing trend of violent crime in an already violent country. Unsurprisingly, hotspots of violent crime and violent xenophobic attacks are disenfranchised urban setllements. Here, difficulties in policing due to the informal character of many settlements, further contributes to a lack of trust in the police and increasing community retaliation. In fact, mob justice is now the fourth most common causative factor of murder, showing the size of this problem. Framed as a form of justice, perpetrators of recent xenophobic attacks also saw their actions as “taking the law into their own hands”.

Acknowledging the contribution of spatial marginalization to inequality, land reform, public housing and betterment of infrastructure were priorities after South Africa’s political transition. However, implementation was limited at best: Land reform in general remains a contested and unfinished political project with only 10% of land redistributed since 1994. The remnants of the country’s tortured past and government corruption interact with contemporary neo-liberal orientation of South Africa’s economy. Breeding more inequality instead of spurring positive change, this has lead to spatial inequalities not only persisting but even being further entrenched by gentrification processes in urban centres. For instance, in recent years, people have been forcefully moved out of their homes to make room for high-end developers, specifically in traditional working class areas in Cape Town and Johannesburg. This appears to be tragically repeating history, though with a different political agenda.

In the context of an everyday confrontation with violence, poor infrastructure, intense inequality and high unemployment rates in the population, President Ramaphosa’s words on heritage day must ring ironically for many in South Africa: “Let us use the events of the past few weeks to affirm that amidst the great diversity of our society we are united by the values of dignity, respect and equality”. Land reform as a key process to curb unemployment, poverty and ultimately inequality has regained centrality in political discussions throughout the past months. Given the centrality spatial inequality connected to wealth inequality plays in contributing to violence, specifically those against African foreigners, urgent action is needed. With contemporary government policies further contributing to inequality and to breeding violence, it is high time for effective and transformative implementation of land reform.

Marieke Fröhlich

Marieke Fröhlich

Marieke Fröhlich is a Research Assistant in PRIF’s „Glocal Junctions” research department. She holds an MA in Critical Gender Studies and her research interests focus on feminist peace and conflict studies, specifically the Women, Peace and Security Agenda.
Marieke Fröhlich
Estefania Lopez-Granados
Estefania Lopez is a Doctoral Researcher at PRIF’s Research Department "Glocal Junctions". Her PhD project deals with conflict dynamics and social spacial structures in Mozambique.
Estefania Lopez-Granados

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Marieke Fröhlich

Marieke Fröhlich is a Research Assistant in PRIF’s „Glocal Junctions” research department. She holds an MA in Critical Gender Studies and her research interests focus on feminist peace and conflict studies, specifically the Women, Peace and Security Agenda.

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