Last Updated: Tuesday, 31 May 2016, 12:25 GMT

South Africa: Keeping xenophobia out of politics

Publisher Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN)
Publication Date 11 February 2009
Cite as Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), South Africa: Keeping xenophobia out of politics, 11 February 2009, available at: [accessed 31 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

JOHANNESBURG, 11 February 2009 (IRIN) - Xenophobic attacks in South Africa displaced 150,000 people and killed more than 60 in 2008. This year, as the country heads to the polls, researchers say local politicians may be capitalizing on the hate and fear that fuelled the attacks - this time to win votes.

Immigrant lobby groups have put out a call for increased monitoring of political campaigns ahead of general elections in April. There are indications that some grassroots politicians are turning to raw anti-foreigner platforms, and the fear is that this type of populism could spread, said Loren Landau, director at the University of the Witwatersrand's Forced Migration Studies Programme (FMSP).

"At one of our research sites some of the local politicians are campaigning, saying people should vote for them because they can help with the removal of foreigners," said FMSP researcher Jean Pierre Misago, who has found examples in and around the country's economic hub, Johannesburg. "It's like the removal of foreigners is some sort of 'plan of action'."

"Politicians are saying: 'If you vote for us, we can rid you of these problems [with foreigners] forever," he said. "If this gets to the national level - that could be a real problem."

The Southern African Migration Project (SAMP) has been monitoring the politicization of xenophobia since 1994. "It's something we've always been concerned about and something that, with ongoing dissatisfaction over service delivery and government, is likely to be more of an issue," said Vincent Williams, a Cape Town-based project manager at SAMP. "As happens all over the world, people look for those who they can blame for their deprivations."

The message from extreme nationalists is that foreigners flood into South Africa unchecked, are responsible for stealing jobs, cheating social services and promoting crime.

In early January 2009, Victor Zowa, 24, a Zimbabwean, and Omar Said, 25, from Tanzania, fell to their deaths while trying to escape a 150-strong mob that stormed the high-rise apartment building where they were living in the east-coast city of Durban. One of the six people later charged with their murders was Vusumuzi Khoza, a local ward councillor of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party.

Mary de Haas, a Durban-based independent violence monitor for nearly 20 years, said these killings were only the latest incident of xenophobia in which various local political leaders could be implicated: "No one has their hands clean."

Engaging the politicians

With the exception of the Khoza case, evidence of the politicization of xenophobia is largely anecdotal. On 4 March leaders of the ANC, the Democratic Alliance and a new political party, Congress of the People, will join FMSP at a meeting to state their positions on migration as part of an election watch campaign.

"We hope the debate will help policy-makers formally link immigration issues with development, because the way immigration has been understood up until now has really been two-fold: one in terms of the humanitarian issue, and the other in terms of security," Landau said.

"What we are trying to do, in line the United Nations Development Programme ... report [on development] that will come out later this year, is get South Africa to think along these lines."

Landau also hopes that a clear policy from national party leaders on immigration will trickle down to the local level and make it harder for local politicians to twist the party line.

"We're looking for a public commitment on behalf of all [parties] that they will not use hate speech in their campaigns, but that they will also investigate [xenophobic] violence and hold those people responsible for it accountable," he said.

"If your party platform is to be inclusive, then we would hope they would discipline a party member who is seen as xenophobic."


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