South Africa: Xenophobia Is a Product of Apartheid


Zimbaweans: Packing for home

On 21st May 2008, I posted an article on the now defunct ‘African Path’ website about the then xenophobic attacks by black South Africans on other blacks in South Africa, which ended in around 62 fatalities and massive property destruction. Many believe that the latest violence in Durban erupted after the influential Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini recently said that foreigners should “pack their bags” and leave. Xenophobia means “intense or irrational dislike or fear of people from other countries.” This morning, my good friend from Uganda, Mr. Godfrey Onen Omony who lives in Stockholm, shared the following thoughts on WhatsApp, concerning the violence: “After the downfall of apartheid, all the black presidents (up to Zuma) who ruled SA did not address the apartheid-enforced issues of poverty, unemployment, education and healthcare among the poor blacks, coloured and Indians. They are all big headed corrupt thugs and idiots.” What is your take on the violence? Below is a verbatim copy of my 2008 piece.

We currently see ghastly pictures and read disturbing stories about the raw brutality unleashed by Black South Africans on foreign Black Africans. Why? Is it because of fear, hatred, wrong names and languages or perceived physical differences between them? Are the foreigners bearing the brunt of anger because it is assumed they enjoy the wealth that remains elusive to majority South Africans? Will the violence make the government improve its wealth distribution strategies?

I agree with Sokari Ekine that the present government has failed miserably in its post-apartheid economic reforms. I was in South Africa when Archbishop Desmond Tutu delivered the 2004 Nelson Mandela Lecture which described South Africa’s rising poverty as a powder keg waiting to explode, if no immediate solutions were found. He also criticized the Black Economic Empowerment program for favoring a small section of the emerging black elites thereby shutting out many blacks from sharing wealth. Some black ANC politicians defended the program saying many South Africans were better off today than during the apartheid era. When I discussed Tutu’s speech with some blacks, they told me that South Africans were doing just fine compared to the Palestinians who were then being confronted by the Israelis.

My take on xenophobia

Open lynching of "foreigners"

Open lynching of “foreigners”

In my opinion, xenophobia in South Africa (SA) is a product of the former Apartheid system that segregated races and communities thereby raising suspicions towards ‘outsiders’. Before I got started on this article, I thought of one song called Chileshe by South Africa’s great singer, Hugh Masekela. I looked at the CD cover which I have at home then googled to see if I could use its words and Voilà! Koluki had already done this last January. The song was originally sang in 1968 and urged black South Africans not to mistreat or call other blacks dirty names as done to them by whites during apartheid.

I cite a few lines from the cover: “With the influx today of peoples from all over the African Diaspora into South Africa, the level of xenophobia has risen to disgusting heights. Most paradoxically, the song is even more popular amongst black South Africans today and is deeply loved by the new immigrants which helped the ‘Black To The Future’ album to platinum heights.” It is important to note that the song focuses on the period when Africans from the neighboring countries used to flock the mines of Johannesburg to work. Already then, the Johannesburg people viewed themselves as more ‘advanced and civilized’ than those outsiders. Did black South Africans develop the current animosity when they refused to work in the mines but saw outsiders doing so, thereby earning income at their expense? Is it by coincidence that the present violence is centered in Johannesburg?

There are so many experiences that could add up to the current animosity targeted on non-South African blacks. A term that best defines how black foreigners are described by SA blacks is Makwerekwere. Henk Rossouw (a white South African) has penned experiences from his Zimbabwean wife about this: “I remember the guard called us dogs. And when I worked in the clothing factory they called us makwerekwere because South Africans say that the voices of black immigrants scrape against their ears, like insects.” From her experience, it does not matter that a black South African is physically darker than an outsider; he/she will ‘sniff’ you out directly because they know foreigners.

I recall reading another makwerekwere experience by Alois Rwiyegura in 2005 who was shocked when he was first called so. Even the police use this term when they stop non-SA blacks to check their papers (identification cards or passports). This is reminiscent of the PASS days when the apartheid police dealt ruthlessly with blacks who did not carry the right identification papers.

Lack of exposure and suspicious minds
xenophobia2(R)During my first visit to Johannesburg in 2002, a colored policeman beckoned me with a gun out of a group of two other African colleagues as we went to meet a friend at the main train station. When I came closer, he asked whether I was from “Niger”, possibly Nigeria. I answered “NO” and asked to see my passport. I answered that I did not know there was a rule to walk with one. I showed him my Swedish national ID card which he could not understand its contents. One of my colleagues then produced his South African work ID card and said that I was a guest from Europe. That was when the policeman eased up and told me to be careful with my money and to enjoy my stay.

I also spent a lot of time talking to various people, watching TV and traveling to understand the social disparities especially among blacks. There was once a violent clash in a Johannesburg slum between black refugees and black South Africans, which ended in fatalities and fires that gutted a large number of shacks. The foreigners were then blamed for robberies, ‘stealing’ South African women and taking local jobs. When Ms. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela visited the slum to console the victims, she shed tears for the poor conditions they lived in. They showed her bags of rotten maize meal which were provided to them by authorities as part of the feeding program. She begged the South Africans to treat foreign Africans with dignity because they had accepted them in their countries during the anti-apartheid struggle.

Whenever I had an opportunity to socialize with black students at my host university, I realized that many were quite naïve and ignorant about other Africans outside their country. Quite a few had traveled within SA, let alone Africa. For instance, when they asked whether I was born in Sweden and I answered “No, I was born in Kenya”, they did not know the geographical location of Kenya. One breathed a sigh of relief when I explained that Kenya was in Africa. He then told me: “But we are feeding your people; we have so much food”; meaning that any African who was not South African depended on them. This period was also when Swaziland was going through a very bad drought and had to import maize from South Africa. They equally believed that their country was the largest in Africa.

The same students kept telling me how blessed SA was to be leading Africa from the bottom (geographically). Her position dominates the whole continent in terms of wealth and military prowess. When I told them about my objection to their government’s huge investment in the Swedish jet fighters called JAS-39 Gripen instead of improving the wellbeing of the poor, they were categorical that they needed the jets so that no African country could attack them, etc.

It was interesting to see the reaction of some black students when they visited my room at the guest house outside the university that hosted me. They were shocked to learn that I paid 150 rand per day for accommodation. It was unaffordable for the majority and they immediately asked if the South African government was paying for this. I told them it was part of my research funding from Sweden. I then reminded them that they had said they fed other Africans, so why were they shocked at the cost of my accommodation?

Another very interesting observation was when people greeted me in the local language (Setswana) yet I could not reply. One afternoon I was walking with the lady who owned the guest house to take a helicopter ride offered by one of her guests (a white man), who was a pilot. Two black men said hello at the entrance of the venue. Naturally, I did not understand but the landlady did (she is white but was brought up on a farm where they had black workers so had learnt Setswana). After walking a few meters ahead, she told me that those people said bad things about me because I had refused to return their greetings.

I had a similar experience in 2004 while in Durban and wore a shirt decorated with pictures of African wildlife. A man then began speaking to me in the Zulu language. I politely asked him to speak in English because I could not understand him. He replied that so many black South Africans were acquiring a bad habit of running away from their traditions by pretending not to understand their mother-tongue. I insisted I was not even South African, but he refused until I had to move away from him.

Who is a South African?
I conclude with a quote from Michael Bleby’s latest op-ed on the violence: “South Africa will only free itself from the sort of violence it faces right now when its practical policies of redress and affirmative action are informed by a level of thought that does not seek to define what it means to be South African, but permits an evolving definition. This is the only way to resolve the inherent contradiction of a society trying to alter the imbalances of the past 350 years while fostering a sense of national identity that embraces all people and that all people embrace. The alternative is too horrific to contemplate: Today it’s South Africans versus Zimbabweans. Tomorrow it’s white South Africans versus black South Africans and the following day it will be Zulus and Xhosas fighting each other. This is a downward spiral.”

Jared Odero


  • Mugabe says it

    “South Africans will kick down a statue of a dead white man but won’t even attempt to slap a live one. Yet they can stone to death a black man simply because he’s a foreigner” – President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe

  • Mugabe says it

    SA’s xenophobia shame: ‘burning man’ case shut

    BEAUREGARD TROMP | 19 februari, 2015 15:30

    Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave was beaten, stabbed and set alight in Ramaphosa informal settlement almost seven years ago.

    Yet nobody has been arrested for his gruesome murder and, thousands of kilometres away in Mozambique, his wife still awaits justice.

    Nhamuave, who was 35 years old, became known as the “burning man” and photographs of his agonising death brought the horror of South Africa’s xenophobic violence to the world.

    In all, 62 people were killed in little more than two weeks.

    Police closed the case on October 27 2010 after concluding that there were no witnesses and no suspects. A single sheet of paper summarises detective Sipho Ndybane’s progress. “Suspects still unknown and no witnesses,” he wrote.

    Yet when the Sunday Times visited Ramaphosa three weeks ago, we tracked down an eyewitness who pointed out two of the main suspects in the crime.

    The woman sees the killers at least once a week. Her recounting of details surrounding Nhamuave’s death has remained consistent for nearly seven years, when she first revealed details of the murder.

    At the time she was willing to speak to police. “But the police never came here. Now, I don’t trust the police here,” she said.

    This week, we followed Sipho*, one of the men pointed out by the witness, as he sauntered about Ramaphosa, dressed in a black T-shirt, drinking casually from a water bottle. Twice he passed the spot where Nhamuave was killed, never breaking his stride.

    On May 18 2008, Sipho was part of a mob intent on chasing foreigners out of the settlement. That afternoon the crowd caught two men carrying blankets and clothing with them.

    “He’s the one who stabbed him. He stood over him when he was down and stabbed him, like this,” said the witness, motioning downward with a two-handed grip.

    The mob then wrapped their victim in his own blankets and tried to set him alight. They failed.

    Bheki*, another attacker, walked to the traffic circle, where a fire was burning, and returned with a flaming piece of wood, which was placed under the man.

    “Then it worked. He was on fire,” the witness said.

    A doctor at Tambo Memorial Hospital said at the time that Nhamuave would have died as fire scorched his lungs.

    ‘South Africans burnt him alive’

    The spot where Nhamuave was killed is now a bustling taxi rank with new paving. Across the road, less than 10m away, Bheki sells knick-knacks to the locals.

    “I see them almost every day and I remember what they did to that man. Nobody wants to say anything, but I can never forget,” said the witness.

    When Nhamuave’s three children ask about their father, their mother replies: “South Africans burnt him alive.”

    The inquest into the Mozambican’s death reveal that statements were taken from policemen who only responded months and sometimes years later. The police docket on Nhamuave consists largely of testimony by officers who first noticed a raging fire.

    “While we were patrolling the Ramaphosa informal settlement we noticed a man who was burning,” wrote Captain Ntombengle Kunene on March 20 2010, nearly two years after the incident.

    The postmortem, done on May 27 2008 at the Medico-Legal Laboratory in Germiston, does not reveal a cause of death. Forensic anthropologist Dr Patrick Randolph-Quinney labelled it “pathetic”.

    “It’s a very thin, cursory postmortem,” he said.

    The University of the Witwatersrand lecturer and researcher has more than 20 years of experience in the recovery, identification and analysis of human skeletal remains and specialises in trauma analysis.

    He said the obvious things had been pointed out, such as lacerations to the head, but there had been no proper examination of the rest of the body, which may have revealed a fuller picture of the kind of trauma Nhamuave suffered.

    More than 1000km away in Mozambique, Nhamuave’s wife, Hortencia Masangwa (below), heard for the first time on Monday that the case had been closed.

    “I am hurt because my children don’t have a father and I would have liked to see someone take responsibility for orphaning my children,” she said.

    Her youngest, nine-year-old Viriginia, constantly asks for details about the father she never knew.

    Hortencia shows her the only three pictures she has of Nhamuave.

    Since her husband’s death, the family have stumbled from one crisis to the next.

    With her small crop she hardly manages to feed the children.

    Late last year, looting rebels complicated matters, forcing the family from their home in the central part of the country. Crops withered and the family went hungry, trying to eke out a living by selling firewood by the side of the road.

    “Sometimes I go two weeks without selling the wood and I have no money for something as basic as sugar to make tea. Then I have to tell my children: ‘Mama doesn’t have money for food.'”

    Her children walk 10km to school barefoot and have been given until April to buy exercise books or stay at home.

    Hortencia is especially proud of her eldest, Alfabeto, who is now in Grade 12.

    “He looks a lot like his father. When I look at him I think of his father, Ernesto. The only memory I have of him are my children.”

    Henk Strydom, senior prosecutor at Boksburg Magistrate’s Court, confirmed that the investigation was closed. Police spokesman Solomon Makgale said the docket was still open.

    ‘Burning man’ timeline:

    May 18 2008: Ernesto Nhamuave is burnt alive by a mob in Ramaphosa, east of Johannesburg.

    May 27 2008: Nhamuave’s cousin tracks down his body to the Germiston mortuary. He is identified by a defect on his toe.

    May 27 2008: Autopsy performed at Germiston Medico-Legal Laboratory cannot determine cause of death.

    June 3 2008: Nhamuave’s body arrives home in Mozambique. He is buried the same day.

    September 17 2008: Investigating officer Sipho Ndybane files his first and only report on the murder. He writes there are no suspects and no witnesses.

    March 20 2010: Final statement is gathered from a police captain who helped to extinguish the fire engulfing Nhamuave.

    October 27 2010: The investigation into the murder is officially closed.

    *Not their real names

  • Why black South Africans are attacking foreign Africans but not foreign whites

    The attacks on migrant shop owners in Durban this week reminds us the position of foreigner in South Africa is a complex one. After decades of isolation from the rest of the African continent, and the world, during apartheid, South Africa finally opened up to the rest of world in 1994.

    Under apartheid, South Africa’s immigration mirrored the narrow mindedness and prejudice of the National Party. Several laws made visiting or living in South Africa unpalatable to many. Particularly those of non-European descent.

    At the dawn of the “new South Africa” in 1994, the country became home to many outsiders playing a key role in offering protection and refuge to people who had suffered unfavorable conditions in their home countries.


    At the heart of South Africa’s complex problem with xenophobia is the loaded meaning of the term “foreigner.” Pejoratively, the term “foreigner” in South Africa usually refers to African and Asian non-nationals.

    “Other” foreigners—particularly those from the Americas and Europe go unnoticed—they are often lumped up with “tourists,” or even better, referred to as “expats.”

    It is this reason why the South African government says its hesitant to call the recent attacks on foreign nationals as xenophobic.

    Is it “Afrophobia” or xenophobia?

    Many South Africans look at the attacks on enterprising African immigrants from Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique, Nigeria and Malawi—often running shops, stalls and other businesses in the informal economy—and resolve that the current attacks on foreigners are more afrophobic, than xenophobic.

    Many ask: “Why is it that a Somali man can run a shop in a township, get raided and beaten up, while a white immigrant in town continues to run a restaurant full of patrons?”

    It is this delineation that breeds ground for denial.

    While this sentiment may be correct—that the violent expression of xenophobia in South Africa is meted out mainly against African immigrants – it is unhelpful to resolve the crisis that has left many foreign nationals homeless, tortured and dispossessed.

    While we can ascribe the attacks to sentiments of Afrophobia, we must be willing to agree that the attacks are fuelled by a sense of hatred, dislike and fear of foreigners – and that is xenophobia. And given the fact that foreign nationals from Pakistan and Bangladesh have been profiled in this wave of attacks, it will soon no longer be enough for South Africans to cry “Afrophobia.”

    A hangover from the past, fueled by present

    South Africa’s xenophobia reflects the country’s history of isolation. As a country at the Southern most tip of Africa, South Africans are fond of referring to their continental counterparts as “Africans” or “people from Africa.” Many business ventures, news publications and events—aimed at local audiences—routinely speak about “going to Africa.”

    Of course this narrow-mindedness, suffered by both black and white South Africans, is a by-product of apartheid. For black people, apartheid was an insidious tool used to induce self-hate and tribalize people of the same race. For white South Africans, apartheid was a false rubber-stamp of the white race as superior.

    It is these two conceptions that gave rise to the myth that South Africa is not part of the African continent, but a different place that just happens to be on the tip of the continent.

    Long after the scourge of apartheid, it is also clear that we’re fueling this prejudice in the present.

    It remains to be seen whether South Africans will break away from these shackles, and rid themselves of this horrid prejudice anchored in our past, but seemingly fuelled by our present.

  • Xenophobia is deep in South Africa
  • black on black violence
  • Zulu King kicks foreigners out
  • Why so much hate?

    Achille Mbembe writes about Xenophobic South Africa

    April 16, 2015

    “Afrophobia”? “Xenophobia”? “Black on black racism”? A “darker” as you can get hacking a “foreigner” under the pretext of his being too dark — self hate par excellence? Of course all of that at once! Yesterday I asked a taxi driver: “why do they need to kill these “foreigners” in this manner?”. His response: “because under Apartheid, fire was the only weapon we Blacks had. We did not have ammunitions, guns and the likes. With fire we could make petrol bombs and throw them at the enemy from a safe distance”. Today there is no need for distance any longer. To kill “these foreigners”, we need to be as close as possible to their body which we then set in flames or dissect, each blow opening a huge wound that can never be healed. Or if it is healed at all, it must leave on “these foreigners” the kinds of scars that can never be erased.

    I was here during the last outbreak of violence against “these foreigners”. Since then, the cancer has metastized. The current hunt for “foreigners” is the product of a complex chain of complicities — some vocal and explicit and others tacit. The South African government has recently taken a harsh stance on immigration. New, draconian measures have been passed into law. Their effects are devastating for people already established here legally. A few weeks ago I attended a meeting of “foreign” staff at Wits University. Horrific stories after horrific stories. Work permits not renewed. Visas refused to family members. Children in limbo in schools. A Kafkaian situation that extends to “foreign” students who entered the country legally, had their visas renewed all this time, but who now find themselves in a legal uncertainty, unable to register, and unable to access the money they are entitled to and that had been allocated to them by Foundations. Through its new anti-immigration measures, the government is busy turning previously legal migrants into illegal ones.

    Chains of complicity go further. South African big business is expanding all over the Continent, at times reproducing in those places the worse forms of racism that were tolerated here under Apartheid. While big business is “de-nationalizing” and “Africanizing”, poor black South Africa and parts of the middle class are being socialized into something we should call “national-chauvinism”. National-chauvinism is rearing its ugly head in almost every sector of the South African society. The thing with national-chauvinism is that it is in permanent need of scapegoats. It starts with those who are not our kins. But very quickly, it turns fratricidal. It does not stop with “these foreigners”. It is in its DNA to end up turning onto itself in a dramatic gesture of inversion.

    I was here during the last “hunting season”. The difference, this time, is the emergence of the rudiments of an “ideology”. We now have the semblance of a discourse aimed at justifying the atrocities, the creeping pogrom since this is what it actually is. An unfolding pogrom to be sure. The justificatory discourse starts with the usual stereotypes — they are darker than us; they steal our jobs; they do not respect us; they are used by whites who prefer to exploit them rather than employing us, therefore avoiding the requirements of affirmative action. But the discourse is becoming more vicious. It can be summarized as follows: South Africa does not owe any moral debt to Africa. Evoke the years of exile? No, there were less than 30,000 South Africans in exile (I have been hit with this figure but I have no idea where it is coming from) and they were all scattered throughout the world — 4 in Ghana, 3 in Ethiopia, a few in Zambia, and many more in Russia and Eastern Europe! So we will not accept to be morally blackmailed by “those foreigners”.

    Well, let’s ask hard questions. Why is South Africa turning into a killing field for non-national Africans (to whom we have to add the Bengalis, Pakistanis, and who knows whom next)? Why has this country historically represented a “circle of death” for anything and anybody ‘African’? When we say “South Africa”, what does the term “Africa” mean? An idea, or simply a geographical accident? Should we start quantifying what was sacrificed by Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Tanzania, Zambia and others during the liberation struggle? How much money did the Liberation Committee of the Organization of African Unity (OUA) provide to the liberation movements? How many dollars did the Nigerian state pay for South Africa’s struggle? If we were to put a price tag to the destructions meted out by the Apartheid regime on the economy and infrastructures of the Frontline states, what would this amount to? And once all of this has been quantified, shouldn’t we give the bill to the ANC government that has inherited the South African state and ask them to pay back what was spent on behalf of the black oppressed in South Africa during those long years? Wouldn’t we be entitled to add to all these damages and losses the number of people killed by Apartheid armies retaliating against our hosting South African combatants in our midsts, the number of people maimed, the long chain of misery and destitution suffered in the name of our solidarity with South Africa? If black South Africans do not want to hear about any moral debt, maybe it is time to agree with them, give them the bill and ask for economic reparations.

    Of course we all see the absurdity of this logic of insularity that is turning this country into yet another killing field for the darker people, “these foreigners”. But it would not be absurd, since the government of South Africa is either unable or unwilling to protect those who are here legally from the ire of its people, to appeal to a higher authority. South Africa has signed most international conventions, including the Convention establishing the International Penal Tribunal in The Hague. Some of the instigators of the current “hunting season” are known. Some have been making public statements inciting hate. Is there any way in which we could think about referring them to The Hague? Impunity breeds impunity and atrocities. It is the shortest way to genocide. If these perpetrators cannot be brought to book by the South African State, isn’t it time to get a higher jurisdiction to deal with them?

    Finally, one word about “foreigners” and “migrants”. No African is a foreigner in Africa! No African is a migrant in Africa! Africa is where we all belong, notwithstanding the foolishness of our boundaries. No amount of national-chauvinism will erase this. No amount of deportations will erase this. Instead of spilling black blood on no other than Pixley ka Seme Avenue (!), we should all be making sure that we rebuild this Continent and bring to an end a long and painful history — that which, for too long, has dictated that to be black (it does not matter where or when), is a liability.

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