Killings Fields – Xenophobic Attacks In South Africa

Reflections From The South: Killings Fields – Xenophobic Attacks In South Africa And Implications For African Unity And Solidarity.

After the xenophobic violence of May 2008 that left more than 60 people killed and more than 100 000 displaced, there was hope and high expectations – in view of the response to the violence and numerous interventions by the government, political parties, religious bodies, human rights organizations and civil society in general – that never again will such incidents of violence, brutality and intolerance be witnessed again in South Africa.

However recent xenophobic attacks, such as the brutal killing of a Zimbabwean national, Farai Kujirichita in Johannesburg in January 2011 which received much publicity in national and international media and the stoning to death of another Zimbabwean, Godfrey Sibanda, in the Limpopo Province where more than 3000 Zimbabweans were also forced to flee their homes following attacks and the burning of some of their houses show that a lot more work still needs to be done to address this violence and its underlying causes.

Xenophobic violence and its continuation today, is a far cry from a country where the resolve to ‘live in peace and harmony, free from fear and want’ is part of its constitutional frame work and the vision for a land of freedom as envisaged by Nelson Mandela in his inaugural address on May 10, 1994 as South Africa’s first democratically elected president where he said:

“Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world. Let Freedom reign.”

Thabo Mbeki made similar sentiments in his, ‘I am an African’ speech at the adoption of South Africa’s 1996 Constitution on May 8, 1996, when he said:

“I am born of a people who would not tolerate oppression. I am of a nation that would not allow that fear of death, torture, imprisonment, exile or persecution should result in the perpetuation of injustice.”

Much of the xenophobic violence in South Africa which is mainly perpetrated by poor black South Africans against poor African migrants is caused by competition over jobs and access to basic services such as housing between these two groups. The large number of African migrants and asylum seekers flowing into South Africa in pursuit of a better life and freedom has certainly put a strain on the country’s limited resources and services and has led to resentment and hostility amongst many poor black South Africans who are already angry and unhappy with the high levels of poverty and unemployment – estimated at 48% and 25% respectively – they are subjected to.

As a result of these migration flows, South Africa, according to UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), has become the world’s leading destination for asylum seekers, most of whom are Zimbabwean. South Africa is reported to have had 20 000 applications in 2005, 50 000 in 2007, 264 000 in 2008, over 200 000 in 2009 and 264 000 in 2010. Asylum seekers in South Africa unlike in many parts of the African continent are allowed to seek employment and to access basic services.

Allegations and perceptions of corruption in the provision of government housing to foreigners, the preference for undocumented Africa migrants by many employers over poor black South Africans and the belief in some circles that foreigners are responsible for much of the crime in poor black areas have also contributed to the violence and attacks against African migrants. Criminal elements also take advantage of these allegations, perceptions and tensions in pursuit of their nefarious agendas.

The inadequate appreciation by many South Africans of the ideals of African unity and solidarity and the role many African countries and their people have played in South Africa’s struggle against apartheid is another factor that contributes to the violence and that makes it easier for many black South Africans to show hostility and resentment to fellow Africans instead of compassion and understanding. The culture of violence in South Africa, a legacy of the brutality of apartheid and colonialism in part, cannot be discounted in the on-going violence – several writers like Steve Biko and Frantz Fanon have reflected upon the manifestations of self-hatred and violence within the oppressed.

The continuation of this violence that has caused and continues to cause much misery and suffering to mainly poor African migrants – the majority of whom have left their own countries to avoid political persecution and economic and social hardships – has adverse implications for South Africa’s image and reputation as a leading democracy in the African continent. This also raises several concerns about the effectiveness of numerous efforts and the commitment of the South African government to combat the violence.

Government’s Response

There are several measures that should have been taken by the government to effectively address the violence against African migrants which might also have helped to avert the 2008 violence and minimized the current continuation of these attacks today. The adoption of a comprehensive national action plan to combat xenophobia and all its underlying causes and manifestations is one such measure that should have long been adopted and implemented by the South African government.

The need for a plan to effectively address xenophobia and violence against Africa migrants arose immediately at the birth of the post-apartheid South Africa in 1994 and took greater momentum and urgency around 1998 when undocumented African migrants were killed in a train between Pretoria (the capital city of South Africa) and Johannesburg (the biggest city and economic hub of South Africa and Africa). 

This incidence and many other attacks against African migrants in the country led the South African Human Rights Commission and the South African office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHRC) to start a national campaign against xenophobia in 1998 – the Roll Back Xenophobia Campaign. The Declaration and Programme of Action of the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance that South Africa hosted in Durban in 2001 from August 31 to September 8, also urged states to ‘establish and implement without delay national policies and action plans’ to combat xenophobia and related intolerance.

There was however no comprehensive plan in 2008 when the xenophobic violence that shocked the whole nation and world occurred. There was still no such plan by the time the Durban Review Conference took place in Geneva in April 2009.

The absence of such a plan in view of the many incidents of xenophobic violence in South Africa before and after the 2008 nationwide violence is difficult to comprehend and indicates either a denial of the problems and challenges of xenophobia or unwillingness on the part of government to effectively address this phenomenon.

The ratification and implementation of a number of international human rights instruments designed to address the challenges of xenophobia and related human rights issues is another measure that should and could have been taken by the government. The failure by the government since 1994 to sign and ratify the International Convention on the Protection of All Migrant Workers and Members of the Their Families adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 18, 1990 and which entered into force on July 1, 2003, is also to comprehend. 

The same applies to the failure to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Punishment after signing it on September 20, 2006. The implementation of relevant provisions of the Option Protocol could contribute towards the protection of migrants and asylum seekers from torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman and degradation punishment that they are often subjected to many detention centers of host countries.

The enactment of legislation to combat hate speech and hate crimes the two significant features of xenophobia is another important measure in the fight against xenophobia that government should have adopted long time ago. The failure by the South African government to enact this type of legislation is another worrying concern about the government’s approach to the challenges of this violence. 

The concern equally applies to the failure and possible unwillingness on the part of the government to fully implement the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination legislation more than ten years after it was adopted in 2000- this would have allowed to the South African Human Rights Commission to publish an annual report on the challenges of racism and xenophobia amongst other forms of unfair discrimination. 

This report that would have to be submitted to parliament would have generated the necessary public debate and interest on xenophobic violence. The legislation would also have required public and private bodies to development equality plans designed to promote equality and prevent unfair discrimination in South Africa – an intervention that would have certainly contributed to the fight against xenophobia.

The inadequate response to the violence, including the detection and prosecution of the perpetrators of the violence and the prevention of the violence by the South African criminal justice system and national security agencies also contribute to doubts about the government’s commitment to address the violence and in making it one of its major priorities. The low success rate in the prosecution of many of the perpetrators of the violence creates a culture of impunity that encourages the continuation of the violence that leaves a sense of injustice on the part of the victims.

The inadequate respond by the government to recommendations of human rights bodies like the South African Human Rights Commission in relation to many of these failures and challenges is another worrying indication.

Role of human rights bodies like the South African Human Rights Commission

There is no doubt that numerous human rights bodies such as the South African Human Rights Commission and other organs of civil society have played an important role in response to xenophobia and violence against African migrants in particular and have contributed to measures that have ensured that the violence does not get out of control. These bodies have also influenced many of the interventions by government in relation to the violence. The commendable role of these bodies together in the 2008 xenophobic violence including the condemnation of the violence and support and assistance to the victims of the violence helped to turn the tide against the violence and curbed it from spreading to many other parts of the country.

The continuation of the violence since 1994 and beyond 2008, however, shows the need for more commitment amongst these bodies and better co-ordination of their roles and activities in order to help to put an end to this violence. These bodies should also put more pressure on government to show more commitment in addressing the violence and a better response to its obligations. 

The South African Human Rights Commission, for example, could have used its constitutional mandate and statutory powers to compel the government to take necessary measures such as the adoption and implementation of a comprehensive plan to combat xenophobia and related violence and intolerance. Numerous civil society organizations could have also put pressure on the South African Human Rights Commission to act accordingly. Litigation against government and pressure on parliament are some measures that could have been taken by the South African Human Rights Commission and other bodies and its difficult to understand why this has not been the case.

The inadequate response by government to the recommendations of the South African Human Rights Commission in its report on the 2008 xenophobic violence is another issue the Commission and organs of civil society could have attended to more vigorously.

Towards a South Africa with less Xenophobic Violence and related Intolerance

South Africa, and its government and people, has to find a meaningful and effective solution to the problem and challenges of xenophobic violence against African migrants in particular. The government in this regard has to show greater commitment and urgency in responding to this violence and should adopt and implement a comprehensive national action plan to combat xenophobia and also discharge its many related national and international obligations.

Recommendations made by bodies like the South African Human Rights Commission some of which have been re-stated by Jorge Bustamante, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants during his visit to South Africa early this year, should be taken more seriously by government – the visit by UN Special Rapporteur and the report he will table to the UN General Assembly later this year should hopefully trigger a better response from the government and encourage other stakeholders in South Africa to put necessary pressure on the government.

While much of the underlying causes of the violence-such as poverty, unemployment and competition for limited social and economic resources and services – have to be addressed; ordinary black South Africans that interact with poor black African migrants and asylum seekers on daily basis and who are often caught up in the ensuing xenophobic conflict need to be helped to find better and constructive ways of dealing with the challenges brought about by the influx of these migrants. Attacking fellow Africans will not improve the situation and simply hardens attitudes on both side and has a severe impact on social and economic needs of the country.

Education and awareness on the rights of migrants and asylum seekers in line with South African’s constitutional prescripts and regional and international human rights obligations and in the context of the importance of the ideals of African unity and solidarity and the role many African countries and their people played in South Africa’s liberation struggle are crucial in this regard. On the contribution of Africa and Africans to South Africa’s liberation struggle, Nelson Mandela in his first address at the Organization of African Unit as the first president of a democratic South Africa said:

“When the history of our struggle is written, it will tell a glorious tale of African solidarity…It will tell a moving story of the sacrifices that the peoples of our continent made, to ensure that the intolerable insult to human dignity, the apartheid crime against humanity, become a thing of the past. It will speak of the contributions of freedom- whose value is as measureless as the gold beneath the soil of our country-the contribution which all of Africa made, from the shores of the Mediterranean Sea in the north, to the confluence of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans in the north.”

Bodies like the South African Human Rights Commission should thus intensify their work in the fight against xenophobia and its underlying causes and should also put necessary and appropriate pressure on government and other relevant stakeholders to play their part.

What the continuing incidents of xenophobic violence also highlight is the need for South Africa and South Africans to do more in helping to promote democracy, good governance and economic and social development in neighboring states and in the region as a whole-this would help to reduce the flow of migrants and asylum seekers in into the country and thus hopefully lessen the violence and intolerance. South Africa in this regard, cannot afford to be an island of democracy and prosperity in a sea of economic, social and political misery and suffering due to poor governance and inadequate respect for human rights in many parts of the region-this is not sustainable and the waves of despair will soon engulf the island! On this point, one of the founder members of the Pan African Congress of Azania and its first president, Robert Sobukwe, said in his opening address of the inaugural convention of his organization in April 1959: 

“South Africa is an integral part of the indivisible whole that is Afrika. She cannot solve her problems in isolation from and utter disregard of the rest of the continent.”


Failure to address the root causes of xenophobic violence will lead to more violence and create space for demagogues who thrive in chaos and who will not hesitate to use current challenges and hostilities towards African migrants for their own interests. South Africa can therefore not afford to fail in this regard – it carries the hopes and dreams of many for a democratic, peaceful and prosperous region and continent.

South Africa and South Africans should do everything possible to end xenophobic attacks against fellow African migrants and ensure, as desired by Mandela in his inaugural address for all South Africans, that African migrants, refugee and asylum seekers in particular, will ‘be able to walk tall, without fear in their hearts, [and] assured of their inalienable rights to human dignity- [in] a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”

Nevertheless, the challenge of xenophobia is not unique to South Africa and should not be South Africa’s own problem to resolve alone. It is also a regional phenomenon which has been caused in the main by political, economic and social challenges in the region that have not been adequately addressed. It is also a continental and global challenge that needs interventions and solutions beyond South Africa. South Africa should however, play a greater role in addressing these challenges at national, regional and global levels.

Efforts to address xenophobia and related violence and intolerances in South Africa and the many lessons learnt and experiences gained should hopefully lead to more effective strategies and interventions that could also be helpful to address the challenges of xenophobia in the region and African continent as a whole.

Tseliso Thipanyane

Independent consultant on human rights, democracy and good governance and former chief executive officer of the South African Human Rights Commission

by Tseliso Thipanyane

Tseliso Thipanyane, independent consultant on human rights, democracy and good governance and former chief executive officer of the South African Human Rights Commission. Tseliso is Director-Editorial and Marketing at AfrobeatRadio. He can be reached at