Afrophobia is growing in South Africa. Why? Its leaders are feeding it.

Cyril Ramaphosa and Lindiwe Sisulu
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, right, and the Minister of International Affairs, Lindiwe Sisulu

On 14 September, Cyril Ramaphosa was booed as he spoke at Robert Mugabe’s funeral in Zimbabwe. Forced off script, the South African president apologised again for the most recent eruption of violence against African migrants in his country. Last month, twelve people were killed when South African citizens attacked foreign-owned businesses, mainly in Johannesburg’s central business district. Of the deceased, ten were reportedly South African nationals and two from Zimbabwe.

As with previous cycles of similar attacks, the official response following the violence veered from dismissing it as simply “criminal” and “nothing to do with xenophobia” to half-heartedly repeating Africa’s role in anti-apartheid struggle. Eventually, President Ramaphosa appointed a special envoy to visit a host of African countries in order to apologise and reassure them that “South Africa is committed to the ideals of pan-African unity and solidarity”.

As the envoy continues its mission, Africa’s leaders must hold the South African government responsible. While there is a long history of violence against African migrants arising out of the failure to successfully decolonise post-apartheid South Africa, these recent citizen-led attacks must be seen as the logical response to divisive rhetoric from the government and political parties.

Afrophobia across political divides

Before and since the May 2019 elections, officials and political leaders from across party divides have tapped into existing anti-African sentiment and helped create an environment so hostile to African migrants that citizens have increasingly felt emboldened to turn to violence.

In the run-up to the elections, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) mobilised off the back of Afrophobia. In a March 2019 rally, for instance, President Ramaphosa declared to cheering crowds: “Everyone just arrives in our townships and rural areas and sets up businesses without licenses and permits. We are going to bring this to an end. And those who are operating illegally, wherever they come from, must now know”. Speaking to the press, ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule warned of foreign criminals, saying: “If they are undocumented when crime happens, you can’t even get these people…[This is about] the safety of the country. It is not being opportunistic.”

Other party leaders such as Mmusi Maimane, leader of the main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), and Mosia Lekota of Congress of the People (Cope) have also manufactured an atmosphere of crisis. They have made similar claims that foreigners are flooding the country and undermining its security and prosperity, despite the fact that migrants make up about 1.6 million of South Africa’s 55 million people,

Things did not improve after the elections. Following the ANC’s victory, for example, Aaron Motsoaledi was appointed as Home Affairs Minister despite facing accusations of Afrophobia. In November 2018, Motsoaledi in his role as Health Minister claimed South Africa needed to re-examine its immigration policies, saying: “Our hospitals are full, we can’t control them…. [migrants] cause overcrowding, infection control starts failing.” This February, his health department then came under fire after at least two of its provincial departments ordered hospitals to charge all foreign patients the maximum rate for services regardless of their financial status.

In Johannesburg, another politician repeatedly accused of Afrophobia also doubled down after the elections. In August, the city’s mayor Herman Mashaba, a member of the DA, oversaw a police raid on foreign-owned shops in the central business district. This led to 600 African migrants appearing in court, grouped according to their nationalities. In an interview, Mashaba denied the raids targeted foreigners before going on to complain that the Home Affairs Department has failed to deal with the influx of undocumented African migrants.

Mashaba’s comments about inner city Johannesburg’s African migrants closely echoed those of other senior officials. In a 2017 press conference, for example, then Deputy Police Minister Bongani Mkongi of the ANC stated that it was “dangerous” that the city’s suburb of Hillbrow was made up of “80% foreign nationals”. He warned that the whole of South Africa could one day become foreign and that a future president could be a foreigner. A video of these remarks resurfaced and went viral around the time of attacks on African migrants in KwaZulu-Natal in March 2019. After this spate of violence, African ambassadors called on the South African government to censor Mkongi and Mashaba for their Afrophobic comments.

In September, the violence broke out again in Johannesburg and Pretoria’s central business districts. In its aftermath, the former leader of the opposition Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), Mangosuthu Buthelezi, pleaded with Johannesburg residents. “What we have seen in the past few days is unacceptable,” he said. “It is not the first spate of attacks but it must be the last.” Some in attendance walked away, shouted him down or even fired shots in the air. Earlier that day, protesters in eastern Johannesburg had marched carrying weapons and singing: “Foreigners must go back to where they came from”.

The current leader of the IFP, Velenkosini Hlabisa, appears much less concerned with quelling tensions, recently declaring: “All foreign nationals who are within the country and have skills but are not documented must be documented and retained. Those without skills but are looking for jobs – the government must assist them to return to their original countries.”

In fact, the only political party that has consistently spoken out against attacks on African migrants in unequivocal terms has been the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). Speaking in early September, its leader Julius Malema announced: “We call on our fellow South Africans to stop the violence against other poor people in our communities. Xenophobic violence will never resolve the problems our country face because they were never caused by foreign nationals in the first place.”

The complicity of political and business leaders

In debates about these attacks, the blame is typically placed on poor black South Africans. But Malema’s remarks speak to fact that much responsibility for the current situation lies with the post-apartheid government’s failure to successfully decolonise the country. Although the ANC removed the formal vestiges of apartheid through a new liberal constitution after coming to power in 1994, its “non-racial” politics have seen their black government preside over a white-dominated economy that frequently ranks among the most unequal countries in the world. In the first 17 years after apartheid, the wealth of the top tenth grew 64% while that of the poorest 10% stayed still. Both South Africa’s actual and relative poverty drive tensions.

Importantly, business leaders are also complicit in stoking Afrophobic sentiment. Many South African employers, such as farm-owners, routinely exploit undocumented migrants with low pay and poor working conditions. These practices often undermine existing labour laws and increase tensions between locals and migrants. It’s no coincidence that the recent violence occurred at a time when unemployment has reached a record 29% and calls for land and “radical economic transformation” are growing louder.

However, these economic drivers of citizen-led violence against African migrants are inextricable from South Africa’s anti-black history of citizenship. Before apartheid’s end, black South Africans were not citizens of the country but of segregated “Homelands” or “Bantustans”. While denying black people citizenship, the apartheid government promoted immigration from white countries. The ruling white settler minority saw “their country” as separate from the African continent.

Despite the ANC’s lip-service to pan-Africanism, this legacy of South African exceptionalism remains today in what scholars such as Tshepo Madlingozi refer to as the “neo-apartheid” era. It is not uncommon to hear even black South Africans use to the term “Africans” as a way to refer to African foreign-nationals as a category separate from themselves. Likewise, business leaders such as the management of Shoprite Holdings often talk of expanding “into Africa” as if they are not already in it.

It is then unsurprising that the vast majority of those attacked have been the African migrants who make up 75% of South Africa’s foreign-born population. For these reasons, the attacks and the sentiment that drives it cannot be generalised as xenophobia, but must be specifically understood as “Afrophobia”.

South Africa’s Afrophobia has deep roots in the country’s history of apartheid and colonialism. Sadly, the leaders of the neo-apartheid era have not only failed to confront these legacies but dangerously exploit them for their own cheap politicking.