"Too Little Too Late" Threatens South Africa's Fragile Democracy

by Loren Landau

Research teams of the SSRC's Migration Program are comparing the everyday religious lives of international migrants who have settled in South Africa, Malaysia, and Great Britain. They met in Johannesburg in early May and took a trip to Alexandra, a township on the edge of the city where a migrant from Kenya, Susan Ngechu, runs a ministry that assists the township's poorest people, many of whom are single mothers (see sidebar). A few days later, rioters wielding guns and iron bars and chanting "kick the foreigners out" rampaged through the sprawling township and attacked immigrant settlers. Ironically, as Loren Landau points out below, the anti-immigrant movement, motivated in large measure by South Africa's persistent poverty, threatens the contributions that immigrants like Pastor Susan can offer.

More than a year ago, the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa (CoRMSA) requested that the Human Rights Commission (HRC) host public hearings on attacks against foreigners living in South Africa and on the failure of our nation’s leaders to address xenophobic hate speech and acts of violence. But we were told that the HRC’s agenda was set for the year and that they would see what they could do. Clearly, they have not done enough.

Over the past week, South Africa has been shaken by anti-foreigner violence across Gauteng Province. Attacks on immigrants are nothing new; these are but the most recent episodes in an accelerating display of xenophobia as more and more migrants have arrived from neighboring Zimbabwe in hopes of fleeing hunger and repression.

The focus on these recent immigrants is, however, a red herring. A majority of the migrants in the township of Alexandra, where the violence began, have been living here for two or three decades. Rather, the trigger has been largely economic. There is growing resentment against those foreigners who have taken over the taxi industry and the spaza shops (small stores) in some of Johannesburg’s townships. Shopkeepers and taxi owners have used gangsters and others to mobilize mobs against their foreign competitors.

Though embarrassed by the violence, many South Africans privately confess their belief that South Africa needs to get rid of its foreigners by any means necessary. They cite the grievances poor South Africans have over unemployment, housing, and services, and mention the upsurge in violent crime. While the grievances of South Africans are real and must be addressed, foreigners should not be scapegoated for the nation's social ills--its high unemployment, acute housing shortages, and appallingly high crime rate--which have resulted in part from the failings of President Mbeki’s government.

Since the end of apartheid 14 years ago, Africans from all over the continent—Zimbabweans, Mozambicans, Somalis—have migrated to South Africa, attracted by its relative prosperity and by one of the world's most liberal immigration and refugee policies. In general, these new arrivals have been good for South African business and, on balance, their participation in our economy—our mines, our farms, our homes—has helped to generate jobs for South African natives. And, although there are foreigners involved in crime, there is no evidence that they are in any way responsible for the surge we have seen in national crime rates. In fact, some surveys have suggested only 2-3 percent of arrests involve migrants. If anything, foreigners seem underrepresented in crime—and are more likely to be victims rather than perpetrators.

Let’s be clear: stopping migration is neither possible nor is it a solution. So what should be done?

There are no easy answers, but the first step should be a sustained, coordinated government response involving the presidency, HRC, and the departments of Provincial and Local Government (DPLG), Justice, Safety and Security (which oversees the police service), and Home Affairs.

It is worth noting that when CoRMSA approached DPLG and other government departments more than a year ago about crafting a response to the violence then, it was shuffled from one office to another, with almost nothing getting done. Other calls to take a proactive response have been similarly ignored. Instead, officials have allowed the hatred to simmer. By reacting only when people murder, rape, and plunder, they in essence have endorsed mob rule.

Government officials are at long last chiming in with leaders of civil society in speaking out against xenophobia as akin to racism, sexism, and homophobia. But it's a case of too little, too late. Minister Charles Nqakula’s claim that there is no "crisis" because the violence is not happening all around the country only illustrates how deep the government has its head in the sand. Meanwhile, notes have been placed under foreigners’ doors in Capetown, and threats are being made to foreigners elsewhere. Perhaps even more worrying are the occasional attacks on minority South African groups, which more than anything else does not bode well for the future.

To keep the country from descending into deeper division and chaos, the South African government must go further than issuing a public condemnation of the violence taking place. They must also begin a frank discussion at the national level, involving councillors and police in every township, about why the poor remain impoverished and criminals continue to control our streets. This will mean exposing corruption among counsellors and senior officials. It will also mean accepting responsibility for much of what has gone wrong with our society. And it must not stop there. Local officials and police who have provoked the recent attacks or have done nothing to forestall them—I am thinking of the police in Olifantsfontein who arrested foreigners fleeing the scenes of violence despite an order from the Minister of Home Affairs—must be disciplined for those acts.

Unless we want to fight our political battles with firebombs, knives, and sjamboks instead of ballots, the government must do everything in its power to punish those preaching and practicing national, race, or colour discrimination. Only then will all national groups feel protected and will South Africa be in a position to realize the social transformation it so desperately needs.

The above contents represent the personal views and opinions of the author, which are not necessarily the views and opinions of the Social Science Research Council. We welcome input from readers. Send your comments to communications@ssrc.org.


Loren Landau is the director of the Forced Migration Studies Programme at Witwatersrand [Wits] University in Johannesburg and head of the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa (CoRMSA). He serves as an international advisor to the SSRC’s project on the Religious Lives of Migrant Minorities, run by the Migration Program.


Called by God from Kenya, at first somewhat against her will, Pastor Susan Ngechu came to Johannesburg's impoverished Alexandra township, where she was "touched by the plight of the people who had lost hope and faith in their lives."  She began a fellowship of seven people "teaching them the Word of God and praying for them."  As her congregation grew, they started a twice-a-week feeding program with donated food and distributed clothes and toys.  "I would like to see a prosperous community...I would like to see projects begin that would enable to alleviate poverty," she says, adding that, "when we work together as one, a shared burden is an easy burden."

Photo by Ann David, a member of the SSRC's research team.

Published on: Thursday, May 22, 2008