Xenophobia and its discontents in South Africa

South Africa is one of the most violent countries in the world, especially towards immigrants.

South Africa Necklacing
Vigilante justice is common in impoverished parts of South Africa [Nombulelo Damba/WCN]

Despite South Africa’s recent wealth and economic success, immigrants from Somalia and elsewhere looking for opportunity in the country have little chance of attaining success and comfort.

These immigrants, who are unable to find work in South Africa’s formal economy, often live in informal settlements rife with structural xenophobia, thereby creating highly violent and combustible conditions.

Daily news coverage in South Africa includes horrific crimes against women and children. One recent such incident involved two women, one 82 and the other 21, who were gang-raped and brutally hacked to death. The ubiquitous rape of women and children in South Africa led Interpol to designate the country as the “rape capital of the world“. In 2009, 28 percent of men in South Africa admitted to committing rape.

But South Africa’s violence is not limited to rape. As we approach the 20-year anniversary of the fall of apartheid, South Africa remains one of the most violent societies in the world. A video posted to YouTube on June 1 shows the gruesome killing of a Somali refugee man, with young men and boys kicking and hurling bricks and stones on the shattered body of the victim as pedestrians and cars passed by.

The inhumane murder of 25-year-old Abdi Nasir Mahmoud God triggered Somali demonstrations against the South African government. Violence against migrants and refugees in South Africa is often framed as “xenophobic”, and it was no surprise to see Somali demonstrators carrying banners and slogans that made this point. Coverage of this violence frequently underscored how the plight of refugees and migrants in South Africa threatens the dreams of the rainbow nation, as envisioned by anti-apartheid leaders such as Nelson Mandela.

But while migrant and refugee victimisation in South Africa cannot be denied, attention must be paid to South Africa’s own chasm between the haves and have-nots. Evidence from seven years of research in these informal communities provides evidence that the victimisation Somalis and other foreigners confront is context-specific and cannot be divorced from the generalised violence experienced by poor residents of these informal settlements.

Desperate migrants, distressed communities

Somalis and other migrants in informal housing areas are often unable to enter the formal economic sector, and run small stores called spazas instead. A young Somali man who moves to Johannesburg may head to Mayfair, a heavily Somali neighbourhood, and seek employment from within the community. Successful Somali entrepreneurs who own multiple spaza shops in townships and informal settlements may employ him. The young man may head to work in a spaza – which often consist of caged, corrugated-iron shacks – serving customers he fears through metal barriers. He may have a machete, a gun or at least a club beside him. He eats, sleeps, defecates and prays with one eye open to watch out for potential robbery and violence from local thugs.

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The young man takes this job, which permits him to send home $50 to $100 a month to families left behind and to dream of a better life. The man may save $1,000 to $2,000 within a year or so. Two to three men may combine their savings and eventually start their own business. If they survive the first few years, these men will eventually employ the new refugee arrivals while they settle in Mayfair or Bellville, where they will rarely confront physical violence.

For many of these Somali refugees, their entrepreneurial spirit and the lack of other options leads them to poor black South African residential areas. Mainstream economic industries neglect these informal settlements. The only goods and services that poor residents in these areas would be able to obtain requires travel to grocery stores such as Shoprite and PicknPay, found in central townships and city centres. Somalis, Mozambicans, Bangladeshis and other foreign-born entrepreneurs go into these informal settlements and start successful small enterprises that free the locals from travelling for basic needs. Foreign entrepreneurs have thus done something that South Africa’s established business community never dared to do.

But many of these informal settlements are unfortunately no-go zones, rarely serviced by the police, mostly with unpaved roads and plagued by crime, poverty and unemployment. 

A divided nation

In a speech on “Reconciliation and Nation Building” that the then Deputy President Thabo Mbeki gave at the National Assembly in Cape Town on May 29, 1998, he stated: “This reality of two nations, underwritten by the perpetuation of the racial, gender and spatial disparities born of a very long period of colonial and apartheid white minority domination, constitutes the material base which reinforces the notion that, indeed, we are not one nation, but two nations.”

The white/black racial divide Mbeki referred to is now accompanied by the increasing class divisions within the black majority population. The millions of government housing units, known as “Mandela houses”, in most townships also represent a major accomplishment of post-apartheid South African governments. These uniform small brick houses are the most visible fruits of the liberation reaped by an important segment of the South African black population, creating what may be considered working-class neighbourhoods now representing a second nation in South Africa.

Another key accomplishment of the South African post-apartheid governments has been the refugee and migrant law reforms undertaken since 1994. South Africa now hosts the largest number of asylum seekers in the world. Groups such as Somalis are granted refugee status, with freedom of movement, work permits and access to basic services such as healthcare.

Desperate refugees and migrants unable to find economic opportunities in the formal economy seek their South African dreams in dangerous informal settlements.

Somali enclaves in Mayfair in greater Johannesburg, Bellville in Cape Town, and Korsten in Port Elizabeth showcase how little differentiated these refugees can become from the mainstream diverse populations seeking their livelihoods in urban centres. Successful Somali entrepreneurs who belong to the earliest cohort are adamant that they rarely confront any violence or xenophobia in their urban settings. Some of these entrepreneurs run clothing stores in the heart of central business districts in Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Johannesburg. These Somalis are part and parcel of the middle-class South African nation and their experiences could not be further from those working and living in informal South African settlements.

Violence against migrants and refugees is thus mostly concentrated in certain areas. This represents a third nation in post-apartheid South Africa. This is one that you will never see when travelling on the high-speed Guatrain from Pretoria to Sandton. And this nation is where migrants and refugees are most vulnerable to vicious attacks, where more than 1,000 Somalis have been killed since 1997. This is where law and order is absent.

But this violence in informal settlements does not discriminate, and here is where xenophobic rhetoric fails to take context into account. Five South African men were necklaced in informal settlements in Khayelitsha in the first five months of 2012. Necklacing refers to mobs forcing a tyre around the neck and shoulders of an alleged robber, rapist or gang member, dousing him and the tyre with petrol and setting him on fire while the community watches. In New Brighton in Port Elizabeth, four men were necklaced in one month in 2011.

Such violence is invisible to South African and migrant elites who escape to their highly securitised compounds; those fortunate enough to belong to these middle and upper classes live in gated communities serviced by private security personnel now estimated to be double the size of South Africa’s police force.

Shared cruel destinies

But desperate refugees and migrants unable to find economic opportunities in the formal economy seek their South African dreams in dangerous informal settlements. This desperation brings them into contact with a community at war with itself. The image of a community in Khayelitsha that burns its own sons, with many watching the gore, testifies to the indifference that the stoning of a Somali prompts among these communities.

Somalis around the globe mourned Abdi Nasir Mahmoud God. Presidents of two nations discussed his case. But let us also hope that his brutal demise contributes to a national awareness of the thousands of poor, invisible South Africans who live in informal settlements.

Demonisation of the South Africans who killed God exempts the South African government from addressing the communal crisis in these areas. Labelling violence against migrants as simply xenophobic diverts attention from the context of the violence, the generalised criminality that is a daily reality for those in informal settlements. The brutality forces us to confront the limited access that many South Africans have to the social, economic and political rights enshrined in the country’s progressive constitution.

Foreign-born spaza owners’ security in informal settlements cannot be addressed outside of the violence subjected to other victims in these communities. These residents perceive vigilantism as the only option to protect themselves from criminals, and at times new comers, that they perceive as reaping the benefits of liberation denied them. As misplaced as this perception is, all in this setting suffer – regardless of citizenship.

Cawo M Abdi is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota and a research fellow at the University of Pretoria in South Africa.