Xenophobia and criminality drive South Africa’s dilemma over foreigners


A refugee talks with a Cape Town City Law Enforcement official as hundreds of people from various African countries are evicted from the makeshift camp they are occupying around the Central Methodist Mission in Cape Town on March 1, 2020.  A fresh round of attacks has been reported in Limpopo Province. 

Photo credit: Rodger Bosch | AFP

What you need to know:

  • The apparent cause of the dispute which led to the death of teenager Tokologo Letageng, 15, was reported to be over a “match stick”, or “stick of matches”, which his mother had sent him to get from a nearby spaza shop, illustrating how little it takes for violence to break out in high-stress, poverty-stricken communities.
  • Despite numerous inquiries by Nation.Africa, no police spokesperson for the province was available to comment on the accuracy of published and broadcast media reports on the incident, nor of whether any arrests had been made of looters following the teenager’s death.
  • The incident is the latest in a growing list of outbreaks wherein foreigners living and working in South Africa have been the focus of mounting citizen anger and resentment.

Another round of xenophobic attacks on foreign shop owners hit a remote settlement in South Africa’s far north following a violent dispute between a foreign shopkeeper and a local youth, leaving the latter dead.

The response of the informal community of Schoonoord, in the usually sleepy town of Jane Furse in Limpopo province on the Zimbabwe border, was immediate and violent.

Throngs descended on immigrant-owned ‘spaza’ shops and ransacked them in a looting spree that was only brought under control by police long after numerous shops had been emptied of all goods.

Community leaders said they were reacting to the “murder” of the teenage boy in a dispute over “match sticks”.

Foreign shop owners said they feared for their lives and called for police protection.

This was not the first such looting in Limpopo recently, with immigrant-owned spaza shops looted in Musina, near the South Africa-Zimbabwe main border post, earlier this year.

The latest looting prompted immigrants to flee the settlement.

Looting of shops

SABC News reported that Anwar Safeer, whose shop was looted, called for increased police protection in the area.

Safeer said: “We heard that [locals] were looting, so we tried calling the police [but] they didn’t come, so [community members] looted all our stock.

He added: “Many shops have been looted and broken, so many shops … they have taken the stock … they looted all our stock.”

Police restored order as the looting began to spread to nearby areas. A Somali shop owner subsequently appeared in court on a murder charge but did not plead and therefore cannot be named.

Angry residents claimed police had not “helped” them after the teenager was allegedly assaulted and that they wanted all foreigners out of their area.

“We want the foreign nationals to go, they are selling us expired goods and are killing our children – and the police are not assisting us. They must go,” said a resident of Schoonoord, which means ‘beautiful place’.

The issue trended on social media, with South Africans from across the political spectrum sharing their views on the looting in Limpopo.

Many blamed poor policing, others the influx of foreigners, with another group accusing the ruling African National Congress (ANC) of allowing hostilities between foreigners and South Africans to develop into physical confrontations.

'Match stick' dispute

The dispute that led to the death of Tokologo Letageng, 15, apparently arose from “match sticks” that his mother had sent him to buy from a nearby spaza shop, illustrating how little it takes for violence to break out in high-stress, poverty-stricken communities.

The police did not respond to numerous inquiries from Nation.Africa on the accuracy of published and broadcast reports on the incident, nor on whether any looters had been arrested.

The incident is the latest in confrontations between foreigners living and working in South Africa and angry, resentful citizens.

When asked, most citizens, including activists opposed to “illegal foreigners” – meaning hundreds of thousands of Africans born elsewhere and living and working in South Africa (SA) either without relevant authority or with forged documents – insist they are not xenophobic.

Some of the foreigners are political refugees fleeing oppression, but most are ‘economic fugitives’ of failed economies, such as that in Zimbabwe.

There are an estimated 3.5 million Zimbabweans living and working in SA under a special dispensation allowing them to bypass visa requirements that pertain to citizens of other African states.

Many come to SA to work, holiday or most commonly, as in the case of Zimbabweans, to buy goods for resale across the border, where the economy has all but collapsed.

But the actual number of Zimbabweans in SA, whose special status will cease at year’s end, is unknown.

Employers were recently warned by the SA authorities to be ready to deal with the changed status of Zimbabwean citizens once their special status, which was granted as an ‘emergency relief measure’, ends.

Minister berates patient

In a related issue, the Limpopo provincial health minister, Dr Phophi Ramathuba, was recently caught on video berating a woman from Zimbabwe while the woman was waiting to go into surgery, for which she had been scheduled in a hospital in that province.

The issue caused an uproar and triggered calls for the minister to be fired for what were taken to be xenophobic comments, which she has repeatedly denied making.

The minister was seen questioning the patient as to why she had “come to South Africa” for treatment, like so many other citizens of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) have done, according to the minister.

In the video, Dr Ramathuba tells the patient that “her country” (Zimbabwe) must take responsibility for her health issues and not SA, adding that Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa “does not contribute” to Limpopo’s health budget.

“You are supposed to be with Mnangagwa. You are killing my health system. When you guys (foreigners) are sick you just say, ‘let’s cross the Limpopo River, there’s (someone) there who’s running a charity department’,” she said.

“In Limpopo (province), we have 5.7 million people, 91% do not have medical aid, they are dependent on the state. Instead of using the budget for what it’s meant for … You are not even registered anywhere; you are illegal … This is unfair.”

The patient attempts to thank the minister in the video for the treatment she is to receive, but the gesture is rejected.

Minister condemned

Subsequently, Dr Ramathuba defended her remarks, saying that it was simply a fact that SA’s health system was being heavily pressed by the many foreigners using it and that she was not xenophobic.

The video trended on social media and the issue drew widespread comment.

The national health ministry subsequently criticised the regional minister’s comments as “inappropriate”, while a Zimbabwean government spokesman used similar language, saying the issue should have been raised at the government-to-government level.

Rights activists pointed out that Dr Ramathuba had ignored SA’s human rights-oriented constitution, which requires that anyone, regardless of legal status, must be treated if they present themselves at a government health facility.

While these latest incidents have again raised the spectre of violent anti-immigrant riots, which have occurred frequently in recent years, most South Africans, when asked in surveys, say they are not in principle against foreigners living and working here.

But they strongly oppose the “free entry”, as many see it, of those prepared to pay off corrupt border officials or simply wade across the nearly dry Limpopo River to get into SA.

This view, when combined with incidents such as the death of the youth allegedly killed over “matches” by a foreign shop owner, easily leads to vigilante-style community actions.

Vigilante action in low-income communities hard-pressed by extremely high violent crime rates is also on the rise.

Crime Statistics 

The latest crime statistics from the South African Police Service (SAPS), for the first quarter of the 2022/23 financial year to June, show why so many ordinary South Africans feel they must take the law into their own hands, as authorities seem incapable of reining in criminals, especially organised gangs.

Police minister Bheki Cele, in presenting the crime rates, said there had been success in reducing the incidence of some types of crimes, including sexual offences, common assault and assault with the intent to inflict grievous bodily harm.

But there were increases in other categories of violent crime, and the number of murders “remains worrisome”.

Some 6,424 people were murdered in SA in the period under review, amounting to an average 70.6 murders a day, an increase of 664 killings (+12%) from the same period last year.

Against the backdrop of tough economic times and high crime, these two sociological aspects being linked through research to each other, it was “not surprising” that some South Africans were blaming foreigners, or their government, or both, said one crime specialist, who spoke to Nation.Africa on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of their role.

“There is a growing link between these somewhat understandable outbursts of public unhappiness, from ‘service delivery protests’, through attacks on immigrants, especially seemingly thriving shop owners, and where the goods involved in the looting, which also frequently accompanies these events, end up,” said the expert.

2 emergent factors

“There are two emergent factors: existing gangs who are willing to act as ‘fences’, buying looted goods for their own use or resale, since that is what they are already doing with their own business and house-breaking activities.

“And there is a new rather worrying trend wherein organised criminal groups appear to be instigating people to go out and riot, so that they can take advantage and loot high-end electronics and other retail outlet goods, under cover of general mayhem, with the police completely overwhelmed and unable to do more than arrest a few looters and restore a semblance of order.”

The expert added that these “xenophobic” attacks “are best understood as incidents of criminal elements, along with desperately poor people, attacking the easiest targets, with foreigners unfortunately being the easiest of all”.

Many of the foreigners, the expert said, “are not here legally and feel they cannot go to the police” and those who have done so are “treated with disdain or even extorted by corrupt police officers”.

“Under the circumstances, the situation with foreign nationals under attack and being targeted is unlikely to improve any time soon,” the expert said.