Xenophobia in South Africa: The Poison of Apartheid


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

Twelve-year-old Hector Pieterson was one of several thousand black students in Soweto, 'sister city' to Johannesburg and home to hundreds of thousands of black South Africans, who sang, marched and danced their way, some with placards, in protest on a chilly winter morning in June of 1976.

Despite participating in a peaceful protest, with teachers on hand to ensure discipline, Hector was among the many dead by the end of that fateful day, shot by police in a brutal crackdown, marking what is seen historically as the beginning of the end of apartheid.

Police intervene as unrest continues in Johannesburg

The system of structural discrimination against South Africans of black or mixed-raced heritage by the white Afrikaner regime, which was called apartheid, Afrikaans for 'separateness', and which was imposed progressively from 1948 until its dismantling after sustained resistance domestically and internationally, including an armed struggle, is as major contributor to the 'culture of violence'.

But it is by no means the only underlying factor contributing to the propensity of many South Africans to resort to violence sooner than later when dealing with problems – there is a long preceding history of inter-tribal conflict, in part instigated by colonial overlords, but also due to tribal migrations and arising conflicts which had nothing to do with white settlers.

Apartheid’s major contribution to the 'culture of violence', which makes South Africa a consistent 'contender' for the top spot when it comes to murder, rape and inter-personal violence rates, is that it emboldened a violent response to heartless, racist oppression and inured 'ordinary' South Africans to the idea that violence is 'normal' and sometimes 'necessary' or 'justified'.

The 1976 Soweto student protests, which quickly spread nationally and represented to that point the most focused collective response to and rejection of centuries of oppression and abuse, began peacefully, but ended bloodily – a typical story for this violence-blighted land. 

Hector and his fellow students were protesting the implementation of a decree made two years earlier, that they would receive at least half their tuition in Afrikaans, the much-hated 'language of the oppressor' in the apartheid state, which was built on the back of black workers' labours after the pro-Afrikaner National Party came to power in 1948.

The language decree was a failed bid to prevent the precipitous decline in usage and preference for Afrikaans among black South Africans, then without any formal political representation at all, and segregated at every level in society from the privileged and empowered white minority constituting about 15 percent of the total population.

Black students were not tutored in their mother tongues, there being at least eight in common use, but in English for the most part.


A local taxi driver is pushed around during a confrontation with foreign nationals in the Johannesburg Central Business District on April 15, 2015.

Photo credit: Marco Longari | AFP

Before their language protest, outrage had been brewing in the general populace, especially after the apartheid state had shown its true brutal face in the Sharpeville massacre of March 21, 1960, which left 69 dead -- including eight women and 10 children -- and at least 180 wounded.

In that incident, police officers had opened fire on a group of several thousand black people protesting oppressive pass laws that severely limited their movements and subjected many to humiliating and abusive treatment on a daily basis, merely because they were not white.

The Sharpeville Massacre, as the incident was subsequently labelled, was the result of an initially peaceful protest against the racist policies of apartheid, which was mishandled by police who resorted to live rifle and machinegun fire to quell what had become an increasingly explosive confrontation with the protesters.

The excessive violence of the apartheid state evident in this incident much accelerated South Africa's growing international isolation as a pariah.

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The anniversary of the Sharpeville Massacre has since been remembered globally every March 21, the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

By the mid-1970s, the apartheid state had honed its oppression, and repressive tactics against anti-apartheid elements, including of the armed wing of the then exiled and banned African National Congress (ANC), now the ruling party, in most of South Africa.

South Africa xenophobia

Thousands march against the recent wave of xenophobic attacks in South Africa through the streets of Johannesburg on April 23, 2015, as demonstrators sang songs denouncing xenophobia and carried banners that read "We are all Africans".

Photo credit: Gianluigi Geurcia | AFP

Those efforts had forced the anti-apartheid struggle into the shadows and underground, but there was a mounting resentment among ‘ordinary’ South Africans, including so-called ‘coloureds’ (mixed race) and even white communities, against the dehumanisation and brutalities inherent in apartheid.

Given the impending Afrikaans teaching decree's imposition, black students in Soweto attempted on June 16, 1976, to mount a protest march, drawing participants from several Soweto schools initially, with more joining as the protest action took on a life of its own.

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Panicked, the apartheid authorities unleashed their para-military anti-riot policing elements on the students, using live ammunition and killing hundreds – at least 600, by independent accounts, having died by the end of June 1976, when the student protests that had spread throughout Soweto and then to other black settlements across the country, finally came to an end.

But the underlying resentment and anger remained, and by the early 1980s, there were sporadic student protests and stay-aways ongoing around the country.

This low-level resistance slowly took on a more organised form as South Africa's nascent union movement joined in with formal protests, usually also met with violent oppression.

In 1985, the resistance brewed up into an ongoing 'township rebellion' which eventually became a movement matching in South Africa calls from the anti-apartheid movement globally for the end to racist rule, the release of political prisoners like Nelson Mandela and equality for all.

In its desperation to hold off the inevitable, the apartheid regime under now-dead President P W Botha used the age-old tactic of 'divide and conquer', as so frequently employed by successive colonial regimes.

 anti-xenophobia activist

An anti-xenophobia activist stands chained in front of a banner, as thousands of people get ready to march against the recent wave of xenophobic attacks in South Africa through the streets of Johannesburg CBD on April 23, 2015. A fresh round of attacks has been reported in Limpopo Province. 

Photo credit: Gianluigi Geurcia | AFP

In the South Africa of the 1980s, there were few black 'allies' to be found to help apartheid’s authors – but for one grouping, mainly older generation migrant workers on the mines and in industry around the industrial hub of Johannesburg, who lived in cramped and unsafe conditions in single-sex ‘hostels’.

While no fans of apartheid, these migrant workers, mainly Zulus, were also at odds with the ANC in exile, partly because a leading traditional Zulu figure, Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi and leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), had differed with the ANC on the use of sanctions and disinvestment as anti-apartheid tools.

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Buthelezi held that the real victims of such efforts to bring down apartheid would mainly be the black people the anti-apartheid movement was supposed to be helping.

Using the growing split between Inkatha and the ANC, once quite close allies, the apartheid state cosied up to some on-the-ground Zulu leaders willing to work with it, forming a loose alliance against the ANC and setting the scene for some of the worst bloodshed of the colonial and apartheid eras.

From 1985, the township rebellion went into full-blown mode, spreading from the greater Cape Town area, where it had first erupted off the back of the ongoing schools’ protests and the broadening union-based anti-apartheid movement, to the rest of the country by 1986, when a national emergency was declared.

Given that the apartheid state was fighting for its life, and knew it, little was off the table in terms of its tactics, which included the supply of weapons and ammunition to elements which were directly opposed to the ANC politically.

Sometimes called ‘wit doeke’, due to their use of white strips of cloth to identify themselves to each other, groups of men armed with machetes and automatic rifles moved through ‘ANC-controlled’ black settlements, killing any who they came across and who were construed by such mobs as being pro-ANC.

This black-on-black fighting was at its most intense in the areas around Johannesburg where the single-sex migrant worker hostels, from which these violent groups drew their members, were located, as well as in the rolling green hills and fields of KwaZulu-Natal, home to the Zulus (whose collective name means 'sky') and who account for around 22 percent of the total S Africa’s population.

The contention between Zulus in KwaZulu-Natal become so intense in the period from 1989 through to about 1993 such that both ANC and Inkatha leaders had repeatedly to intervene to reduce the slaughter.

Clashes between wit doeke and ‘comrades’, this term donating usually younger anti-apartheid activists aligned with the ANC, were ongoing from 1986 until shortly before the 1994 all-race elections.


Rights activists and protesters scuffle with South African police officers during a march against xenophobia in the Johannesburg Central Business District on February 12, 2015.  

Photo credit: Mujahid Safodien | AFP

These clashes were frequently extremely bloody and brutal, very nearly causing the country to descend into outright sectarian violence.

Communities were torn apart as the younger generations, usually armed with both traditional and modern weapons, battled their elders for 'control' of areas and settlements, while the apartheid authorities pointed to the mayhem saying that this was why they had imposed racial controls on blacks who, according to this line of propaganda, were unable to conduct themselves in a civil manner – even within their own tribal groupings.

The tactic was extremely effective in giving unwilling foreign governments space to move around growing demands for full sanctions of the Pretoria government and complete disinvestment from the South African economy.

It also reduced the internal anti-apartheid movement's impacts, and gave the apartheid state much ammunition in its stated claims of being the difference between a modern state, albeit not offering all citizens voting and movement rights in their homeland, which worked and which was a bulwark in Africa against communist advances in newly independent states.

To this day, the divisions engendered deliberately by successive colonial administrations and then, subsequently employed by the apartheid state in a more intensive form, exist in South African society.

Tribal divisions are not obvious, especially in the more cosmopolitan urban centres, but they still exist – and are quickly evident when economic stresses have caused upsurges in ‘foreigners are to blame’ sentiments in several bouts since apartheid's demise.

Given that xenophobia is a common manifestation around the world among stressed populations, its existence in South Africa in the 21st century is no surprise, but the history of this country also means it is far more common here than in most parts of the world.

Early European examples of xenophobic sentiment are found in the Ancient Greek denigration of foreigners as ‘barbarians’, expressing the belief that the Greek people and culture were superior to all others, and the subsequent conclusion that ‘barbarians’ were naturally meant to be enslaved.

That attitude informed much of the colonial experience over some 400 years, as well as underpinning the horrors of the African slave trade.


People take cover from a stun grenade and tear gas after a skirmish between locals and foreign nationals as thousands of people take part in the "peace march" against xenophobia in Durban, South Africa, on April 16, 2015.

Photo credit: AFP

But in South Africa, it was given a specific political purpose, being tolerated and encouraged in order to pit blacks against each other, thereby to support the racist system of apartheid, and its effects were so deeply entrenched that prejudice against ‘the other’, by whatsoever nationality or even tribal grouping, is never far off when conditions are ripe for another round of xenophobia.

The Inkatha-ANC contentions continue to this day, occasionally breaking out into political violence which persists at a low level in KwaZulu-Natal in particular and, still, centred on Zulu-dominated migrant hostels in the greater Johannesburg area.

While there have been incidents of various kinds ongoing with almost no stop as the apartheid era died out and democracy came to South Africa, the character of xenophobic outburst has morphed into a more ‘political’ than tribal or racial aspect.

The willingness of South Africans to resort to violence out of frustration or anger has become so embedded in the country and its people that, since around 2013, there have been repeated violent so-called ‘service delivery’ protests in almost every informal and some formal settlements around the country.

Covid brought that to a halt briefly at a time when protests had been running at about 13 a day, that high level of social discord due to the effects of the baleful ‘Zuma years’ hurting the poorest people the most, with services such as water provision, electricity, road works, policing, sewage and waste removal frequently not working for months to years on end.

Increasingly, these protests have had violent elements, and to the casual observer, may appear almost identical to protests launched against apartheid authorities during the township rebellion of the 1980s.

In the 1976 student uprising, two whites died, merely for being white and in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Despite the end of apartheid and the dawn in 1994 of an all-race democracy with equality of all and human rights embedded in its constitution, inter-race violence has never left the country entirely, even in the ‘golden era’ of the Mandela presidency, which ended in 1999.

And anti-African feelings among black South Africans have actually grown over the years since the country returned to the international community after the end of apartheid.

This is because, for many living in poor circumstances, every foreigner represents one less job available – and in the last several years of rapidly rising unemployment, the correlation of increased social stress with outbreaks of xenophobia is almost one-to-one as people look for someone to blame for their plight.

With apartheid gone, sometimes whites are seen as the problem, a picture much underwritten by former President Jacob Zuma and his supporters.

But much more frequently, it is the members of the African diaspora who are blamed.

Many of these people have seen in South Africa something akin to the USA, where the 'huddled masses' from mainly European countries found a haven, and to which ‘African equivalent’ many Africans have migrated as conditions in their homelands have deteriorated or become untenable, politically and economically.

Particularly affected are Zimbabweans, with at least two million, by unofficial count, now living and working in South Africa, having fled Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe.

The Zimbabweans, easily able to cross the Limpopo River that divides South Africa from Zimbabwe, either legally or not, have been given a special dispensation by the host authorities, but that is being withdrawn and most will become illegals by the year's end without an exemption granted to allow their working in South Africa.

Others from as far afield as Somalia, Cameroon, the DRC and Rwanda, have also entered South Africa, frequently through informal channels and daily run the risk of deportation.

But these people, when spoken to about their perilous and tenuous lives in South Africa, almost to a person, insist that whatever the risks, living in South Africa is relatively a major improvement on what they had endured before.

One group of migrants, tired of harassment by both authorities and South African citizens, briefly occupied the UNHCR offices in Cape Town in 2020, before being chased off by riot police and then occupying a city centre church.

Eventually, in scenes that could have come from the apartheid era three decades prior, police using stun grenades, teargas, water cannons and rubber bullets broke up this group and ended its protest.

They had been calling on the South African and international authorities to get them out of South Africa to go "anywhere but home", which created a severe headache for Cape Town and national officials since this was always an impossible demand to meet.

Numerous of these people are today being housed by the Cape Town City authorities in makeshift tented camps, their fate still blowing in an ever-shifting wind of uncertainty.

While temperatures on the streets of Cape Town's sprawling informal settlements have fallen to a quiet simmer, with many foreigners tolerated without incident, the same is not true in the greater Johannesburg region, where a Zulu term, Dudula, meaning "push back", has come in the last few months to represent the face of yet another wave of xenophobia.

Even avowed ‘pan Africanist’, Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema, recently contributed to anti-foreigner feelings when he visited restaurants in Alexandra's famous Mall of Africa – scene of recent violence between foreign stall holders and locals chasing them out and taking their goods – to “check if the ratio between South Africans and foreign nationals is balanced”.

Malema's move is more akin to ‘riding a rising tide of anti-foreigner feelings’ than being a prime mover of such sentiment, but his involvement as a populist leader is not helping the resolution of a situation that saw police having to move in to restore calm yet again.

In social media, there has been much comparison made between Malema and ‘Operation Dudula’ leader Nhlanhla Lux Dlamini, who routinely appears in public dressed in camouflage and tactical assault gear, and who claims not to be xenophobic, only intent upon rooting out undocumented foreigners, which means in practical terms, the great majority of Africans not born in South Africa.

Many employers prefer hiring the ostensibly ‘harder working’ – but also completely dependent – foreigners from places like Zimbabwe and Malawi to fellow black South Africans, which was part of Malema's point.

Operation Dudula, which started its operations in Soweto late last year, has been met with mixed reaction to its operations.

For his repeated involvement in what authorities construe as incitement, Dlamini was on Friday, March 25, 2022, arrested.

Some Twitter users have commended Dlamini, who, they said, unlike Malema, is dedicated to defending South Africans who have lost jobs or business opportunities to undocumented foreign nationals.

Others have come to Malema’s defence.

For his part, Malema has nuanced his position on foreign nationals and what had previously been an unbridled support for open South African borders for all Africans.

Delivering his Human Rights Day speech on Monday March 21, 2022, Malema blamed Operation Dudula for targeting the "wrong people" for the "ANC problems".

"They are targeting the easy targets in their own brothers and sisters. Why doesn't Operation Dudula target land? Why not go to farms and attend to farmers targeting the lives of farmworkers?

"Be like us in the EFF, and confront the white man directly and do not be scared. Protect your African brothers and sisters. Black people are one," said Malema.

Whether or not that ‘walkback’ on foreigners and a swivel back to Malema's favoured hate objects, being those who manifest what Malema calls "white tendencies", which is code for whites, will calm the rising xenophobic tensions is to be seen, but it seems unlikely.

The scene is set and the timebomb is counting down to what seems to be another inevitable bout of xenophobic violence as South Africa, under anti-corruption reformist President Cyril Ramaphosa, struggles to get back on its economic feet.