Xenophobic attacks are never spontaneous

What you need to know:

  • Xenophobic societies regard ‘outsiders’ as intrusive enemies, thieves robbing the indigenous populations of their growth opportunities and rightful future
  • In 1939, about 8.3 million Jews were obliged to register with all local authorities in Germany and other Nazi occupied territories.
  • Initially, Heinrich Himmler , had ordered that the Jews should be captured and murdered by firing squad.

Xenophobia is a sad indicator for a morally bankrupt, violent and ignorant society. Xenophobic societies regard ‘outsiders’ as intrusive enemies, thieves robbing the indigenous populations of their growth opportunities and rightful future.

Violent xenophobic outbursts are not spontaneous in any society. They are often designed, triggered and directed by key manipulative leaders who harvest votes and political mileage from the murder and the suffering of a group.


In 1939, about 8.3 million Jews were obliged to register with all local authorities in Germany and other Nazi occupied territories. Every Jew had to fill in hundreds of details in some 40 pages or so. The details included everything about their lives, domicile, health, relatives and wealth (properties, bonds, jewellery…everything).

The propaganda against the Jews was planned and carefully implemented:

Not many people realised that this was the preamble of the systematic murder of all Jews ordered by Hitler in German controlled lands. Jews (men, women and children) were arrested and transported to heavily guarded camps. They were told they would go into the East and help build Germany.

The Dutch bishops realised they could not step aside and watch. They wrote an anti-Nazi pastoral letter, which was read in all parishes after Sunday Mass, on 26 July 1942. In retaliation for this meddling of the bishops, all Christians of Jewish ancestry were also arrested, and most of them gassed with the rest in Auschwitz.

Initially, Heinrich Himmler (head of the SS), had ordered that the Jews should be captured and murdered by firing squad. Apparently, Himmler himself supervised such massacre. But killing is tough, and he felt so sick that from then on the killing became more sophisticated. They used a poisonous gas, Zyklon B, and cremated or buried the corpses in mass graves.

Rename the sin and keep on sinning:

In today’s world, we still rename evil to make it palatable and fashionable. Just like happened in Germany under Hitler, xenophobia in pre-1994 South Africa was also dressed up in a legal suit and renamed ‘Apartheid’. It sounded better, like an acceptable governance policy; it quietened consciences. Although the goal was not extermination, it aimed at self-destructive forced segregation.
Apartheid bankrupted South Africa’s moral fibre. Africans were robbed of education, opportunities and even hope. Apartheid inculcated a sense of inferiority and superiority through categorisation, and this still remains.
Twenty-five years later, South Africans are full of unmet expectations which were promised and legislated: basic services, commodities, housing, education and employment. They feel entitled but have nothing and their low levels of tolerance spark violently at the smallest provocation. They are the product of big expectations, poor governance and deep frustrations.
Their only survival tactic was violence, and this is what they are sadly inflicting now on their fellow Africans. We are watching South Africa’s self-destruction, and their political leaders’ response has been heartbreakingly lukewarm and populist.

The Buyelekhaya campaign:

Patrick Muthunzi is Kenyan by birth and South African by fate. He has been a successful CEO of prominent South African multinationals. He first went to South Africa in 1994, where he married and spent more than 24 years.

Pat says that the hatred for brother Africans was triggered long before 1994, when the mining companies decided to hire migrant workers from the SADC region as opposed to organised and unionised local labour. South Africans felt left out and this brought about a deep resentment.

David Matsinhe recounts in “Apartheid Vertigo: The Rise in Discrimination Against Africans in South Africa”, that in December 1994 and January 1995, the residents of Alexandra Township in Johannesburg decided to clean Makwerekwere (derogatory term used by Black South Africans to describe non-South African blacks) off their streets.

The local leaders of the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP) encouraged and oversaw this clean up. The campaign was called Buyelekhaya (go back home) and it was criticised by a Human Rights Watch report in 1998.

The ANC and SACP self-appointed vigilantes blamed foreigners for crime, unemployment and rape. Today, foreigners are also blamed for the outburst of cheap and lethal drugs plaguing every other township home. The most common and lethal one is Nyaope (also called whoonga), made from a cocktail of “rat poison, heroin and antiretrovirals”.

Xenophobic killings on the rise

In the first decade of the 2000s, xenophobic attacks left as many as 67 people dead; 21 of those killed were South African citizens. In several informal settlements, around Johannesburg, attacks were aimed at preventing immigrants (mostly Zimbabweans) from making claims to obtain government housing.

In 2006, there were brutal attacks on Somali, Ethiopian and Pakistani business owners. Many premises were torched and several foreigners were killed. These attacks were renewed in 2015. Again, people died and businesses were torched; a number of immigrants returned to their countries and some governments repatriated their citizens.

Quite a number of Kenyan professionals have moved away from South Africa, even those who acquired South African citizenship. Still there are around 4 million immigrants (no one knows the exact figure) in South Africa, most of whom are Zimbabweans.

The hopelessness of a Union without teeth:

Today’s South African xenophobia is lethal and painful; it is the explosive mixture of hopelessness, disadvantage, ignorance, envy and malice and violence. It is not about to end, and more so with the lukewarm political discourse we are witnessing.

Pat tells me that the current situation is anarchy at levels never seen before. The attacks on South African businesses in Nigeria and other African countries is making it worse. It is escalating the war activities in Johannesburg and its environs.

Unless the situation is controlled we are about to witness a class war, followed by a genocide.

Sadly, the African Union’s response has been largely ignored for it comes from a body which lacks teeth…just like the defunct League of Nations, which only made lukewarm complaints against the Nazi when millions of Jews were being murdered.

Possible solutions to this mess

It is complex. In the long term, South Africa will need to curb illegal immigration and be more demanding when issuing work permits for unskilled workers. Corruption is at the root of it.

Also, fight the rampant corruption within immigration authorities and the police force. It is also essential that the government improves delivering services in municipalities. Some townships have not had electricity since July.

Other potential solutions include the urgent development of clear and well-articulated government communication policies around job creation. Matters are not well explained and few ministers can transmit meaningful ideas coherently.

Short term, increase police presence and foot patrols in critical towns. It is normal to go for weeks without police presence in some neighbourhoods.

In the end, South Africans have many unaddressed challenges. Too many desperate households in a rich country. Who is the enemy? George Orwell gives us the irrational answer, “Two legs bad, four legs better.”

Prof Luis Franceschi
Founding Dean – Strathmore Law School
[email protected]