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South Africa:  Xenophobia Or ‘Afro-Asiaphobia’? – By Jideofor Adibe


It’s estimated that btw 2008 & 2015, about 350 people lost their lives in xenophobic attacks; American/European foreigners are seen as tourists or expats

The recent upsurge in anti-immigrant attacks in South Africa has renewed concerns about the episodic wave of what some people call xenophobic attacks in that country. 

It is estimated that between 2008 and 2015, about 350 people  lost their lives in such ‘xenophobic’ attacks in the country.   But is it really right to call the attacks  ‘xenophobia’?

A starting point is to understand that in South Africa, the term ‘foreigner’ has a pejorative meaning and usually refers to African and Asian nationals.  

Other foreigners, especially Whites from America and Europe, are usually seen and treated as “tourists” or “expats”.  

Following from this, some have rejected the notion that what we have been witnessing in dramatic scales in South Africa since the dismantling of the Apartheid regime  in 1994 could be called ‘xenophobia’ – in the sense in which the term is traditionally defined as “the unreasoned fear of that which is perceived to be foreign or strange”. 

Some have suggested calling it ‘Afrophobia’ (hatred of Africans) because the attacks target essentially enterprising African immigrants from Somalia, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique and Malawi who often own shops and other businesses in the country’s informal economy.  

Afrophobia will however not capture the full picture since nationals from Bangladesh and Pakistan are equally profiled and targeted.  For this, I will suggest that a more apt terminology is ‘Afro-Asiaphobia’.

Mandela’s country has unfortunately a long history Afro-Asiaphobia. 

Though the Apartheid governments made no bones of their dislike of non-white visitors, anti-foreigner feelings paradoxically worsened after the dismantling of the Apartheid in 1994. 

Even before the 2008 orgy of violence in which an estimated 62 people lost their lives, there had been pockets of violence against mainly Blacks and Asians. 

For instance according to a 1998 Human Rights Watch report, immigrants from Malawi, Zimbabwe and Mozambique living in the Alexandra township were “physically assaulted over a period of several weeks in January 1995, as armed gangs identified suspected undocumented migrants and marched them to the police station in an attempt to ‘clean’ the township of foreigners.”  

In September 1998 a Mozambican and two Senegalese were thrown out of a train by a group returning from a rally that blamed foreigners for unemployment, crime and spreading of AIDS. 

In October 2001 residents of the Zandspruit informal settlement gave Zimbabweans 10 days to leave the area. 

When the foreigners failed to do so within the stipulated deadline, they were forcefully evicted and their shacks burned down and looted. 

In August 2006 Somali refugees had to appeal for protection after 21 Somali traders were killed in July of that year and 26 more in August.


There are several causes of anti- African and Asian sentiments in South Africa:

One, the country’s ‘xenophobia’ reflects her history of isolationism – both geographically and socioeconomically under the Apartheid regime.  

Geographically the country is at the southernmost tip of Africa. 

A combination of its geographical isolation and its historical ostracization under Apartheid led many Black South Africans to internalize the belief by White South Africans that though the country is located in Africa, it is not really ‘African’. 

White South Africans would often describe their African identity as a ‘belonging of another type’. 

It is suspected that Black South Africans, behaving true to the home-Negro versus farm Negro dichotomy, looked down on their fellow Black Africans. 

For this, it is not uncommon to hear Black South Africans who travel to other African countries say that they ‘they travelled to Africa’ (instead of saying for instance that they travelled to Ghana or Nigeria) or call citizens of other African countries ‘Africans’ (suggesting that they do not see themselves as Africans). 

In fact some scholars have suggested  that Thabo Mbeki’s famous ‘I am an African Speech’, which he made as Deputy President on behalf of the ANC in 1996, was meant to resolve the nagging question of whether South Africa should regard itself as an African country or a different country which happens to be in Africa.  

Two, in her very important book, World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability (2003), Amy Chua, a Chinese American Professor at Yale Law School explores the ethnic conflict caused in many societies by disproportionate economic or political influence wielded by “market dominant minorities”. 

She notes for instance that though the Chinese Filipino community is 1% of the population of the country, it controls 60 per cent of the economy, with the result being envy and bitterness on the part of the majority against the minority. 

Again in Indonesia, while the Chinese Indonesian community makes up only 3% of the population, it controls 70 % of the economy. 

Other examples of ‘market-dominant minorities’ given by Chua include overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia; whites in Latin America and South Africa; Israeli Jews in Israel and the Middle East; Croats in the former Yugoslavia; Yoruba, Igbo, Kikuyu, Tutsis, Indians and Lebanese, among others, in sub-Saharan Africa.

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