Xenophobic Attacks in South Africa: Time for a Rethink


Legal Practitioner at Olaniwun Ajayi LP


Not minding the recent news that has permeated the media with Brexit and President Trump’s ‘immigration policies’ aimed principally at keeping out of the United States, certain citizens of other countries, but has been greatly resisted in different quarters and even termed ‘xenophobic,’ one may be right to assert, taking further into consideration how “smaller” and “more connected” the world has become as a global village (thanks to technological advancement) that indeed, this is the 21st century, where no nation of the world can afford to be an island (anymore). This fact becomes more obvious, when one realises the need for concerted efforts in the advancement of science, medicine and knowledge.

The foregoing said, this article seeks to succinctly consider the nature of xenophobia and xenophobic attacks, with particular focus on the recent incident in South Africa, where some foreigners were attacked.

Starting with a brief discussion of what xenophobia is, the article proceeds to examine the reasons adduced or arguments canvassed in support of xenophobia in certain quarters. It concludes with recommendations on how the menace of xenophobia can be curbed.


Bronwyn Harris (2002), citing the South African Pocket Oxford Dictionary of Current English, defines ‘xenophobia’ as ‘hatred or fear of foreigners.’ Harris asserts that xenophobia is associated with ‘a negative attitude towards foreigners, a dislike, a fear, or …hatred.’ He further pointed how misleading it is to define/describe xenophobia as an attitude, without alluding to the consequences or effects of xenophobia on the mind-set, particularly, taking into consideration, recent incidents in South Africa, where the fear, dislike or hatred of foreigners has resulted in intense tension and increased violence towards immigrants by South African citizens.

Whilst noting how hard it is to have a generally acceptable definition of what ‘xenophobia’ is and given how seemly impossible it is to have a one-size-fits-all definition, it is pertinent to also make recourse to the definition of ‘xenophobia’ as provided by Mogekwu. According to Mogekwu (2005), xenophobia is “the fear or hatred of foreigners or strangers; it is embodied in discriminatory attitudes and behaviour, and often culminates in violence, abuses of all types, and exhibitions of hatred.”


According to Solomon and Kosaka (2014), studies on xenophobia have attributed xenophobia to a number of causes, to wit: (a) the fear of loss of social status and identity; (b) a threat, perceived or real, to citizens’ economic success; (c) a way of reassuring the national self and its boundaries in times of crisis; (d) a feeling of superiority; (e) and poor intercultural information. Reflectively, one may be right to assert that underlying the causes highlighted above, by the aforementioned two scholars are the inadequate/lack of citizenship education, lack of economic empowerment and poor orientation as dearth of ‘good’ exposure to the ‘outside world’ and lack of proper understanding that the world has now become a global village and as such, that no nation can afford to be an island or it risks being left behind.

Additionally, Solomon and Kosaka have pointed out that xenophobia derives from the sense that non-citizens pose some sort of a threat to the citizens’ identity or their individual rights, and is also closely connected with the concept of nationalism. They argued that xenophobia often arises when it becomes apparent that the government does not guarantee protection of individual rights. In their view and in an attempt to make a case for the “economic root cause theory of xenophobia,” they contended that xenophobia is more prevalent in societies where poverty and unemployment is rampant. It is this economic root cause theory of xenophobia that this article will provide a lasting solution to.


Solomon and Kosaka (2014) alluded to a South African Migration Project (SAMP) survey conducted in 2001, which revealed that South Africans take an extremely restrictive view towards immigration by international standards. They stated that 21 per cent wanted a complete ban on the entry of foreigners and 64 per cent wanted strict limits on the numbers allowed entry. If the outcome of this survey is anything to go by, it becomes more evident that perception is at the very heart of the xenophobic discourse in South Africa.

There is no gainsaying the fact that xenophobic attacks undermine social cohesion, peaceful co-existence, and amount to gross violation of human rights as protected under international law. Xenophobic attacks in South Africa, even become more disturbing, when one realises that South Africa is a party to different international human rights instruments such as the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination which was ratified on 10 December 1998, as well as humanitarian treaties, especially the ones on refugees and asylum seekers. Hence, it becomes more imminent for South Africa to combat xenophobia in its territory, arguably both on a legal and moral ground.

As rightly mentioned by Solomon and Kosaka (2014), given the position of South Africa as a nation fostering the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the African Union (AU), “South Africa is hardly in an ethical or an economic position to close its borders.” It is further submitted that even when South Africa’s legal obligations under international law are taken into consideration, she still does not have such ‘freedom’ (to ‘impunity’) under international law.

The foregoing said, whilst it could be argued that what sometimes manifests on the surface is not often what lies beneath, one struggles with the reasoning and conclusion expressed in certain quarters that there is no hatred of foreigners in South Africa but only an urgent cry for economic empowerment. A careful reflection and critical evaluation of this statement will reveal the fallacy contained therein. How can one say that an ‘urgent cry for economic empowerment,’ which has resorted in the loss of lives of others and attacks on foreigners (Nigerians inclusive) in South Africa is merely a ‘cry for economic empowerment?’

Nothing justifies the taking of life of another by his fellow man! Indeed, it is sheer wickedness, heartlessness, and inhumane to place anything else before humanity. Ideally and in any sane society, man is and should be the measure of all things. Hence, one cannot but wonder how on earth, the killings of fellow humans be justified all in the name of some people’s ‘economic empowerment.’

What happened to pushing and advocating that the relevant parliament pass relevant legislation like indigenisation laws and having policies as well as legal structures that divest foreigners of such control as well as ownership, while handing same over to the South African indigenes, having timeously paid reasonable compensation? What happened to pushing for such progressive and more civilised approach in this 21st century?

Alternatively, what happened to incentivising indigenous start-ups, given the argument that nationalisation, in whatever form disguised, does little or no good to building economic growth and development? What happened to the South African government creating a more enabling environment for ‘black owned businesses’ to thrive and empowering more ‘locals’? What happened to good reasoning, sound judgment and civility?

Consequently, one struggles to see how the xenophobic attacks in South Africa, or even anywhere in the world, does not take the world back to the Stone Age century. For crying out loud, this is the 21st century; not some Stone Age century!

The condemnation of violence anywhere in the world is a joint responsibility of all. Respectfully, one seriously struggles to see how the xenophobic attacks in South Africa can be justified. We all, as citizens of the world, as well as advocates of peaceful living, should speak collectively against such savage, primitive and barbaric acts, capable of putting our world in a more chaotic and destructive state. Consequently, if the ‘so-called’ educated people, with all their world class training, can justify the attacks albeit under the veil of economic empowerment and do nothing about it, to correct this aberration, then one cannot but weep for our world.


South Africans need not be reminded that this is the 21st century where no nation of the world can afford to be an island. We all need one another and the earlier that fact is understood by all, including South Africans, the better it is for everyone. On the other hand, the wise and timely counsel of Chief (Aare) Afe Babalola, SAN, OFR, CON, FNIALS, FCIArb, LL.D. is commended to the Nigerian Government, whose citizens have borne the major brunt of the xenophobic attacks in South Africa. As succinctly put by the Learned Silk:

…the immediate response from (the Nigerian) government about the unending xenophobic attacks on its citizens should be the formulation of policies that will make it easier for Nigerians to make a living here. Where jobs are available and availability of business credit is not a problem, the attraction of foreign travel for purpose of basic economic sustenance as opposed to large scale direct foreign investment in the economies of other countries will be reduced.

Note: This publication represents only the personal views of the author and is provided to highlight issues as well as for general information purposes only; it does not constitute legal advice. Whilst reasonable steps were taken to ensure the accuracy of information contained in this publication, the author does not accept any responsibility for any loss or damage that may arise from reliance on information contained in this publication.


Bronwyn Harris, ‘Xenophobia: A new pathology for a new South Africa?’ in Hook, D. & Eagle, G. (eds) Psychopathology and Social Prejudice (Cape Town: University of Cape Town Press, 2002) 169-184

Bronwyn Harris, ‘A Foreign Experience: Violence, crime and xenophobia during South Africa’s transition’ (Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, August 2001) 1-140

Crush, J. and Pendleton, W. ‘Regionalising Xenophobia? Citizens’ attitudes to immigration and refugee policy in Southern Africa’ (Canada: SAMP, 2004)

David Haekwon Kim and Ronald R. Sundstrom, ‘Xenophobia and Racism’ (2014) 2(1) The Pennsylvania State University’s Critical Philosophy of Race 20

Hussein Solomon and Hitomi Kosaka ‘Xenophobia in South Africa: Reflections, Narratives and Recommendations’ (2014) 2(2) Southern African Peace and Security Studies 5

Matt Mogekwu, ‘African Union: Xenophobia as poor intercultural information’ (2005) 26(1) Ecquid Novi 5-20

South African Pocket Oxford Dictionary of Current English 1994 cited in Bronwyn Harris, ‘Xenophobia: A new pathology for a new South Africa?’ in Hook, D. & Eagle, G. (eds) Psychopathology and Social Prejudice (Cape Town: University of Cape Town Press, 2002)

Joseph Onele, LL.B (First Class Honours, University of Ibadan, Nigeria) Barrister and Solicitor of the Supreme Court of Nigeria; Legal Practitioner at Olaniwun Ajayi LP, The Adunola, Plot L2, 401 Close, Banana Island, Ikoyi, Lagos, Nigeria. joxy004@yahoo.com; ojoseph990@gmail.com; https://www.linkedin.com/in/josephonele/

One thought on “Xenophobic Attacks in South Africa: Time for a Rethink

  1. I must say that this is a well written article which has dealt with the subject fairly. I however have a complaint about one sentence in the article and it is that which reads thus: “…Indeed, it is sheer wickedness, heartlessness, and inhumane to place humanity before anything else.” I believe, with respect, that this sentence should have been framed in the following way: “…Indeed it is sheer wickedness, heartlessness, and inhumane to place anything else before humanity.”


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