Document Type

Migration Policy Series

Publication Date



Balsillie School of International Affairs


Violent xenophobia has become a regular feature of South African life. Everyday animosity frequently spills over into violence against individual migrants and refugees and their economic enterprises. Some of these incidents reach the scrutiny of the media and officialdom, but most remain invisible and unremarked. The fact that most of the violence occurs in marginal urban locations of informal settlements, townships and inner-city suburbs in South Africa has prompted intense debate over the nomenclature and identification of the underlying causes. Explanations for the large-scale anti-migrant violence that swept the country in May 2008, and continues in more isolated and sporadic fashion through to the present day, fall into three general categories: “xenophobia denialism”, “xenophobia minimalism” and “xenophobia realism.”

The denialists reject the argument that xenophobia plays any role in violence against migrants and refugees. The South African government, initially bewildered by the unexpectedness and ferocity of the May 2008 violence, settled on an official position that the deaths, destruction and displacement were the work of criminal elements in the affected areas. This argument that attacks on migrants and refugees are simply acts of criminality, not xenophobia, is now state orthodoxy. Xenophobia denialism has also shaped official South African responses to criticism from the international community. Violence perpetrated by the police and South African citizens continues to be explained away by politicians as criminal acts by isolated, anti-social elements. The government’s position has been echoed by some researchers and political commentators who suggest that only a very small group of individuals engage in such acts and that these are not symptomatic of wider prejudice against migrants within South African society.

Another form of denialism shifts the blame from xenophobia to the state’s dereliction of its duties, particularly its failure to control borders. According to this view, the problem is that the state has not seriously engaged with the “foreign threat.” It is difficult to see how South Africa’s draconian border and immigration controls can be considered either soft or lenient. The post-apartheid state has intensified border and immigration enforcement and, even at the height of the 2008 violence, officials were deporting displaced victims they claimed had entered South Africa illegally. State agencies have typically focused on identifying irregular migrants among victims of violence and deporting them, reinforcing the biases and prejudices that fuelled the violence to begin with.

The xenophobia minimalists also eschew it as an explanation for violence against migrants and refugees, seeing it instead as an epiphenomenon or symptom of a deeper malaise. This is a particularly prevalent tendency amongst neo-marxist scholars seeking a materialist explanation for the violence, which they view as the outworking of structural economic inequalities and the capture of the African National Congress by neoliberalism, with the consequent inability of the state to effect a fundamental transformation and redistribution of wealth and resources in the country. The minimalists essentially argue that although xenophobia might exist, it is an epiphenomenon that does not get at the root causes of violence. One strand of minimalism sees the violence as a signifier of a broader, deepening social crisis in South Africa tied to intense competition for scarce resources such as jobs, shelter and services. According to this view, the effects of the inadequate post-apartheid transition have been felt most acutely in marginal urban locations where much of the violence has occurred and where difference has become the site around which the palpable anger and frustrations of those left out has been expressed.

Certainly, the spatial incidence of violence in May 2008 was strongly correlated with the geography of poverty. But this simply begs the question of why not all poor areas (including many in which migrants and refugees resided) erupted or why poor South Africans were not attacking each other with similar ferocity. The economic insecurity of the offenders may account for their extreme anxiety and heightened dissatisfaction, but it does not explain why only certain groups were and are singled out for deadly assault. Furthermore, if economic competition between poor residents and migrants is the underlying cause of aggressive hostility, it does not explain why wealthy and privileged groups, who do not face direct or even indirect competition from these migrants, also espouse these prejudices. When vicious attacks on migrants are conceived primarily as the outcome of material realities and economic competition between citizens and “foreigners”, then the frames of reference are automatically loaded against the latter. Seen in such terms, resentment and antipathy towards migrants and other outsiders become inevitable aspects of the social landscape, justifying stringent controls over immigration, and exclusion (or at best very limited inclusion) of migrants. This distinction invigorates the very idea that the presence of migrants and refugees poses a perpetual threat to “legitimate insiders”.

Similarly, the crises of governance and frustrated hopes in South Africa, particularly at local levels, have little if anything to do with the presence of migrants. These connections need to be constructed more carefully to avoid reproducing the very prejudices that need to be confronted. One cannot deny that there is rivalry between locals and migrants. However, migrants represent a very small minority in terms of South Africa’s total population, and the detrimental effects of this economic competition have been seriously overstated.

Both xenophobia denialism and xenophobia minimalism ignore or sideline the evidence that most South Africans hold extremely negative views about migrants and refugees and want the state to exercise greater coercive power to purge the country of their presence. The realists suggest, by contrast, that xenophobia is a pervasive phenomenon throughout South African society and that there is a predisposition to resort to violence on the part of a considerable number of South Africans. This viewpoint is based on systematic representative sampling of the South African population as a whole. The Southern African Migration Programme (SAMP) has been monitoring the perceptions and attitudes of South Africans towards migrants and refugees since the late 1990s. These periodic surveys provide unequivocal evidence of deep-rooted and pervasive hostility and animosity towards migrants and refugees in the country.

Three general findings are of relevance to our argument: (a) the nature and strength of myths about migrant and migration; (b) the level of public endorsement of coercive state measures to keep migrants out of the country and to remove those who are present; and (c) the degree of willingness to resort to coercion and violence against migrants.

In this paper, we argue that xenophobia realism is the best way to make sense of the phenomenon of extreme xenophobia, that is, the translation of hostile attitudes into violent actions. We conceptualize extreme xenophobia as a heightened form of xenophobia in which hostility and opposition to those perceived as outsiders and foreigners is strongly embedded and expressed through aggressive acts directed at migrants and refugees. South Africans hold migrants responsible for crime, bringing disease, and “stealing” jobs, services and resources and view them as being illegally in the country. Moreover, perceptions of a rapid increase in the number of migrants intensify the levels of threat attached to them. Rights and entitlements for residents are directly and in a discriminatory fashion linked to migration and citizenship status, drawing the boundaries between those who are seen to belong and others who are not. High levels of migrant antipathy lead to recurrent episodes of violence. The primary challenge for xenophobia realists is to explain why, if hostility is so widespread, violence tends to be more confined, targeted at poorer neighbourhoods in the cities. First, whether and where animosity translates into actions depends on community-specific dynamics such as the nature of local leadership, the absence of dispute resolution mechanisms and the character of policing. Second, all of the common myths about migrants are offered by residents to explain why the attacks take place. Migration myths are not epiphenomena or post-hoc rationalizations; they have powerful mobilizing and animating effects spurring those who believe them into acts of extreme xenophobia. Disowning the existence of xenophobia not only flies in the face of a large body of quantitative and qualitative research, it illustrates a continuing lack of political will to own the problem and act against one of the most destructive and anti-democratic forces in post-apartheid South Africa.