Document Type

Migration Policy Series

Publication Date



Balsillie School of International Affairs


The remarkable growth of informal migrant entrepreneurship in South Africa since 1990 would have been much lauded had it not been for the striking detail that the actors in question are seen as “foreigners” or “outsiders”. As such, they are uniformly viewed as undesirable and disadvantaging poor South African citizens. The growing presence of migrants in the informal sector has created various tensions in South Africa, including in government circles, ignoring the fact that in the free market economy of South Africa, immigrants and refugees, like citizens and commercial enterprises, would otherwise enjoy the freedom to establish, operate and expand their businesses.

The xenophobic anti-immigrant violence that swept South Africa in May 2008 led to the deaths of over 70 people, seriously injured 400 and displaced as many as 100,000 from their communities. A large number of migrant-owned businesses were also destroyed in the mayhem. Looting, burning and destruction of business property was widespread and many migrant entrepreneurs were among those hounded out of their communities.

Such actions did not stop after May 2008, however. If anything, they have become more insidious and pervasive.

South Africa provides an important case study of how citizen attitudes and behaviours materially affect the business climate for migrant entrepreneurs. Trying to run a business in the informal economy is an especially hazardous undertaking in South Africa. First, the state (both central and municipal) has adopted a protectionist position, which leads to various regulatory and policing responses that seek to disadvantage, if not eliminate, migrant entrepreneurship. Second, the police run their own protection (or non-harassment) rackets to benefit financially from those able to pay. Third, South African competitors, particularly in the spaza sector, have increasingly adopted a strategy of using violence to intimidate and drive migrant entrepreneurs out of an area. And fourth, a minority of citizens have turned hostile attitudes towards migrants and refugees into violent actions by forcibly shutting down migrant-owned businesses and attacking their owners and employees. Underlying all of these responses is a strong xenophobic undertow.

National attitudinal surveys by SAMP, as well as in-depth qualitative research and the personal testimony of many migrants, confirm that many South Africans hold deep-rooted negative opinions about migrants and migrant entrepreneurs. In the face of this body of evidence, claims by prominent political figures that xenophobia does not exist in South Africa ring extremely hollow. South Africans make clear distinctions between African migrants of different nationalities, with migrants from countries including Somalia and Zimbabwe viewed far less favourably than those from Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland. Since many informal migrant entrepreneurs are from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Somalia and the DRC, they are singled out for harsh treatment.

SAMP asked South Africans how likely they would be to take part in collective action against the presence of migrants and found 25% were likely to prevent a migrant from operating a business in their area. The survey results revealed that around one in every ten South Africans was predisposed to turn hostile attitudes into violent actions. This may seem a relatively low proportion in light of the prevalence of negative attitudes but multiplied it suggests that 3.8 million (out of an adult population of around 35 million) South Africans would be prepared to use violent means to rid their neighbourhoods of foreign migrants.

Looting and vandalism of migrant-owned shops have been especially common features of collective violence over the past several years. Some of this violence is obviously motivated primarily by criminality, especially robberies and looting, but to attribute all attacks to criminal motivation is reductionist and misleading. In general, the weak structural and social position of “foreigners” in localized areas as “outsiders”, combined with limited access to protection and justice, makes them more vulnerable to criminal attack. Acts of collective violence include (a) written or verbal threats and insults directed at migrant entrepreneurs; (b) public intimidation of migrant entrepreneurs through protests or marches or other similar collective actions; (c) involuntary migrant shop closures; (d) direct physical violence against migrant store owners or their employees; (e) looting of store contents; (f) damage to the physical structure of shops, especially through arson; (g) damage or destruction of other property belonging to migrant traders, including homes and cars; (h) temporary or permanent forced displacement of migrant entrepreneurs and their families; and (i) extortion for protection by local leaders, police and residents. Looting of store goods and damage to the stores were easily the most common types of action recorded.

While xenophobic views and actions are not espoused or approved of by all local residents of affected settlements, their prevalence suggests that they do enjoy sufficient support and that there are few deterrents. Far from reducing xenophobia, claims that collective violence against migrant businesses are simply acts of criminality legitimize and may even incite further violence. There is also the prejudiced, xenophobic idea that non-citizens are not entitled to anything – not police protection and certainly not to run a small business, even if it is enshrined in law and generated through their own initiative. The bigger picture, which includes the threat to all small-scale traders posed by supermarkets’ increasing dominance, is lost as the focus turns to curtailing migrant entrepreneurship in place of the real, urgent need to support opportunities for all small entrepreneurs in marginal settlements through incentives and programmes.

This report focuses on the chronology and geography of collective violence against migrant entrepreneurs since South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994. The overall aim of the research was to document and create a chronological account of attacks on migrant businesses, to categorise the types and frequency of attacks and to map the locations where such events occurred. The incidents discussed involve the intentional and spontaneous participation of groups of people in acts of collective violence against migrant businesses. Three distinct criteria, singly or in combination, were used for including an incident as part of the analysis: first, the scale of damage had to be extensive, affecting a number of businesses; second, there had to have been displacement of and injuries to business owners; and third, the violence had to have been perpetrated by groups rather than individuals. The analysis revealed the following about attacks on migrant entrepreneurs:

  • There has been a marked pattern of escalation over time. Pre-2005 incidents constitute less than 5% of recorded episodes. A definite upswing is seen from 2006 onwards, with the sharpest growth occurring after 2008. Excluding events in May 2008, nearly 90% of recorded episodes of group violence against migrant businesses occurred since the beginning of 2008. The five years with the largest number of incidents were from 2010 to 2014.
  • Collective violence targeting migrant entrepreneurs is no longer confined to a few isolated locations. Since 2005, the majority of South African provinces have been touched by such collective violence. However, the Western Cape and Gauteng have experienced the highest levels of violence. The overall number of affected provinces and localities has increased considerably since 2005 and the majority of provinces have witnessed repeated incidents since 2009. Since 2009, at least 32 distinct locations have witnessed two or more episodes of group violence.
  • The scale of the attacks is sometimes sizeable and can spill over into neighbouring settlements. Looting and vandalism of migrant-owned shops have been especially common features of collective violence. These actions, though criminal, may appear less grave when compared to severe injuries and loss of lives, but they cannot be treated as inconsequential as they impose unwarranted hardships on migrant entrepreneurs through partial or complete loss of stock and destruction of their shops and investments.
  • Collective violence against migrant businesses also impacts negatively on South African citizens and businesses. Wholesalers, retailers and suppliers are affected when migrant business activities are disrupted or destroyed. Also, a significant proportion of migrant businesses rent business spaces from South African property owners, who lose rental income when their tenants are expelled or their premises are vandalized. Other losers include poor local consumers who are forced to buy more expensive goods from larger stores or face the inconvenience of travelling longer distances to purchase necessities.

The opinions of politicians and officials about migrant entrepreneurs often seem indistinguishable from the intolerant views of ordinary citizens and this, in turn, reinforces negative beliefs and ideas in the populace at large. Their excusing attacks on migrant entrepreneurs as unrelated to xenophobia are contradicted by the details of many of these attacks. What makes the official position especially ironic is when officials themselves articulate sentiments that reproduce the xenophobic myths that they claim do not exist. Failure to curb the situation by consistently restraining offenders and imposing stringent penalties on collective violence only expands the elements of “opportunism” attached to such acts, encouraging others to participate, and reinforcing the unprotected position of migrants and refugees as "outsiders” in affected areas.