Document Type

Migration Policy Series

Publication Date



Balsillie School of International Affairs


The negative attitudes of South Africans towards non-citizens, migrants and refugees have been documented in several recent studies. Xenophobia has been officially recognized as a major problem by the state and steps have been taken by government and the South African Human Rights Commission to “roll back xenophobia.” Since anti-immigrant intolerance is a global phenomenon, should South Africans be singled out in this regard? This paper seeks to contextualize the South African situation by comparing the attitudes of South Africans with citizens from several other countries in the SADC; namely, Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland and Zimbabwe.

In practical policy terms, xenophobia undermines social cohesion, peaceful co-existence, good governance and human rights observance. In addition, SADC is a region composed of 14 states committed to greater integration and cooperation. To encourage or allow citizens of one member state to think and act in xenophobic ways about citizens of another, is ultimately extremely destructive of regional cooperation and harmony. This study therefore aims to show (for the states studied) which are the “rogue states” in which citizens have not yet come to terms with a basic requirement of regional cooperation: tolerance and acceptance of people from neighbouring SADC countries. This, in turn, should help identify those governments who have an actual or potential problem on their hands and which therefore need to take the task of “rolling back xenophobia” far more seriously than they do at present.

The paper is based on a SAMP Project implemented in 2001-2 called the National Immigration Policy Survey (NIPS). The survey, of a representative sample of urban residents, was implemented simultaneously in 5 SADC states. A comparable data set was extracted from a 1999 SAMP survey in South Africa. The survey was designed to measure citizen knowledge of migration, attitudes towards non-citizens, and immigration and refugee policy preferences.

The survey found that citizens across the region consistently tend to exaggerate the numbers of non-citizens in their countries, to view the migration of people within the region as a “problem” rather than an opportunity, and to scapegoat non-citizens. The intensity of these feelings varies significantly from country to country. The harshest sentiments are expressed by the citizens of South Africa, Namibia and, to a lesser extent, Botswana. The citizens of Swaziland, Mozambique and Zimbabwe are considerably more relaxed about the presence of noncitizens in their countries.

Negative attitudes in the anti-foreign “troika” (South Africa, Namibia, Botswana) are so pervasive and widespread that it is actually impossible to identify any kind of “xenophobe profile.” In other words, the poor and the rich, the employed and the unemployed, the male and the female, the black and the white, the conservative and the radical, all express remarkably similar attitudes. This poses a significant problem of explanation because it runs counter to the more general belief that certain groups in a population (usually those who are or who perceive themselves to be threatened by outsiders) are more prone to xenophobic attitudes than others. It also provides a massive public education challenge not only of knowing where to begin but deciding who to target. Within countries where there is greater tolerance, a more classic pattern pertains. That is, those with the most to lose from the presence of non-citizens – the unskilled and the unemployed – exhibit much more negative attitudes than other groups.

One of the more interesting results is the apparent absence of any sense of solidarity with other countries in the SADC. Given the longevity of the SADC as a formal institution, this is a significant finding. The absence of any real sense of “regional consciousness” (of participation in a regional grouping whose interests are greater than the sum of its parts) has very direct implications for migration issues. Citizens of these SADC countries make very little distinction between migrants from other SADC countries and those from elsewhere in Africa and even Europe and North America. Where attitudes are negative, they are uniformly negative; where positive, uniformly positive. An urgent challenge confronting the SADC and migration-related initiatives such as the Migration Dialogue in Southern Africa (MIDSA) is therefore to develop strategies to build a new regional consciousness amongst citizens and policy-makers.

Most citizens would prefer national governments to “get tough” with migrants and refugees. There is widespread suspicion that refugees are not genuine and there is significant fear that migrants are an economic threat. Perhaps the most significant and consistent finding is the fear – certainly not confined to Southern Africa – that migrants steal rather than create jobs. Although the majority of people in all countries see immigrants as a threat to jobs, very few have personal knowledge or experience of such an occurrence. Over 60% of respondents in South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique have never heard of anyone being denied a job because it went to a foreigner; in Swaziland and Botswana the percentage drops to 34% and 50%, respectively. Even fewer people know from their own experience of someone being denied a job because it went to a foreigner. Almost 90% of respondents in all six countries have no personal experience of being denied a job because it went to a foreigner.

When migration is viewed as a “threat” (as it clearly is amongst significant portions of the population and amongst virtually everyone in some countries) it is not unusual for citizens to prefer harsh policy measures. Rather shocking is the degree of support for border electrification. But citizens also want to see armies at the borders, tough internal enforcement and curtailment of basic rights. There is clearly a massive job of education confronting government if policy-makers are to turn around the obsession with control and exclusion and encourage a countervailing sense of the potential positive aspects of migration and immigration. Here, the NIPS survey is particularly relevant. It shows that across the region, citizens are prepared to accept and welcome non-citizens if their economic impact is demonstrably positive. Hence, skillsand investor-friendly immigration policies would not be a difficult sell to citizens. Since such policies are inevitable if countries are to be and remain globally competitive, it is important that policy and opinion-makers begin to build a broad public consensus on this issue. There is nothing more off-putting to a new immigrant who wants to put their skills to work in and for a new country to find that they are the object of scorn and vilification simply because of their accent or the colour of their skin.