Document Type

Migration Policy Series

Publication Date



South Africa’s crisis of xenophobia is defined by the discrimination and intolerance to which migrants are exposed on a daily basis. A major target of the country’s extreme xenophobia – defined as a heightened form of xenophobia in which hostility and opposition to those perceived as outsiders and foreigners is expressed through violent acts – is the businesses run by migrants and refugees in the informal sector. Attitudinal surveys clearly show that South Africans differentiate migrants by national origin and that Zimbabweans are amongst the most disliked. Zimbabweans are certainly not the only small-business owners to have become victims of extreme xenophobia. However, few studies to date have specifically examined the impact of xenophobic violence on Zimbabweans who are trying to make a living in the South African informal sector.

This report is based on two sources of data: (a) in 2015, SAMP’s Growing Informal Cities (GIC) Project surveyed over 1,000 randomly selected migrant-owned informal sector enterprises in Cape Town and Johannesburg. The data on 304 Zimbabwean-owned enterprises included in the survey sample has been extracted for analysis; and (b) in 2016, 50 in-depth interviews were conducted with Zimbabwean informal business owners in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Polokwane who had been affected by xenophobic violence.

The demographic profile of the Zimbabwean migrant entrepreneurs in the GIC survey included the following:

  • As many as 60% of Zimbabwean entrepreneurs in Cape Town and 65% in Johannesburg are male. This was a marked contrast to informal cross-border trade between Zimbabwe and South Africa, which is dominated by female Zimbabweans.
  • The number of migrant entrepreneurs who arrived in South Africa peaked between 2005 and 2010 at the height of the economic crisis in Zimbabwe and has since fallen. As many as 88% of the migrants in Cape Town arrived in the city after 2005 (compared to 52% of those in Johannesburg).
  • Only 5% of the survey respondents had experience working in the Zimbabwean informal economy before migrating to South Africa. Those with prior experience had generally been involved in informal cross-border trading and were therefore familiar with South Africa.
  • Relatively few of the Zimbabwean entrepreneurs did not have documents permitting them to be in the country and/or to work legally. Just over one-third of the migrants in the survey had asylum-seeker (Section 22) permits but only 5% had refugee status (Section 24 permits). Around one-quarter had work permits and 10% had visitor’s permits. Only 15% did not have permits to reside and/or work in South Africa.

The majority of the surveyed Zimbabwean enterprises were in the retail, trade and wholesale sector, followed by services and manufacturing. Most migrants did not start an informal business immediately on arrival in South Africa but first raised start-up capital through regular and casual employment.

Against this backdrop, the report focuses on the findings from the in-depth interviews with Zimbabwean entrepreneurs. First, we review their experience of xenophobia and xenophobic violence. Most of the respondents recounted incidents of violence that had personally affected them. These accounts revealed a number of common features:

  • To migrants, much of the violence occurs without warning and appears spontaneous. However, this is rarely the case as many attacks are preceded by community meetings from which migrants are excluded. They, therefore, have little ability or time to take evasive action.
  • The perpetrators of xenophobic violence are often from the same community and are even personally known to their victims. The fact that migrant entrepreneurs provide goods, including food, at competitive prices and offer credit to consumers is clearly insufficient to protect them when violence erupts. In many areas, community leaders are ineffective in dealing with the violence and, in some cases, they actively foment hostility and instigate attacks.
  • The looting of stock on the premises is a constant feature of the attacks. However, robbery per se is not the prime motive for the attacks. Virtually all agreed that the purpose of the attacks was not simply to steal certain desirable goods but to destroy their business premises and operations so that they could not continue to operate and would go back to Zimbabwe.
  • South African business owners in the same vicinity are left alone during crowd violence.
  • Attacks often involved vicious physical assaults against the person, accompanied by insulting xenophobic language.
  • Many accounts describe how anti-government service delivery protests quickly disintegrate into mob violence and looting of shops owned by migrants. The looting is never indiscriminate and targets only migrants. Migrants feel that they are scapegoats for government failure to deliver services.
  • There was some evidence of “violent entrepreneurship” involving attacks orchestrated by South African competitors.
  • Xenophobic violence is gender-indiscrimate with male and female migrants recounting equally harrowing stories.
  • The respondents differed on whether Zimbabweans were particular targets. Most said that all foreign-owned businesses were targeted. A number commented that the type of business made a difference, with food and grocery shops being especially vulnerable.

The pervasive view amongst South African politicians is that xenophobia does not exist in the country. However, the term “xenophobia:” was used by all the rewspondents to describe the harassment and physical abuse that they experience and some even referred to the widespread violence in 2008 and 2015 as “the xenophobia.” The language and practices of xenophobia cow the victims into silence and a sense of helplessness. The interviews provide important insights into how migrant entrepreneurs respond to the threat and reality of xenophobic violence. Trying to “fit in “ and integrate by learning local languages, dress codes and cultural practices is one way to try to pre-empt attacks. However, these strategies are no guarantee of protection when mob violence breaks out. Some suggested that there was safety in numbers and that conducting business in areas where there were many other migrant businesses reduced the risks of being attacked. The downside of operating in safer spaces is that business competition is extremely fierce.

Most are aware that a great deal of the xenophobic violence is confined to low-income areas, particularly informal settlements. While it is possible for some to avoid doing business in these areas, and to operate in areas of the city where attacks are less frequent, this is not feasible for all. Many Zimbabwean migrants to South Africa do not have the financial means to afford accommodation outside informal settlements and do not have the resources to run a business elsewhere.

Several respondents noted that the unpredictability of the attacks made it difficult to plan in advance. Some said that they made sure that they did not keep all of their stock at the place of business, storing some at home or in rented containers. All tried to minimize the amount of cash they kept on the premises. Various reactive strategies were mentioned, including temporarily ceasing business operations, staying indoors at home, and moving in with friends or relatives in other parts of the city.

None of the respondents said that xenophobic attacks would put them permanently out of business. On the contrary, most said that they would simply raise the capital and start again. The logical implication of this is that xenophobic violence fails in its two main aims: to drive migrant entrepreneurs out of business and to drive them out of the country. Many respondents made reference to the fact that the crisis in Zimbabwe meant that there was nothing for them to return to, even if they wanted to return.