Document Type

Migration Policy Series

Publication Date



Balsillie School of International Affairs


The world recently watched with dismay as South African citi­zens violently attacked foreign nationals in communities across the country. Tens of thousands of migrants were displaced, amid mass looting and destruction of foreign-owned homes, property and businesses. Senior officials and politicians seemed bemused and perplexed by the xenophobic violence. The media was quick to advance several theories about the mayhem. One focused on historical factors, particularly South Africa’s divisive and alienating apartheid past. Another blamed poverty and the daily struggle for existence in many of South Africa’s poorer communities. A third criticized the ANC govern­ment for poor service delivery and a failure to redistribute the fruits of the post-apartheid economic boom to the poor. Finally, the country’s immigration policies were seen as at fault. None of these theories explic­itly tackles the phenomenon of xenophobia itself.

In late 2006 SAMP undertook a national survey of the attitudes of the South African population towards foreign nationals in the country. The data from this survey allows us to analyze the state of the nation’s mind on immigration, immigrants and refugees in the period immedi­ately prior to the recent upsurge of xenophobic violence in South Africa. By comparing the results with those of previous surveys conducted by SAMP in the 1990s, we are also able to see if attitudes have changed and in what ways. Are they better now than they were in the days that prompted the South African Human Rights Commission to set up its Roll Back Xenophobia Campaign and partner with SAMP in a study of immigration, xenophobia and human rights in the country? Has xeno­phobia softened or hardened in the intervening years? Are xenophobic attitudes as widespread and vitriolic as they were then? How many South Africans were poised, in 2006, to turn their negative thoughts about for­eign nationals into actions to “cleanse” their neighbourhoods and streets of fellow Africans?

The 2006 SAMP Xenophobia Survey shows that South Africa exhib­its levels of intolerance and hostility to outsiders unlike virtually anything seen in other parts of the world. For example:

  • Compared to citizens of other countries worldwide, South Africans are the least open to outsiders and want the greatest restrictions on immigration. Earlier data showed a hardening of attitudes in the late 1990s. The proportion of people wanting strict limits or a total prohibition on immigration rose from 65% in 1997 to 78% in 1999 and the proportion of those favouring immigration if there were jobs available fell from 29% to 12%.
  • Similarly restrictive views still prevail. Two changes were evident in 2006, one positive and one negative. On the positive side, the proportion who agree to employed-related immigration rose from 12% in 1999 to 23% in 2006. In part, this reflects the immi­gration policy shift in 2002 which promoted a new skills-based approach. On the negative, the proportion of those wanting a total ban on immigration increased from 25% in 1999 to 35% in 2006. And 84% feel that South Africa is allowing “too many” for­eign nationals into the country.
  • Nearly 50% support or strongly support the deportation of foreign nationals including those living legally in South Africa. Only 18% strongly oppose such a policy.
  • Nearly three-quarters (74%) support a policy of deporting anyone who is not contributing economically to South Africa.
  • Some 61% support the deportation of foreign nationals who test positive for HIV or have AIDS with a mere 9% strongly opposed.
  • If migrants are allowed in, South Africans want them to come alone, as they were forced to in the apartheid period. Less than 20% think it should be easier for families of migrants to come with them to South Africa.
  • Nearly three-quarters (72%) think that foreign nationals should carry personal identification with them at all times (the same as in 1999). Only 4% strongly opposed the suggestion.
  • The proportion of South Africans wanting their borders to be electrified increased from 66% in 1999 to 76% in 2006. Only 2% are strongly opposed to such a policy.
  • South Africans do not want it to be easier for foreign nationals to trade informally with South Africa (59% opposed), to start small businesses in South Africa (61% opposed) or to obtain South African citizenship (68% opposed).

Many post-apartheid migrants to South Africa are asylum-seekers and refugees. How do South Africans view the issue of refugee protection and South Africa’s responsibilities towards them? The Survey found that:

  • South Africans are divided on refugee protection with 47% sup­porting protection and 30% opposed. Nearly 20% have no opin­ion on the matter.
  • Nearly three quarters are opposed to increasing the number of refugees currently in the country.
  • Two-thirds are against offering permanent residence to refugees who have been in the country for more than 5 years.
  • As many as half favour a policy of requiring all refugees to live in border camps. Only 6% are strongly opposed.
  • Only 30% agree with allowing refugees to work.
  • And 60% want a policy of mandatory HIV testing of refugees.

In the 1990s, SAMP found that many South Africans were generally not in favour of extending basic constitutional rights to foreign nationals (to which they are legally entitled). In 1999, less than 20% felt that refu­gees should always be entitled to legal and police protection. In the case of “illegal immigrants” the figure was less than 10%. Temporary workers and visitors were viewed a little more sympathetically although only 13% felt they should automatically enjoy police protection.

There have been some changes for the better since 1999. In 2006, there were drops in the proportion of South Africans who would deny basic rights to refugees and temporary workers and visitors. But the majority of South Africans still do not believe that either should auto­matically enjoy police or legal protection.

Since so many South Africans also believe that the majority of foreign nationals in their country are here illegally, this means, in effect, that they believe that basic rights should be denied to many if not most for­eign nationals. With the exception of treatment for AIDS, at least two-thirds of South Africans still feel that irregular migrants in the country should be extended no rights or protections. Given that the police are believed to be major beneficiaries of the presence of irregular migrants (through bribery and protection rackets), this is alarming indeed.

While South Africans clearly favour highly restrictive immigration policies, it does not necessarily follow that they dislike foreign nationals per se (which would make them xenophobic as opposed to merely defen­sive and protectionist). In South Africa, however, the 2006 Xenophobia Survey shows that negative opinions on immigration policy go hand-in-hand with hostile attitudes towards foreign nationals. If xenophobes view foreign nationals as a threat, they will generally attribute negative motives to “the invader.” In 1999, 48% of South Africans saw migrants from neighbouring countries as a “criminal threat”, some 37% said they were a threat to jobs and the economy, and 29% that they brought dis­ease. Only 24% said there was nothing to fear.

South Africans continue to consider foreign nationals a threat to the social and economic well-being of their country. Indeed, along certain indicators, attitudes have hardened since 1999. The proportion arguing that foreign nationals use up resources grew by 8% from 59% in 1999 to 67% in 2006. The association of migrants with crime also intensified (45% in 1999 to 67% in 2006) as did the idea that migrants bring disease (24% in 1999 to 49% in 2006). The only positive sign was that more South Africans (6% more) felt that foreign nationals bring needed skills to South Africa. At the same time, two-thirds still believe that they are not needed.

Foreign nationals are often seen in South Africa as “job-stealers.” South Africans are also sometimes accused of treating all foreign nation­als as an undifferentiated group. The Survey therefore tried to assess whether South Africans distinguish between migrants in terms of where they are from. On these issues the Survey found the following:

  • Migrants from North America and Europe are regarded more favourably than those from other SADC countries who, in turn, are more favourably perceived than those from the rest of Africa. However, these preferences are purely relative. A majority of South Africans have an unfavourable impression of migrants wherever they are from.
  • Within Africa, migrants from Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland are regarded in the most favourable light. Thirty-nine percent of those surveyed, for example, hold a favourable view of Basotho. Mozambicans (who only 14% of South African view favourably) and Zimbabweans (12%) are viewed much less favourably. Most unpopular of all are Angolans, Somalis and Nigerians.
  • The supposed “economic threat” posed by immigrants does not appear to be based on personal experience as very few respond­ents have experience of losing a job to a foreign national (85%). Around two-thirds say they do not know anyone who has person­ally lost a job or heard of anyone in their community who has.
  • In SAMP surveys in the 990s, respondents were asked how much contact they had with people from neighbouring countries in Southern Africa (from which the vast majority of migrants come). Surprisingly few was the answer (80% had little or no contact in 1997 and 60% in 1999). In the 1999 SAMP survey only 4% of respondents said they had “a great deal of contact.” SAMP concluded that the vast majority of South Africans form their attitudes in a vacuum, relying mainly on hearsay and media and other representations.
  • In 2006, the proportion with little or no contact had hardly changed. What has changed is the proportion with no contact at all (down from 60% in 1997 to 32% in 2006) and with a great deal of contact (up from 4% in 1997 to 17% in 2006). In other words, the majority of attitudes are still formed independ­ent of personal interaction with migrants. However, more South Africans are interacting with non-nationals (and presumably hav­ing their prejudices confirmed by such interaction).

In 1999, SAMP was unable to identify a “typical” profile of a xenophobic person. Strong negative attitudes seemed to be held irrespective of race, gender, education, socio-economic status or any other variable. For the 2006 survey, SAMP developed a composite “xenophobia” score for each individual ranging from 0 (very xenophobic) to 10 (not xenophobic at all). These scores were then grouped by variables such as race, class, income and so on. The following emerged:

  • On the scale of zero to ten, the average score was 3.95, suggest­ing that, in general, levels of xenophobia are high. There were differences between race groups, however. Coloured respondents have the highest levels of xenophobia. Whites are more xenopho­bic than blacks and Asians/Indians are least xenophobic.
  • Respondents with Afrikaans as their home language display much higher levels of xenophobia than all other language groups. Next were Xhosa-speakers followed by Sotho-speakers, Zulu-speakers, English-speakers and Tsonga/Shangaan-speakers.
  • Differences can also be seen by class. Here we see a bimodal dis­tribution with respondents who described themselves as “upper class” equally as xenophobic as those from the “lower class.” Both are slightly more xenophobic than respondents in other class groups including the “working class.” The “middle class” is least xenophobic.
  • In terms of income categories, average xenophobia scores were highest in the lowest income categories and generally declined with increasing income. Those in the R8,000 to R8,999 per month and R18,000 – R19,999 per month categories showed slightly higher levels than predicted. In other words there is a strong correlation between xenophobia and income but it is not absolute with some wealthier groups displaying higher levels of xenophobia.
  • On average, xenophobic attitudes appear to be more prevalent among those with less education. Xenophobia scores were great­est amongst the respondents who had no formal schooling and decreased in intensity with progressively higher levels of educa­tion.
  • Levels of xenophobia differ slightly by employment status. The unemployed and those looking for work have slightly higher lev­els of xenophobia than the employed. However, the difference of greatest statistical significance was between those who were employed full time and pensioners, who displayed the most xeno­phobic attitudes of any group.
  • Political party affiliation also shows slight differences. Democratic Alliance (DA) supporters have slightly higher levels of xenopho­bia than ANC supporters.

In general, xenophobic attitudes are stronger amongst whites than blacks and stronger amongst the poor and working class and the wealthy than the middle class.

The Survey then asked South Africans what, if anything, they would do about foreign nationals living in their communities. First, they were asked about the likelihood of taking part in actions to prevent people from other Southern African countries from moving into their neighbour­hood, operating a business in the area, being in the same classroom as their children and becoming a co-worker. In both 1999 and 2006 almost the same proportion (around a third) said it was likely or very likely that they would take action.

A related question asked what sorts of action they would take against foreign nationals. Most said they would confine themselves to “snitch­ing” to the police (44%), community associations (36%) and employers (32%). Some 16% of South Africans said they were prepared to combine with others to force foreign nationals to leave the area and 9% would use violence in the process. This surely indicates that the violence of May 2008 could well have been even more widespread or may become so in the near future. At the very least, it suggests that a sizeable minority approves of the actions of others.

An overview of xenophobia in South Africa since the democratic elections in 1994 shows that the “perfect storm” of May 2008 did not spring out of nowhere. The rise of xenophobia in the 1990s cannot be isolated from the country’s apartheid past of racial and class division and animosity, racist immigration policies, a siege mentality and attitudes of uniqueness and superiority towards the rest of Africa. Equally it cannot be divorced from new migration streams, legal and irregular, to post-1990 South Africa. But rather than seek ways to deal with, accommodate and integrate the new African migrants, South Africans began to rail against them, to blame them for everything from crime to HIV/AIDS to unem­ployment, and to deport them in their hundreds of thousands. Only a handful of South Africans were ever prosecuted for employing people illegally. A culture of corruption infested dealings between the state and foreign nationals. Police and immigration officials found rich pickings in the pockets of desperate migrants.

Facilitated by a decade of in-fighting on immigration policy, irresponsi­ble political statements and an uncritical and xenophobic press, the can­cer spread. At first, with some exceptions, it remained in the heads and words of South Africans. But when thought turned to action, xenophobic thugs discovered that they could act with virtual impunity. Increasingly their “cause” became less random and took on the character (and even­tual horror) of “ethnic cleansing” campaigns in other parts of the world.

In 2002, a new Immigration Act promised action and a systematic rooting out of xenophobia in the public service and society at large. In practice, some isolated anti-xenophobia measures were taken within the Department of Home Affairs to educate officials. But the South African Human Rights Commission wound up its Roll Back Xenophobia campaign and when SAMP published two reports on xenophobia in the media these were ignored (unlike its policy research on other issues such as the brain drain.) The uncomfortable fact of xenophobia sunk from view in the public policy domain. And when xenophobic violence began to escalate in 2006, there were ritual condemnations and some prosecu­tions but not much else.

This report therefore concludes that there has been both a political and a moral failure. Morally, South Africans have let themselves down by tending and nurturing xenophobia while engaging in rounds of hearty self-congratulation about their constitution, their deep respect for human rights and their leadership role in Africa and the world. In other words, as the 2006 Survey confirmed, xenophobia and hostility to (particularly) other Africans is not the preserve of a lunatic fringe but represents the convictions of the majority of citizens. When one journalist wrote recent­ly that “we are all guilty”, he was speaking truth to power.

Some ANC politicians have questioned how South Africans could attack black Africans from countries that had been so accommodating to South African exiles in the days of the anti-apartheid struggle. The key question is whether the exile experience has any resonance or meaning for the general populace. If everyone believed that South Africans should treat other Africans with tolerance and acceptance as pay-back for their past support, this should be reflected in positive attitudes towards the role played by those countries in the past and the way they treated exiled South Africans. Respondents in the Survey were therefore asked how well they thought South African exiles had been treated in other African countries. Nearly 20% of the respondents felt that the exiles had been treated badly. Another 41% had no opinion one way or the other. Only 39 percent agreed that they had been treated well or very well. In other words, it might be argued that nearly two out of three South Africans find the idea of reciprocity for past support of the liberation struggle either wrong or irrelevant. Further questioning would be necessary to prove this hypothesis.

A section of the media spent much of May 2008 criticizing the ANC government for the xenophobic mayhem, for failing to “deliver,” for intensified poverty and inequality, for corruption and inepitude. Quite naturally, government denied responsibility with a catalogue of its post-apartheid successes. This paper argues that this debate misses a funda­mental point. Xenophobia is a destructive and reactionary force wherever it is found – in France, in Indonesia, in India, in South Africa. In a world of nation-states where national sovereignty is paramount, there is poten­tial for it to rear its head in any migrant-receiving country. The onus is therefore on the receiving state to design, implement and actively pursue policies and programmes at all levels of society aimed at fostering toler­ance, diversity, multi-culturalism and regional and global citizenship. In South Africa, government spending on anti-xenophobia education has been minimal. Hard-pressed NGOs and refugee groups do their best but cannot draw on the resources available to the state. Public education that reaches deep into the schools, into communities and into state insti­tutions is essential. So too is strong political will and leadership which is action-oriented not just rhetorical.

This report has argued that further xenophobic violence, even a rep­etition of May 2008, is almost inevitable without the implementation of short and longer-term measures. Civil society, community structures and NGOs have a critical role to play. Our concern is with the state and with what policy measures should be recommended. We make the following recommendations here:

  • All past and future perpetrators of xenophobic violence should be vigorously prosecuted. There are signs that this is indeed what the state intends though the penalties should be harsh and exact­ing for all of those who broke the law, destroyed and stole proper­ty and engaged in rape and murder. This is necessary not only to make an example of xenophobic thuggery but to dissuade similar actions in the future. The citizenry needs to know that despite its own dislike of foreigners, taking the law into its own hands will not be tolerated. The state also needs to revisit past incidents of xenophobic violence and prosecute those involved as well.
  • Too many South Africans, and too many police and officials, have engaged for far too long in exploiting the vulnerability of foreign nationals. Corruption in all aspects of the immigration system needs to become more costly than it is worth to the perpetrators. At the same time, South African employers who flaunt labour laws in their hiring and employment of migrants need to be exposed and prosecuted.
  • The deeper problem of widespread and entrenched xenophobic attitudes needs to be seriously addressed. There is no reason why the majority of citizens should favour a particular immigration policy provided they are well-informed about the purpose, nature and impacts of that policy. But there is absolutely no reason, or excuse, for that to be accompanied by abuse, hatred and hostility towards migrants and “fellow” Africans in particular. Attitudes that are so entrenched, pervasive and negative need to be attacked with the same commitment that state and civil society has shown towards the scourge of racism in post-apartheid South Africa.
  • South Africa urgently needs an antidote to a decade of politi­cal inaction on xenophobia. Since 994, South African attitudes have only hardened. What has been done is too little, much too late. Required now is a broad, high-profile, multi-media, government-initiated and sponsored anti-xenophobia education program that reaches into schools, workplaces, communities and the corri­dors of the public service. This program should be systematic and ongoing. The programme needs to breed tolerance, celebration of diversity and the benefits of interaction with peoples from other countries.
  • South Africans need to be educated about immigration and the benefits of managed migration. They need to know that immigration is not really as harmful as they think. They need to understand that immigration can be extremely beneficial. They need to know if it is. They need to be disabused of the myths and stereotypes they hold dear. They need to know what rights foreign nationals are entitled to when in South Africa. They need to be African and world leaders in refugee rights protection. They need to understand that South Africa is a member of a region and a world and has responsibilities to both. There needs to be informed public debate and discussion about pan-Africanism, the economic benefits of South Africa’s interaction with Africa, and the need for immigrants. They need to abandon a myopic nation­alistic siege mentality.
  • The events of May 2008 may provide the necessary spur to politi­cal action. Certainly the humanitarian response of many in civil society suggests that there are South Africans who are repulsed and ashamed by what their fellow citizens have done. Officials and politicians also need to move beyond rhetoric to action and example. Strong political leadership and will is required. South Africa cannot hold its head up in Africa, in SADC, at the African Union, at any other international forum, if it con­tinues to allow xenophobia to flourish. President Mbeki reacted with “disgust” to the events of May 2008. Disgust at xenophobic actions should translate into disgust at pre-existing and enabling xenophobic attitudes and a serious campaign to clear the minds of all citizens.
  • With the exception of the tabloid press, the media response to May 2008 has generally fostered informed analysis and debate. It has not always been this way. The real tragedy of the last ten years is the way in which the media has mishandled the issue of xenophobia. Several research studies have shown how the media has uncritically reproduced xenophobic language and state­ments, time and again. The media has certainly been complicit in encouraging xenophobic attitudes among the population. They would not uncritically report the opinions of every racist they come across. No more should they uncritically tolerate the opin­ions of xenophobes.
  • South Africa has not yet ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families. The Convention is not inconsistent with South Africa’s human rights and labour law. However, there has been little public debate about the treaty and knowledge of its content and impli­cations is extremely low in official circles. South Africa should take the African lead in ratifying this convention and making the reasons clear to its own citizens. Commitment to and adherence to the Convention would help to clarify for all exactly what rights and entitlements foreign nationals have when in South Africa.
  • South Africa urgently needs an immigration policy overhaul. The fraught and protracted political process leading to a new Immigration Act in 2002 delivered a policy framework that is incoherent and, in many respects, unimplemented and unimple­mentable. Neither the post 2002 skills-based immigration policy associated with JIPSA, nor the enforcement measures contem­plated by the Act, are working, precisely as SAMP and many other independent commentators predicted at the time. There is a need to develop a coherent and workable development-ori­ented immigration plan and to “sell” that plan to an electorate steeped in isolationism and hostility to immigration, despite the many demonstrable benefits it brings the country. No pro-active immigration plan can survive for long with a citizenry that is so uneducated about, and sceptical of, the benefits of immigration.