From Apartheid to Xenophobia: Exploring exclusion, persecution and displacement in the post apartheid era

Essay, 2018

5 Pages



The post apartheid era has failed to deal with difference and tolerance despite a progressive Constitution that embraces diversity. The intense and irrational dislike of foreign nationals and the continued exclusion of the native minorities, can thus be explained as a by-product of overt apartheid policies that led to the exclusion of South Africa from the International community. Arguably, the environment created by the policy of separation with its emphasis on boundary maintenance and tribal trust lands has negatively impacted on South Africans' ability to be tolerant of outsiders and minorities. Framed on (Harris 2002) hypotheses on xenophobia, this paper argues that the contestations over scarce resources, citizenship and political identity has formented into exclusion, persecution and displacement of both foreign nationals and native minorities in South Africa. Native minorities find themselves as victims of politics of identity and their exclusion in key strategic areas of governance and leadership is a source of hostility and intergenerational trauma. As for foreign nationals seeking greener pastures in South Africa, their situation is further exacerbated by the strategic inconsistency in the immigration and labour laws which are both isolationist and stereotypical of outsiders. Drawing from qualitative scholarship, the paper proposes a durable social inclusive theory, which seeks to reconcile divergent community groups and politicians towards embracing the spirit of Ubuntu and nation building. The social inclusive theory is a peace building initiative that aims to heal divisions of the past and solve post colonial conflicts that have caused social instability in South Africa.

Keywords: xenophobia, apartheid, exclusion, peace building, Ubuntu, persecution, displacement, reconciliation.

The South African history is one written in bold letters of violence and prejudice. The intolerable injustice brought about by Apartheid has left indelible scars of hatred, distrust and isolation. South Africans have thus failed to come to terms with difference and tolerance. The recurring xenophobic attacks on mostly African nationals are testimony of how Apartheid has come to its full circle. The two statues of hate eerily stand forlorn in the square of civilisation!

The Apartheid history is well documented. The whites through the Nationalist Party implemented the policy of Apartheid in a way to control the political space and impose white supremacy. The architect of Apartheid, Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd, constantly reminded the native in South Africa that the school system “must not mislead the Bantu by showing him the green pastures of European society in which he is not allowed to graze.[1]

In Dutoit v Minister of Safety and Security 2010 (1) SACR 1 paragraph 17, the era was described as a time when there was a deeply divided society characterised by gross violations of fundamental human rights. Mahomed DP in Azapo v President of the RSA [1996] ZA CC 16, chronicled this shameful period as one that created a historic bridge of strife, trauma, conflict, untold suffering and injustice. It was a nation separated by colour: black and white, antonyms that would never associate and interact with each other. A cocktail of laws were promulgated to maintain this separate development.[2] In the process the Nguni and Sotho speaking people were hovelled into homelands and boundaries were demarcated to maintain isolation and obscurity. The then Minister of Bantu Administration and Development, C. M. Botha, summarised this inhumane policy in a statement[3] in parliament, as one that creates:

“….a wall, a roof and one cannot get past that. We state this openly, and cannot, nor dare not, conceal it. Nor do we wish to conceal it. The Bantu cannot strive towards the top on an equal footing with the whites in our politics, social matters, labour, economy and education in white South Africa. This is our territory and here there are only limited opportunities of that nature for them. In

their homelands there are measureless and limitless opportunities for them, and there you Mr Speaker, and I as whites, are in our turn restricted. That is the morality of our Policy.”

This policy sparked condemnation around the world and more isolation of South Africa. Civil disobedience ruptured into violent insurrection and many fled into exile[4] around the neighbouring countries were there were cordially hosted as brothers and sisters in distress.

When a new rainbow nation was born in 1994, the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa embraced diversity and the Bill of Rights became the cornerstone of democracy. Persons who had been oppressed similarly were, as equals, entitled and required to interact as equals with people who had previously abused them, stripped them of their dignity and denied them their rights.[5] Inevitable as it was, change also came with its inconveniences. The social transformation was not matched with economic prosperity amongst the once disadvantaged groups. The divide between the poor and the rich deepened and with increased immigration the labour market became over-saturated. This became a constant source of friction between the natives and the immigrants.

Melinda Silverman and Tanya Zack[6] are of the view that the acute socio-economic disparities after 1994 led to frustrations amongst the locals. They narrate how severe overcrowding, deteriorating services, high levels of poverty and rampant unemployment, has fuelled tension amongst the immigrant and the native. The native is of the view that the immigrant has displaced him in his own backyard. This silent fight for scarce resources reached fermentation point and exploded into xenophobia, bluntly labelled black on black violence.

Xenophobia is seen as an intense or irrational dislike of people from the outside, or other countries.[7] Michael Neocosmos (2006:15)[8] argues that citizenship and political identity can result in xenophobia. For him xenophobia is the exclusion of certain groups from the community on the grounds of citizenship. This then suggest that the main reason for such hatred of foreign nationals stems from competition over scarce social goods such as housing and employment opportunities. But it is thus difficult just to wave away why xenophobia results in savage, brutal and inhumane attacks on fellow Africans. Is it not ironic that the same brother who once sought refuge from a distant brother is now attacking him brutally? Can frustration over poor service delivery result in one looting a foreign owned shop? Can distress over lack of social amenities be vented on a poor immigrant running away from persecution from his country? Or should one be cremated alive for having sneaked through the border for greener pastures?

Xenophobia can be explained well using the three hypotheses expostulated by Bronwyn Harris.[9] The first being the scapegoating hypotheses, which explains hostility towards foreigners in relation to limited resources such as employment, housing, healthcare and services coupled with high expectations for social change during a transition. Foreigners are thus seen as leeches which feed off on the generosity of the host country. Any deprivation or poverty faced by the locals is therefore seen to be an end product of the unwelcome foreigner. They are seen as guests who have overstayed their welcome and which results in them being rudely reminded to go back by a savage beating.

The isolation hypothesis is a by-product of Apartheid. This second theory explains xenophobia as a result of South Africa’s exclusion from the international community. There is little doubt that the environment created by apartheid with its emphasis on boundary maintenance and tribal trust lands has impacted on people’s ability to be tolerant of outsiders. This theory suggests that South Africans are unable to tolerate and accommodate difference. They find difference challenging and hard to accommodate. The Tribal Trust Lands in which most South Africans were put into made them to be alert to “strangers”. This psyche was consolidated into them by the system to such an extent that they would not appreciate a stranger in their midst. Any stranger would be a victim of name calling, the reason why they brand all African immigrants makwerekwere.[10]

The bio-cultural hypothesis, the third theory, is quite interesting. It explains xenophobia in terms of physical biological factors and cultural differences exhibited by African foreigners. Bio-cultural reasons are used to establish whether the suspect is an immigrant or not. Zimbabweans for some reasons are identified by the way they pronounce words and also the way they talk and walk. For those from Lesotho their traditional garb is a give-away…..a blanket wrapped around the neck and gumboots even in the sultry heat. In the case of Mozambicans a dead give-away is the vaccination mark on the lower left forearm.

Whichever theory best explains xenophobia, the truth is such hate and blatant racism garbed in African tones cannot be condoned. It is racism of the highest order. An affront to the Constitution of the Republic, which recognise equality, human dignity and diversity. Those who loudly say, “We must deal with our own lice….immigrants must take their bags and go where they come from”,[11] must not lay claim to the freedom of expression. This is tantamount to incitement of hate speech which is contrary to International treaties[12] which South Africa is a signatory. Such speech is unwarranted in a democratic country and it is reminiscent of the root causes of a senseless Rwandan genocide.[13] Although the current government has tried by all means to restore order by castigating the “behaviour of the few”, as not representative of the whole nation the truth is Xenophobia is rife in the supposedly Rainbow Nation. This is unexpected of a nation that was once under bondage from the most repressive and pervasive Apartheid system.

Nelson Mandela during Apartheid called for African countries to prop up a movement for the boycott of South African goods and for the imposition of economic and diplomatic sanctions against South Africa[14], yet years down the lane, it is now the African countries that are now calling for boycott of South African goods and re-calling their ambassadors due to Xenophobia.

Xenophobia has thus completed the full circle of hate. Indeed history repeats itself.


[1] See Racism and Apartheid in Southern Africa: South Africa and Namibia A book of data based on material prepared by the Anti-Apartheid Movement The Unesco Press Paris (1974) pp. 62

[2] The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act (1949) and The Immorality Act (1950) outlawed ’ marriage and sexual intercourse between whites and blacks. The Bantu Education Act (1953, amended in 1954, 1956, 1959 and 1961) In 1970 all political and social rights outside the ‘homelands’ were abolished through the Bantu Homelands Citizenship Act (1970).Amongst others ,these laws helped to deepen the rift between blacks and whites.

[3] House of Assembly Debates ( Hansard). 3 February 1969.

[4] In a speech on 12 January 1962, to the Conference of the PAN-African Freedom Movement of East and Central Africa Nelson Mandela thanked African States for giving “asylum and assistance to South African Refugees of all shades of political beliefs and opinion”. See full speech on (accessed on 27/04/2015)

[5] As per Lamont J, in Afri-Forum v Malema (2011) Equality Court, Johannesburg at para 11.

[6] Melinda Silverman and Tanya Zack (2008) ‘Housing Delivery, The Urban Crisis and Xenophobia’ in Go Home or Die: Violence, Xenophobia and the Reinvention of Difference in South Africa, Wits University Press, Johannesburg pp. 5-10

[7] Cambridge University Press. "Definition: xenophobia"Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary. 2009

[8] Michael Neocosmos (2006) From ‘Foreign’ Natives to Native Foreigners. Explaining Xenophobia in post-apartheid South Africa. (Dakar) 15-18.

[9] Harris, Bronwyn. ‘ Xenophobia: A new Pathology for a New South Africa? ‘Centre For The Study Of Violence And Reconciliation pp. 6

[10] A Zulu slang for ‘foreigners.’ Often used in a negative context.

[11] The recent xenophobic violence is largely contributed to the words uttered by King Goodwill Zwelithini who likened immigrants to lice and ants. Although the King has denied this so many people has called for the King to account for his irresponsible utterances. See (accessed on 01 May 2015) and also See

[12] The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948) which should be read with the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. The second one is The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) (1965); and thirdly The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) (1966).The ICCPR provides in section 20 that any advocacy of national racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.

[13] See The Rwandan Genocide: How it was Prepared, A Human Rights Briefing Paper (April 2006)

[14] Speech by Nelson Mandela on 12 January 1962, to the Conference of the PAN-African Freedom Movement of East and Central Africa. See full speech on (accessed on 27/04/2015)

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From Apartheid to Xenophobia: Exploring exclusion, persecution and displacement in the post apartheid era
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An essay written during the Xenophobic attacks on Zimbabweans in the recent past in South Africa.
Xenophobia, Apartheid, Economic Migrants, Xenophobic attacks, Bantu Education, Shepherd Mutsvara
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Shepherd Mutsvara (Author), 2018, From Apartheid to Xenophobia: Exploring exclusion, persecution and displacement in the post apartheid era, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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