Ius Gentium

University of Baltimore School of Law's Center for International and Comparative Law Fellows discuss international and comparative legal issues

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Reoccurring Xenophobic Attacks Cause Turmoil in South Africa

Suzanne De Deyne

At a recent gathering, Zulu King Goodwill Swelithini described immigrants “as lice that must be removed”[1] and urged foreigners to “pack their bags and go” because they are taking jobs away from natural-born South African citizens.[2]  Although kings are mostly ceremonial figures in South Africa, they are influential in their communities. In this instance, Zulu King Goodwill’s statements sparked violent xenophobic acts against immigrants in Durban, a port city in South Africa.[3] The violence has since spread to other major cities in South Africa, most notably the commercial city of Johannesburg.  Nearby African nations have also condemned these recent xenophobic attacks and as a precaution have evacuated their citizens from South Africa.[4]  This blog post seeks to provide an overview of the recent xenophobic attacks and develop an understanding of why these xenophobic attacks keep happening in South Africa.

At present, South Africa has about two million documented and undocumented immigrants.[5]  Many come to South Africa, also known as the “rainbow nation,” for a better life and hope to contribute to the nation’s economy by bringing skills that are in demand. Unfortunately, South Africans perceive these immigrants as criminals; even President Jacob Zuma’s eldest son, Edward, said of foreigners that, “we are sitting on a ticking time-bomb of them taking over the country.”[6]  President Zuma responded with an emotionless plea by stating, “it is misleading and wrong to label or regard all foreign nationals as being involved in crime in the country.”[7]

The recent violent xenophobic attacks, mainly arising in poor and marginalized areas, have killed at least seven people and have left roughly 5,000 people homeless.[8]  This is not the first time South Africa has dealt with xenophobic attacks and many activists say progress, however incremental, is being made.  This time a round, South Africa deployed its army to hostile areas to prevent further attacks against foreigners[9] and police were commended for their vigorous response to the violence.[10]  Additionally, in Johannesburg a hotline for victims to report xenophobic attacks was launched to help members of vulnerable communities come forward and report problems to the police.[11]  To increase international awareness of these human rights violations, some South Africans have taken to social media, with the hash-tag “WeAreAfrica,” and have held protests against xenophobia and violence in the streets of South Africa.[12]

A notable difference between the recent xenophobic attacks in comparison to those that occurred in previous years is the increase of commitment to prosecute perpetrators.[13]  It is absolutely imperative that perpetrators be prosecuted for their actions to deter others from committing the human right violations associated with xenophobic attacks – including but not limited to looting foreign owned businesses, rape, murder, robbery, and theft.[14]  Criminal accountability is just one necessary tactic to mitigate xenophobic attacks in South Africa.  For example, Peace Action, a non-governmental organization was created to monitor and raise awareness on this issue within local communities and law enforcement.[15]  Peace Action places workers where foreigners are most vulnerable, including the country’s refugee centers, where poor migrants are often denied services and bullied for bribes as well as hospitals, which recently began illegally demanding cash payments in advance from foreign patients.[16]

Despite the improvement in the accountability process for those who commit xenophobic attacks or an increase in resources for those affected by xenophobic attacks, the fundamental question revolving around these attacks remains – why do they keep happening?  The answer is straightforward – inequality.  Today, South Africa remains one of the “most unequal societies on the planet.”[17]  On April 27, 1994 South Africa held its first post apartheid elections; and for many South Africans, the proximity of the recent attacks to this historic anniversary is a harsh reminder of the failures of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) to carry out Nelson Mandela’s promise of a “better life for all.”[18]  Vast unemployment, lack of affordable housing, inability to deliver basic services, like water and electricity, and a growing gap between rich and poor have left most South Africans without a safety net.[19]  The government must step in and address inequality to alleviate South African’s from these inhumane xenophobic attacks.  Perhaps the reason why these attacks keep occurring is because it is harder to hold elected officials accountable than to place the blame on foreigners.  Foreigners are an easy scapegoat but they should not suffer for the government’s lack of success in diverting inequality and establishing a prosperous economy.  If anything, locals and immigrants should work hand in hand to continue the hope that the nickname “rainbow nation” connotes. “Xenophobia starts in people’s minds…and it grows with a lack of education and a lack of understanding,” stated Trish Erasmus, Director of the Refugee-and-Migrants Program at the nonprofit Lawyers for Human Rights.[20]  Effective criminal prosecution and practical grassroots efforts are essential to foster a greater dialogue between immigrants and South Africans to change the perception of foreigners.  The government must take responsibility and squash the xenophobic attitude throughout the entire country by addressing the bigger issue: inequality.

Suzanne De Deyne is a second year student at the University of Baltimore School of Law (candidate for J.D., May 2016) concentrating in International Law. Suzanne graduated cum laude from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and a minor in Economics. She also received a Honor’s International Relations Certificate from Mount Holyoke College.

Currently, Suzanne is a staff editor on the Journal of International Law and represents the International Law Society as the Alumni Relations Director. As a CICL Fellow, Suzanne conducts legal research for International Rights Advocates on human rights and corporate accountability. She is also a member of Phi Alpha Delta and the Women’s Bar Association. This summer she will be a legal intern at Gibson, Dunn, & Crutcher in the firm’s Brussels office, which is focused on Competition Law practice in Europe.


[1] Interview by Renee Montagne with Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, Int’l Correspondent, NPR News, (Apr. 21, 2015) [hereinafter Interview], available at http://www.npr.org/2015/04/21/401167136/immigrants-flee-south-africa-after-xenophobic-attacks. King Zwelithini leads about nine million Zulus, representing the single biggest ethnic group in South Africa. Id.

[2] Faith Karimi, What’s Behind Xenophobic Attacks in South Africa?, CNN (Apr. 19, 2015), http://www.cnn.com/2015/04/18/africa/south-africa-xenophobia-explainer/. According to the UN, the attacks began in March 2015 after a labor dispute between citizens and foreign workers. Id.

[3] Karimi, supra note 2. Zulu King Zwelithini has since denied making this comment and stated journalists misquoted him. Id.

[4] Karimi, supra note 2.

[5] Karimi, supra note 2. Zimbabweans make up the largest group of immigrants in South Africa. Id.

[6] Blood at the End of the Rainbow, Economist (Apr. 25, 2015), http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21649429-south-africas-poor-are-turning-those-even-more-downtrodden-blood-end-rainbow.

[7] Karimi, supra note 2.

[8] South Africa Army to Tackle Xenophobic Attacks, BBC (Apr. 21, 2015), http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-32396532.

[9] South Africa Army to Tackle Xenophobic Attacks, supra note 9.

[10] Christopher Vourlias, After Xenophobic Attacks, South African Gov’t Blasted for Tardy Response, Aljazeera America (Apr. 25, 2015), http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/4/25/after-xenophobic-attacks-s-african-government-blasted-for-tardy-response.html.

[11] Vourlias, supra note 10.

[12] Karimi, supra note 2.

[13] Vourlias, supra note 10.

[14] Karimi, supra note 2.

[15] Vourlias, supra note 10.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.