In May 2008 I was standing at the entrance of the shop I run when there were sudden shouts of “They are coming!They are coming!” Only a few hawkers were left in the usually bustling market street. “They” were the marauding group of people who were supposedly rounding up foreigners, looting their shops and in some cases inflicting untold violence on them.

“Are you just going to stand there and do nothing? Close your shop quickly, they are coming!” This was a regular customer urging me to close up shop. The funny thing was he wasn’t going anywhere. His eyes were fixed on me waiting for my next move. I felt sorry for all the “foreigners” who were losing their livelihoods in various parts of our country but I had always felt a certain amount of comfort, albeit uneasy, in the fact that I’m a local. South African born and bred. This madness was about “foreigners” after all.

Yet here was this fellow waiting for my next move. “Make sure your car is safe, they are also burning cars belonging to foreigners”. I reluctantly moved to close up shop but I was a little annoyed and confused, why was this fellow giving me the looks and attention he was giving me? That’s when he said, “we may know you but we can’t protect you when they get here!” More confusion.

But then it dawned on me, he thought I was a foreigner! He was doing his bit in “getting rid” of the foreigners. I wanted to explain that he was wrong, that my great-great-grandparents, my grandparents and my parents were all born in South Africa, what right had he to mistake me for a foreigner. I know of no other country in which I have family. But before I could relate my story to him he was gone, I was left deciding whether to act or stay put. Eventually I closed up and drove to safety.

As I drove, I understood the feelings of the main character in the movie Hotel Rwanda. His neighbours had suddenly decided he was a cockroach and shouldn’t be spared in the ethnic cleansing that was going on in Rwanda. His tribe was nearly decimated in the 1994 genocide. How did it come to this? That I, a born and bred South African had suddenly been turned into an object of hate, xenophobia to be exact? Are my fellow countrymen inherently afraid of foreigners?

I’m no different from most South Africans in terms of my place of origin. I have both a rural and an urban background. Born in the Northern province of Limpopo, I was also exposed to urban life in the Gauteng East Rand township of Tembisa. The majority of South Africans lead this dual existence, thanks to the migrant labour system that apartheid relied on to keep the racist wheels of commerce turning. We have an urban existence, necessitated by the need to earn, and a rural existence, the place we call “home”.

In the eighties, at the height of the civil war in Mozambique, our tiny village of Elim in Limpopo started receiving its first Mozambican war refugees. These are men and women who ran away from the civil war in their country to seek greener pastures in South Africa. Most of them were received into South African families to do manual work in exchange for a place to sleep, eat and live.

It was quite common for those rural families to have a person of Mozambican origin doing either housework if female, or field work if male. I’ll be honest with you, these people were not always welcomed with the warmest of welcomes, in certain areas of the then Gazankulu homeland, the refugees established settlements that were specifically meant for themselves. I suppose it was mainly for the purposes of being amongst people of the same customs. There may have been ill-feelings in the community towards them on a superficial level, but on the whole they were part and parcel of the community. No xenophobic attacks. In fact, we didn’t even know the word existed.

In the urban setting of Tembisa, one encountered a different kind of refugee, more an economic one than a war refugee, although the two were clearly linked. Mozambicans in the urban areas came this side with a clear purpose of earning a living and sending money and goods back home. They also went home as and when they could. Most started their own business and integrated themselves into their surroundings to such an extent that most have bought houses and built homes here. Again, xenophobic attacks were a foreign thing if you’ll excuse the pun.

So, when did South Africans turn from being welcoming hosts into monsters who burnt foreigners in the streets for merely being from a different country?

I want to suggest to you that South Africans never changed, but their country did. Most black South Africans have never felt they ‘owned’ their townships. In fact, some people in their seventies and eighties are only now receiving the title deeds to their houses. In apartheid years, black people were forbidden from owning land and property in urban areas. What does this have anything to do with xenophobia? Indulge me for a moment here. Let me play amateur psychologist or sociologist if you like.

Stephen R. Covey, in his bestseller, The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People tells of how one of his children refused to share a toy he had received at a birthday party. No other kid could touch the toy. Parents with toddlers have experienced this: in your heart you are praying your child will play the gracious host to his/her little toddler friends. Instead, the child keeps all the toys and refuses the other kids access. On further analysis, Stephen realized that his child refused to share a new toy because the child had not internalized his ownership of the toy. How can he give away what he doesn’t think belongs to him yet?

This is exactly what is being asked of the average township black South African, share your resources, land and space with our newly arriving neighbours. Can South Africans truly share what they have no experience of owning?

Floods of economic refugees burst into South Africa soon after the onset of democracy in 1994. Black South Africans had until then lived a sheltered existence, save for entertainment brought through by the heavily-censored South African Broadcasting Corporation(SABC). The only images that average South Africans got of the economic refugees from the rest of Africa were those of foreigners involved in crime. No images of doctors or university professors.

Indeed, an average township person does not know much about what foreign nationals based in the inner city do except what they read in the news which is most negative, drug dealings and the like.
Lately, a second or third wave of foreign nationals has descended upon the country with the sole purpose of establishing businesses here. There are places in the townships where every second house is a foreign-national owned shop. South Africans are still grappling with the ins and outs of their newly-earned democracy, very slow economic growth and the effects of centuries of a system meant to kill off any entrepreneurial spirit in them. On top of that they are watching a large group of mostly undocumented refugees who seem to arrive with cash in hand and establishing businesses almost overnight on their doorsteps. South Africans, like the child in Stephen Covey’s example, are being asked to give away something that they feel is theirs but have never felt a sense of ownership towards it.

The super-educated amongst us tell South African Business owners to wake up and compete. With which skills and capital?

The economic refugee problem is a global one. First world countries tend to have a more defined policy towards economic refugees, albeit sometimes xenophobic, with laws in place to regulate the movements of people wanting to establish business in their host countries. In the UK the national health system is legally protected from from foreigners. In most African countries, South Africa included, resources tend to be applied to efforts towards Job creation rather than ensuring the safe integration of immigrants into society.

The battle for scarce economic resources takes an ugly turn when the enemy is no longer perceived to be a slow growing economy but undocumented immigrants. The lack of a co-ordinated policy leaves these things to fester resulting in these sporadic attacks every so often.

Shockingly, some of the culprits is the attacks turn out to be foreigners who have been here long enough turning against the new waves of economic refugees.

The media, both local and international chose to label the violent flare-ups Xenophobia: an “intense or irrational fear of foreigners”. South Africa has large groups of Indian, Chinese, Pakistani, Zimbabweans and other groups of people who chose to settle here long before the “Xenophobic” attacks of 2008. None of them have ever been attacked for merely being from another country.

In classic “some of my best friends are white/black” fashion I think most South African can claim “some of my best friends are foreigners”. We have Chinatown and other places that are almost exclusively communities inhabited by “foreigners”, so when did the people of South Africa turn into people with “intense/irrational fear of foreigners?”

The violent flare-ups of 2008 only happened in the townships and informal settlements. The places most affected by the violence are characterized by grinding poverty in most instances, inadequate services(sanitation, electricity, schools), terribly high unemployment and mostly uncontrolled shelters(temporary housing/shacks) and zero law enforcement. It is no cliche that in the informal settlement one shacks door opens onto another shacks window. With dirty water often meandering around the shacks.

The online DailyMaverick notes that “South African xenophobia has also been explained by the rate of socio-economic inequality in the country. Not for nothing has it been pointed out that the greatest scourge of xenophobic violence has been perpetrated in margins of formal society, where foreign nationals compete with the poorest South Africans to eke out a menial living”.

Those that live in such poverty and conditions can be easily misled into believing that the Zimbabwean fellow in the next shack took your job. That is not an intense hatred of foreign nationals, it is a twisted logic that has existed since time immemorial, “those that look different from you are the cause of you problems”. People with twisted motives and minds are very good at exploiting these conditions to suit their own needs. Criminals come into the mix and according to the media, Xenophobia is born. Really? So all this time, we’ve been secretly habouring an intense fear of Zimbabweans, Mozambicans, Pakistanis without knowing it?

I beg to differ. I am convinced that what was characterized as xenophobia in 2008 was actually a desperate cry of a desperate people. People find themselves very marginalized by society, people who do not possess the skills to tell their own stories eloquently because they have been denied access to education by the “system”. And the rest of society stood back and watched in horror as these uneducated “barbarians” attacked foreigners. Of the 62 odd people killed in the attacks, about a third(21) were South Africans.

Xenophobic people will not be so random as to kill their own. Xenophobic people will hate the object of their hatred no matter where they are. Rich or poor, employed or unemployed. Xenophobia doesn’t exclude towns and cities, poverty normally does.

Nobody has a manual on what form of Uprising the poor will choose. The “educated” and privileged in the media and society need to be critical enough to assess situations for what they are. Critical thinking is free and leads to better and last solutions.

A better question to ask would have been why are these “xenophobic” attacks limited to poverty-stricken areas?

So far, I’ve come across very few articles in the mainstream media that have suggested a different reasoning to the causes of what they choose to label xenophobia.

The fellow who “threatened” me is himself not gainfully employed. I think he would have relished the idea of obtaining a few free goods from looting the shop of a “foreign national”. Does he have an intense fear of foreigners? I doubt it,I believe he’s just a normal South African who got criminal intentions by capitalizing on a situation in which foreigners are made vulnerable by a mixture of conditions and circumstances beyond their control. Xenophobia? I’m not convinced.

Maybe I should give the last word to Kerry Chance, a PhD student who wrote for Slate in 2008:

“What’s more, it is important to note that the wealthy of any race or nationality were not among the attacked or displaced. In South African cities—in all cities—the rich work, live, and play in separate areas from the poor. Even when the attackers left their home turf, they didn’t head to the nearest wealthy Johannesburg suburb nor to the international airport adjacent to the epicenter of the attacks. Busloads of foreign tourists, ubiquitous in many townships, were unharmed.

But South Africa’s poor aren’t counted among the victims—they are cast as the perpetrators, the embodiment of xenophobia.

The New York Times declared, “Those left behind by the nation’s post-apartheid economy commonly blame those left even further behind, the powerless making scapegoats of the defenseless.” While some poor South Africans—like some politicians and elites—are hostile to poor foreigners, the attackers cannot be construed as representative of “the powerless.” Many township- and shack-dwellers across the country rushed to protect foreign migrants, organizing community watch groups and anti-xenophobic protests. At times, they worked with police (for whom there is no love lost).

Maybe instead of calling it Xenophobia, the mainstream media should have labelled it “Broke-on-Broke violence” as comedian Chris Rock is reported to have labelled it.

9 responses

  1. This sounds like an incredibly complex problem, one which had heard of but was ignorant as far as the causes went. Thank you for shedding some light on this.


  2. What an interesting perspective on a timely issue, Sydney. Have you tried submitting your work for publication? In addition to the material itself, what struck me (again) is the sheer quality of your writing. This is *at least* as strong as anything one might read in the NY Times, or Time Magazine, or on Al Jazeera- really, in any reputable journal or online news source. You have such a gift. If you haven’t already, might I suggest submitting your work? I’m certain you would develop a following in no time.


    1. Brandee, as ever, thank you for reading. Honestly, I’ve thought about submitting my work to different publications but that’s all I’ve done, think. Heidi suggested it to me and Divya a while ago but I did what I normally do, deflected the suggestion as though it was meant just for Divya. Thank you for the proverbial kick-in-the-butt, let me get to it. I guess I sort of convinced myself that I’m new to all this and all the other silly thoughts that go with it. I will work at it. Stru!


  3. I’m with Brandee – get out there, Sydney! Hang on, wait, we need you for our online mag…


    1. Thank you Heidi, especially for thinking the way you think( I would be a ‘loss’ to our webzine😃). I will get my work ‘out there’.


      1. That was joking, the more famous people write for us, the more people will read the stuff written by the rest of us who aren’t famous (yet). So there’s another reason for you to get out there. We’ll all be your cheer-squad!


  4. Insightful….


  5. First, Syd, as you know, I greatly enjoy your writing. I agree with Brandee and Heidi: you must submit your work for publication. You are accountable to us now.

    In response to your article, Stephen Covey is one of my best friends, I mean one of my favorite imaginary friends. I am glad that you get his undivided attention, too. Your insightful application of the principle he wrote about is profound.

    Your article reminds me of something I have observed: newcomers want to be the last people let in, and give the newest newcomers a hard time. I have noticed this at workplaces and membership organizations. I think this motivates fraternity hazings.

    Then you got me laughing as you gave me another perspective on a situation in my life. It seems that a couple hundred years ago, some of my husband’s ancestors moved to an area, developed it to the point where they considered it saturated, and then the children left to find opportunities elsewhere. A hundred years after this, I arrived at this same place, and wasn’t considered a “native”. I was considered an unlikable outsider for over 6 years. They didn’t invite me to their functions, and didn’t accept my invitations to visit or do things together. My husband and I recently discovered that the people who moved into the area that my husband’s ancestors “settled” were the ones who had disregarded me. People even shunned me who had moved to the area just a few years before I did. They were newcomers who apparently wanted to be the last ones in.

    The people I’m describing were not desperate, nor did they act as drastically as the people you describe. I am considering that this reluctance of newcomers to allow insiders in is not just the act of desperate people. I considered that we are a tribal species. Are we hardwired this way to protect our resources?

    I have lived in dozens of places. I blended in everywhere except that one small town. Is it because the people in that town had a different sense of ownership?

    “People find themselves very marginalized by society, people who do not possess the skills to tell their own stories eloquently because they have been denied access to education by the “system”.” These words pierce my heart. I want to hear their stories. What an eloquent argument for education. I hadn’t thought of it that way. I now realize that my education does a lot to help me understand the context of my stories as I learn the stories of others. It is possible that the people who shunned me the worst did not have the education to appreciate my stories.

    Thank you for sharing your stories.


    1. Grace, thank you for reading. I will keep on working at submitting my work for publication. Amazing how newcomers want to be gatekeepers. It most probably has to do with the “selfish” gene that’s apparently necessary for our survival. But I also think it has something to do with fact that the latest accepted newcomer is viewed as acceptable because they offer something desirable to the community.

      The last newcomer obviously doesn’t to lose this position of being viewed positively to another new arrival. Your insight is amazing Grace. I work with someone who arrived in the country more than 20 years ago and I’m constantly surprised at how he appears to despise the late newcomers from his home country, now it makes a bit of sense.

      It’s all a huge pity though because we all get more out of diversity than uniformity. I like what Mama D said once, uniformity or lack of diversity leads to inbreeding and incest(of ideas even).


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