Xenophobic Attacks in South Africa


(Photo: Michele Spatari/Agence France-Presse – Getty Images)

Safa Hameed

During the first week of September, riots broke out in Pretoria and Johannesburg, the capital of South Africa, amidst spikes in xenophobia, resulting in immigrant-owned businesses being looted and burned.

Rioters took to the streets where more than fifty shops were then burned and looted. Cars lay burning in the streets, as the police tried to subdue the crowd by firing rubber bullets and tear gas. The rioting resulted thousands of dollars in property damage, and 400 were arrested as police tried to find a motive in their attacks. It was later revealed that the attacks followed a pattern South Africa has known for years; the attacks targeted foreign born business owners.

(Photo: Themba Hadebe/Associated Press)

These riots have been a part of South African history since 1994, when a black majority government was voted into rule and apartheid was abolished. Following the inauguration of the new government, riots increased and didn’t seem to decline, even more than a decade later. The most prominent riots took place in 2008 and 2015, when refugees were targeted and homes were burned; in these two cases the death tally totaled 60. The reason for the maltreatment and discrimination of foreigners stems from many problems that seem to have been either neglected by the government or have been encouraged by leaders who take part in xenophobic actions themselves.


Threats, attacks and killings against foreigners in South Africa (
Threats, attacks, and killings against foreigners in South Africa by year (Source: Xenowatch, African Centre for Migration and Society)

For one, citizens look at immigrants as people who steal jobs and houses that they feel belongs to them, considering South Africa’s long time unemployment problem. Unemployment has risen to 29 percent in the third quarter of 2019, and, more specifically, 55 percent for those between the ages of 18-24. They feel that the government does nothing, so they take it upon themselves to fix the problem. The government overlooks situations where citizens take actions into their hands, feeding the violent cycle. A leader in the township near Pretoria drove out all Zimbabweans and redistributed the land to citizens of his township. 

The locals also blame the spread of HIV/AIDS, crime, drugs, and social ills on all immigrants. One of the rioting attacks in 2015 was instigated after rumors had spread that an “Arab man” had killed a woman and the police had done nothing to investigate. Afterward, southeast Asians were the target of hate crimes for months.

There has been international outcry, condemning South Africa for its handling of the problem, especially after police minister, Bheki Cele, called the recent riots “criminality rather than xenophobia.” The President of South Africa, Cyril Ramphose, also spoke out in a tweet, attempting to clear confusion about where South Africa stands on xenophobia and its tolerance for it. “There can be no justification for any South African to attack people from other countries. We are against xenophobia. These attacks are completely against the rule of law.”