A woman covered in soot shouts at foreign nationals outside the Jeppies Hostles in the Jeppestown area of Johannesburg on April 17 after residents reportedly torched a passing vehicle in the early hour as anti-foreigner attacks spread to parts of downtown Johannesburg, police said. (Mujahid Safodien/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

Over the past month, South African citizens turned on immigrants and outsiders in a bout of deadly force and political theater. At least seven are dead and thousands more displaced. Although the world woke up to the mix of violence and xenophobia in May 2008, attacks on foreigners and other outsiders neither began nor ended in 2008. Hundreds have been killed since then in isolated incidents and locally organized melees. Only one person has been convicted of murder in connection with these killings. Although the most visible violence has abated, popular and political responses may exacerbate rather than calm the tensions. Such violence betrays hopes of a peaceful “rainbow nation,” but comes as little surprise to anyone who has followed the persistent demonization of foreigners and the micro-politics of the township.

Anti-outsider sentiments are on the rise globally, but South Africa’s variant is particularly pervasive across the country’s socioeconomic status, location and race. Some argue this is black self-hate (afrophobia) inherited from apartheid – but this hardly explains attacks on migrants from China and South Asia. Instead, we do better treating such sentiments as the legacy of a migrant labor system that overtly used foreigners to undermine local wages and political activism.


South Africans hold a sign reading, “Pakistans (sic) Must Go Back to Their Country,” at a Human Rights Day Demonstration in Soweto’s Freedom Square in 2012. (Loren B. Landau/African Centre for Migration & Society)

Although new research suggests that immigration poses few threats to South African jobs, access to housing or services, post-apartheid politicians continue demonizing foreigners, saying they undermine economic transformation, lead to heightened crime, expose the country to disease and organized crime, and somehow account for the almost 30 percent unemployment rate among the black population.

Worrisome warnings of a “human tsunami” breaching South Africa’s borders and shoddy research only heighten such fears. An infamous government-sponsored study from 1996 found that there were 2.5 million to 4.1 million undocumented migrants in the country. Critics slammed the report’s methods, and it was withdrawn. But it lives on, zombie like, with government officials, news reports and citizens circulating these numbers. Just last month, even the New York Times reported that 5 million migrants were in the country, a number almost three times higher than that indicated by the best statistical evidence.

But what translates rhetoric into violence? One often overlooked factor is how domestic and international migration are transforming communities. Because of its extended history of radical segregation – apartheid was about racially separate and unequal development — the first democratic election, in 1994, led to people moving. The result has been concentrated urbanization that continues to swell the cities’ numbers.

Now millions of people live in “urban estuaries“: fluid, multi-ethnic sites with poor service provision and few economic prospects. These areas serve as low-cost urban gateways attracting migrants from across South Africa and people from beyond the borders. Yet jobs are few, people’s involvement in formal political structures is limited and levels of social capital are remarkably low — not just between ethnic groups but even within them. Reflecting longstanding criminological research, Fauvelle-Aymar and Wa Kabwe-Segatti demonstrate that it is in precisely these sorts of spaces where violence is most likely.

But demographics are never enough to mobilize whether people will claim their rights or actively direct malice toward others. Part of the problem is rooted in how South Africa selects and supports its leaders. Ward councillors, or some of them, are the only directly elected officials (the rest appear only on party lists). Although few citizens know their parliamentarians or local officials, councillors and those challenging them are familiar and known. With almost no budget or legislative authority, they are held responsible for problems they have little hope of resolving. Faced with perennial shortfalls of services, dwellings and jobs, local leadership has allowed and abetted the scapegoating and appropriation of foreign-owned shops, houses or goods. With new resources to distribute and a demon to blame, they come out winners. While low employment, poor services and political competition to do not necessitate violence even in fragmented communities, this trifecta almost always appears where it occurs.

Responses from South African citizens and politicians are doing little to address the structural and institutional conditions that incentivize violence. The police have responded more quickly than in the past and senior political leaders have condemned the violence. Yet underlying this is a worrying change: that the language of the 2008 gangsters and killers has gone mainstream. The ruling party’s secretary general, Gwede Mantashe, wants refugee camps; others demand tighter border controls, bans on foreign business and land ownership or bans on foreigners altogether. Even the president was careful to say that those “legally” in the country must be protected, suggesting open season on others.

In the days following the violence, the government began a highly visible anti-crime mission under the name Operation Fiela. Ostensibly designed to help root out dangerous elements in society, it was undertaken in a migrant-rich neighborhood and bagged more than 700 people for deportation while netting fewer than 150 on criminal charges. In such gestures, we see officials placating the basest, most exclusionary fears among the citizenry: placating angry citizens by arresting foreigners – effectively blaming migrants for being attacked. Continuing to scapegoat while not addressing the incentives for violence is unlikely to lead to a secure or inclusive future.

Loren B. Landau is the South African research chair for mobility and the politics of difference at the African Centre for Migration & Society at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. During the 2014-15 academic year, he was the Henry J. Leir chair of global migration at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. His work includes “Exorcising the Demons Within: Xenophobia, Violence and Statecraft in Contemporary South Africa.”