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The effects of xenophobia on the integration of migrants in South Africa: An NGO perspective

Stefanie Jost, Karoline Popp, Melanie Schuster, and Astrid Ziebarth1


South Africa has a long history of migration. The country has been receiving migrant labour from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) for many years. Many of the migrant workers came to work in the mines in Johannesburg and would later return home after completing their contracts. To this day, South Africa continues to receive many migrants and refugees both from the SADC region and beyond. Currently, South Africa is said to be hosting approximately 3 million foreigners.2 This figure includes both documented and undocumented non-nationals. The number of refugees is put at 57,899 whilst asylum-seekers are recorded at 171,702. Many foreign nationals have experienced some form of xenophobia in South Africa and this has effectively affected how this group integrates into the broader South African society. This opinion piece highlights the effects of xenophobia on non-nationals and how this hinders their full integration into their host communities in the country and thus curtails their contribution to the development of South Africa.

The domestic context

South Africa attained democracy in 1994 after years of oppression and discrimination of the black majority by successive apartheid governments. Millions of black Africans were for the first time allowed to vote in their homeland. Many promises of a better life for all were made in the months leading up to the first general election held in April 1994 and during successive elections. These promises of a better life were to be realized through the progressive realization of the rights enshrined in the country’s constitution, which has been hailed internationally as one of the most progressive constitutions. However, these remain but an aspiration for many South Africans. There is a great divide between the rich and poor and skilled and unskilled workers in the country. This is the context within which non-nationals arrive or live in South Africa and they also fit between these demographics wherein there are those who are highly skilled and those who are low-skilled.

History of xenophobia in South Africa

Xenophobia is not a new phenomenon in the country, nor is South Africa the only country that is grappling with xenophobia. A number of organizations working with foreign nationals have documented attacks on this group from as far back as 1994. This is not to say that there might not have been attacks on foreign nationals prior to this date. There had been incidences of attacks on foreign nationals in different areas. However, the 1998 incident where two Senegalese and a Mozambican were thrown out of a moving train seems to have galvanized more action around addressing xenophobia in the country. Since this incident, xenophobic attacks have continued, however, not much attention has been paid on the issue particularly by state and government authorities. Civil society organizations and the Chapter Nine institutions (particularly, the South African Human Rights Commission) have raised concerns around this issue.

The rise in the number of xenophobic attacks and concerns for the safety and well-being of non-nationals prompted the National Consortium on Refugee Affairs (NCRA, now called CoRMSA), the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other organizations to launch a campaign called Roll Back Xenophobia (RBX). The campaign was launched in 1998 with the aim of raising awareness about the presence of foreign nationals in the country. This campaign used various methods to address the issue of xenophobia, including public awareness in community radio, programmes on television, school programmes and seminars where refugee issues were discussed. The campaign was targeted at various audiences, including state and non-state actors.

Incidences of xenophobia have continued to be reported since then and it seems the country is nowhere close to addressing this situation. The rise in unemployment and the government’s inability to deliver services to the people have led to an increase in the number of protest actions in the country. These are service delivery protests that often take place in predominantly poorer areas of South Africa. These service delivery protests more often than not result in attacks on foreign nationals, either directly or through the looting and destruction of their properties. These attacks have resulted in deaths in some instances. Whilst it has been noted that xenophobic attacks have taken place predominantly in townships and/or informal settlements, negative feelings about foreign nationals are said to transcend race, class and gender.

This situation is compounded by the emergence of self-imposed leaders in other communities. These gangs of leaders often take advantage of weaknesses within the current local government structures and use this opportunity to assert their authority in communities, often on the premise that first, they are better than legitimately elected local councillors, and second, that they will help the community to get rid of foreigners. As noted, “…where the violence happened [in 2008], there was an absence of official, institutionalized leadership that could represent the full diversity of the community”.3

It should, however, be noted that xenophobia does not only happen at the community level among ordinary members of the community. Xenophobia can further be perpetuated by officials in various government departments or institutions. These officials often either deny access to services to non-nationals because of the fact that they are not South African, claiming that they are taking resources aimed at South Africans, or they make derogatory statements towards non-nationals.

It is not uncommon to find law enforcement officers asking for bribes from foreign nationals. There have also been reports of corruption at the Department of Home Affairs, where foreign nationals are either asked or offer to pay bribes to officials in order to get the services that they need.4 This is reportedly happening at offices dealing with asylum claims and general immigration offices.

Foreign nationals, however, are not the sole victims of xenophobia or xenophobic sentiments. It is important to highlight that, at times, non-nationals can also contribute towards xenophobia in their host countries. In the case of South Africa, it is not unusual to find foreign nationals discussing how South Africans are lazy, uneducated and diseased. These sentiments are often expressed in the presence of South Africans who often do not take kindly to them. This on its own can lead to a serious case of xenophobia. It is thus important that both the host population and those being hosted respect the rights and dignity of others.

The height of xenophobia

These incidences of xenophobia have often been on a small scale, often targeting individuals and/or non-nationals who own and/or rent shops in townships. These spaza shops5 are often situated in townships. Owners of spaza shops often fall victim to crime and, at times, are indeed targeted because they are foreign nationals. Many have lost their lives because of the robberies at their shops. However, the events of May 2008 shocked not only South Africa, but the rest of the world as well. The xenophobic attacks that took place over a few days in early May 2008 resulted in the deaths of 62 people, both non-citizens and citizens; the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people; and millions in lost revenue. Thousands of non-nationals chose to return to the hardships they had fled in their home countries rather than die in a foreign land. The attacks posed serious concerns about the integration of migrants in the country.

Many of those who were displaced did not return to the places from which they were originally displaced for fear of further attacks. Many had to re-establish themselves in other areas of South Africa. However, living in constant fear of the possibility of being attacked makes it very difficult for migrants to properly integrate into mainstream society.

What has been done thus far?

Since these attacks, there have been a number of initiatives put in place to address xenophobia. Firstly, there was suddenly recognition and acknowledgement from all quarters that xenophobia does exist and that it is dangerous. Of particular note is that various government departments have “adopted the promotion of social cohesion as part of their core mandates”.6 After the 2008 attacks, cabinet established the Inter-Ministerial Committee headed by the Minister of Police to deal with cases of xenophobia. The main challenge with this structure is that it is only active when there is a prominent case of xenophobia. Otherwise it remains invisible. Various government departments have come up with social cohesion programmes to address xenophobia. These include the Departments of Social Development and Home Affairs and the local government.

Other initiatives include the joint work being conducted by various organizations. These include peace-building initiatives at the community level, community dialogues, and public awareness campaigns promoting peaceful coexistence and highlighting the rights and responsibilities of non-nationals. There is also the One Movement started and run by IOM. UNHCR also established a rapid response team to address xenophobic attacks in communities. This initiative is in collaboration with the South African Police Services (SAPS). According to the 2011 statistical report from this UNHCR initiative, “there are three serious xenophobic incidents per week, 99 deaths per year and about 1,000 persons displaced permanently or temporarily per annum”.7

In 2009, following the May 2008 xenophobic attacks, CoRMSA formally requested the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) to conduct an investigation into the role played by each government department in addressing the situation of those affected and displaced by violence. This investigation culminated with the SAHRC issuing a report highlighting what each government department had done and making recommendations on what could be improved. CoRMSA asked for this investigation to ensure that there was accountability on this issue.

In 2010, CoRMSA made recommendations to the Inter-Ministerial Committee set up to deal with xenophobia on how this phenomenon can be addressed. These recommendations include: the need to strengthen the ability to detect and respond to threats or outbreaks of xenophobic violence; the need for political leaders to publicly condemn all threats or outbreaks of xenophobic violence; the need to strengthen conflict resolution and prevention mechanisms at the community level; the need to strengthen access to justice for victims of xenophobic violence; the need to strengthen disaster management systems; and assistance to displaced persons.8 Despite the above-mentioned measures, gaps in addressing xenophobia still remain.

Impact of xenophobia on the integration of migrants in South Africa

As mentioned above, South Africa has a long history of labour migration. Thousands of migrants from the region who work in various sectors have found homes in South Africa’s mainly black communities. However, some have traditionally been housed in hostels which are mainly occupied by men, as women were initially not allowed in these areas.

Many migrants access the same services as nationals, including primary health care, education, employment and others. Access to housing is a challenge for non-nationals, particularly those in the lower income levels. These migrants also live side by side with nationals in informal settlements. Others have either rented or bought government-subsidized houses from South Africans. This practice has been a source of many a conflict within communities, with nationals accusing migrants of stealing their houses. This conflict has major implications for the integration of migrants in these communities.

Migrants in communities that are characterized by high levels of tension often live in fear for their lives. This often results in migrants moving from one informal settlement to another in search of a more stable environment. This then has effects on their long-term establishment.

Access to basic education is guaranteed for everyone in the South African constitution. However, many migrants, refugees and asylum-seeking children face major challenges in accessing education. This is often made worse if either they or their parents do not have legal documents. Not having access to education has negative effects in the long-term integration of these children both in the host country and in the country of origin.

In terms of socio-economic integration for those migrants and refugees who are particularly vulnerable, there have been some positive developments. Over the years, the government has gradually extended access to social assistance in the form of social grants to refugees and migrants. However, this positive development was brought about by sustained advocacy and lobbying work by civil society organizations through strategies such as litigation, submissions and broader lobbying strategies, among others. Currently, permanent residents qualify for social assistance; in April 2012, the government extended access to all social grants to qualified refugees in the country. This step will go a long way in ensuring that these groups are capable of being self-sufficient and self-reliant, and thus facilitate better integration in the host country.

Restrictive immigration policies feed sentiments that migrants are not welcome in the country. The situation is currently getting worse with the ongoing immigration review being undertaken by the government. We have noted a shift from a human rights focus to a security paradigm which threatens to take away fundamental rights, particularly those of refugees and asylum-seekers. This situation is compounded by the release in March by the African National Congress of Peace and Stability, a discussion document which proposes quite drastic measures in dealing with immigration in the country. These restrictions make it difficult for migrants to integrate effectively.

What are some of the gaps in addressing xenophobia and thus challenges to integration?

There have many initiatives set up to deal with the issue of xenophobia in the country. These include community dialogues, public talks, media engagement, government-led initiatives and many more. However, gaps still remain and need to be addressed. One of the main issues that need to be addressed if the country is really to be effective in addressing xenophobia is to develop a coordinated plan to deal with this issue. The lack of coordination renders good work ineffective as it is often repetitive and has no impact at the end of the day.

Issues of justice and accountability remain largely unaddressed. The main problem with regard to addressing xenophobia is the issue of impunity for the perpetrators of this violence. In many instances where xenophobic incidents have happened, those responsible are either never apprehended or are released a short while after being arrested. The main reason cited for their release is that there is often not enough evidence to prosecute their cases. However, in some cases, victims are forced to withdraw charges against perpetrators as a condition for their return to the community. These have made it difficult to hold people accountable for inciting violence and destroying property in xenophobic incidents.

The fact that perpetrators enjoy so much impunity actually has negative effects for integration in the country. Migrants who have been violated lose trust in the justice system and thus prefer not to report their cases. This impunity also has negative consequences for victims of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). Aware that they cannot trust law enforcement officers, victims of SGBV often choose not to report their cases or seek assistance from civil society organizations that offer psychosocial support. Many non-nationals choose to live in places that are predominantly occupied by other non-nationals. This on its own limits the proper integration of non-nationals within the country.

The lack of coordination among government departments results in contradicting policies and legislative frameworks which, at times, frustrates attempts by many migrants to integrate. For instance, asylum-seekers and refugees are allowed to seek and take up employment. However, other professional bodies and government departments prohibit the employment of asylum-seekers, making it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the affected asylum-seekers and refugees to secure employment in particular fields, for instance. These exclusions could contribute to fuelling xenophobia as asylum-seekers might be deemed unwelcome.

In order to address the continued xenophobia being experienced in communities and thus affecting the long-term integration of migrants, CoRMSA has recently conducted training on conflict resolution for religious leaders from all over the country. Religious leaders were chosen because of their authority and influence in communities, and the fact that these religious leaders are based in such communities, as it makes it much easier for them to respond to issues on the ground.


The effective integration of migrants into society requires a multipronged approach. This can be achieved by ensuring that the constitutional rights of migrants are respected both in law and in practice. Collaboration between state and non-state actors is important both for guidance and support. For instance, CoRMSA serves in the steering committee chaired by the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development and set up to develop a National Action Plan to address racism, racial intolerance, xenophobia and related intolerance; this ensures that issues directly affecting migrants and their potential to fully integrate are incorporated in the plan.

The collaboration initiated between UNHCR and SAPS has prevented loss of life and destruction of property through regular engagement and sharing of information – and thus speedy responses where incidents of and/or xenophobia have been noted. Still, the government has to do more to ensure a secure and equal environment that would promote effective integration of migrants and ensure their access to livelihoods.

1 Sicel’mpilo Shange-Buthane is Executive Director of the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa (CoRMSA) and a fellow of the Transatlantic Forum on Migration and Integration.

2 L.B. Landau and V. Gindrey, Migration and Population Trends: Gauteng Province 1996–2055 (2008).

3 J.P. Misago et al. Towards tolerance, law and dignity: Addressing violence against foreign nationals in South Africa (Arcadia, International Organization for Migration, 2009), p. 38.

4 See for example : Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa, Protecting Refugees, Asylum-seekers and Immigrants in South Africa (Johannesburg, 2009), pp. 7 and 32; Forced Migration Studies Programme, National Survey of the Refugee Reception Status Determination System in South Africa (Wits University, February 2009); J. Klaaren and J. Ramji, Inside illegality: Migration policing in South Africa after apartheid, Africa Today, Vol. 48, No. 3, Evaluating South African Immigration Policy after Apartheid, Autumn 2001; and D. Vigneswaran, Barriers to Asylum: The Marabastad Refugee Reception Office, Migrants Rights Monitoring Programme Reports, 2008, pp. 1–29.

5 Spaza shops are informal shops usually operating from a domestic setting in mostly African areas in South Africa.

6 Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa, Protecting Refugees, Asylum-seekers and Immigrants in South Africa during 2010 (Johannesburg, CoRMSA, April 2011), p. 67.

7 A. Munyaneza, Violence against Foreign Nationals: Response and Prevention Achievements (February 2012), p. 4.

8 CoRMSA, Taking Action on Threats of Xenophobic Violence: Recommendations for the Inter-Ministerial Committee (11 June 2010).