State is complicit in xenophobic violence – R2K

It is a national shame that this type of violence has become a regular feature of SA

State is complicit in xenophobic violence undermining the rule of law

2 September 2019

The Right2Know Campaign strongly condemns the recent spate of attacks on foreign nationals from other African countries in Gauteng and in KwaZulu-Natal earlier this year. The assaults on people and the looting of their property just because they were not born in South Africa can never be justified.  These actions - which are criminal in nature - when combined with the targeting of the victims as belonging to a certain group, becomes a hate crime.

Apartheid was the experience of being stateless and homeless within one’s home country. Today, we find South Africans showing the same hatred towards fellow Africans that we ourselves suffered not too long ago. As hosts of the World Conference Against Racism in 2001, we recognised xenophobia (and the local Afrophobia) as expressions of racism; in 2008 we experienced how the deep roots of internalised oppression enabled us to turn our own experience of racism and oppression into actions that discriminated against, targeted and in some cases killed other Africans living in South Africa. 

It is an issue of national shame that xenophobic violence has become a regular and highly visible feature of South Africa’s political landscape. Outsiders have been regularly attacked, killed and their livelihoods destroyed since the dawn of democracy in 1994. In April this year, major violent incidents occurred in Durban, when foreign nationals were attacked and displaced in five locations around the city. This past week in two of the three metropolitan areas of Gauteng - Tshwane and  Johannesburg - Africans from other countries have been targeted and assaulted, their businesses and possessions looted and they have been displaced from their homes. 

We recognise that there are many sources of the violence but it is also clear that statements of outrage and condemnation by state officials at all levels (Cabinet, Parliament, the Gauteng Province, SAPS and Metros) fuelled the actions of ordinary citizens who interpreted those statements to be licence to take the law into their own hands. The recent xenophobic attacks on non-South Africans can be directly linked to calls by politicians to ‘defend the sovereignty of the state’ and confirms a dangerous emerging trend of xenophobic populism which leads to attacks on foreign nationals. The xenophobic intent was and still very clear. It wanted to do what the state had failed to do: remove foreigners from the city.

Through all condemnations, the central theme was that the confrontation with law enforcement was an attack on the state’s sovereignty. This implies foreign interference and suggests that the outrage was caused not so much by the action (the confrontation itself) as by the identity of the actors: foreigners. After all, violent attacks on the police and other law enforcement agents are a regular occurrence during police raids and service delivery protests but rarely evoke such levels of outrage. 

One can support the rule of law and condemn illegality, without disregarding basic principles of justice, proportionality, and due process. As others have noted, regular attacks on law enforcement in South Africa (whether by citizens or foreign nationals) are “an expression of outrage against a policing system that only oppresses and extorts but does not protect”.

As in the past, the language of “attack on sovereignty” was followed by explicit or implicit calls on citizens to defend their country

Senior political leaders find an easy target in the vulnerable Africans seeking to make a new home in South Africa. Indeed, there is a dangerous emerging trend of xenophobic populism that leads to attacks on foreign nationals. In 2015, Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini’s speech, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s 2019 election campaign pronouncements, the Minister of Health’s comments on the strain placed on health services by foreign migrants, and the xenophobic blaming for Johannesburg’s ill by Mayor Herman Mashaba have been followed by xenophobic attacks in different localities. In all these instances, even when not responding to a direct call, political populism is used as justification by instigators and perpetrators who would have been waiting for an opportunity to strike for their own reasons.

There are many ways in which the action (or inaction) by State officials fuel these attacks: 

1. Calls on citizens to defend the country’s sovereignty and democracy is an order to attack foreigners; an order which the citizenry, already harbouring pervasive and strong xenophobic sentiments, is unlikely to turn down; 

2. Looting of foreign-owned shops often occurs in full view of the various police agencies - who do very little. Rather disturbingly we witnessed a level of impunity from looters who continued their actions despite heavy police presence on the streets of Pretoria; 

3. The slowness by officials to condemn - or even acknowledge - the attacks may be interpreted as endorsement or at the very least, tolerance by the State.

Community and local leaders also incite violence against migrants by blaming local economic conditions on the presence of migrants. Research evidence further demonstrates that interventions to address xenophobia in the country have failed largely because of the state’s denialism (“it is just crime and not xenophobia”); lack of political will and impunity, all of which encourage perpetrators to strike whenever it suits their interests. 

Xenophobic violence is not a spontaneous and irrational outburst. It is a rational action taken after perpetrators have weighed costs and benefits. In the current context, benefits outweigh costs, and so violence against foreign nationals continues. While there are many factors that interact in many and complex ways to produce an incident of xenophobic violence, state complicity is a key element that can be easily reversed. It needs to be addressed for xenophobic violence to be prevented and the rule of law that offers fair and equal protection to all country’s residents to prevail.

Xenophobic violence undermines the rule of law and a state that is complicit in undermining the rule of law is a danger to itself, its legitimacy and the very sovereignty it wants to restore/protect through police raids. Xenophobia is wrong and has no place in South Africa as we struggle to rebuild our country after decades of oppression based on discrimination and racism. 


1. We call upon the government to intervene decisively to stop the targeting of African migrants and the looting of their property; 

2. We call upon community, political and faith leaders to speak out against the actions of their constituents and to insist that they respect the rule of law and the dignity of everyone who lives in this country;

3. We call for urgent action to rebuild the social cohesion in our communities; many of these actions are contained in the National Action Plan against Racism but have not moved into implementation; and

4. We call for the implementation of the hate crimes regulatory framework that will ensure that the culture of impunity ends. 

We call on everyone to Stop Xenophobia Now! Stop the Hate! Let us exercise the spirit of UBUNTU. African immigrants must once again feel safe in our country. 

Issued by Busi Mtabane on behalf of R2K, 2 September 2019