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Many South Africans will not openly admit to being xenophobic, yet subtle hints of it frequently surface in everyday conversations. Take for example a conversation I had this morning with an Uber driver who insisted that he has no problem with foreigners, but in the same breath complains about how “they” are taking “our” jobs. I have also lost count of the number of times I have heard that “we” don’t hate them, but that “they” are the ones bringing drugs into the country. Or the community taskforce member I spoke to in Alexandra last week, who claims to not have a problem with documented immigrants, yet openly participates in discussions on keeping all “unskilled” immigrants out of the “township” economy.

These examples highlight, that despite how much people deny being xenophobic, xenophobia remains a persistent issue in South Africa, and as our country continues to grapple with the triple challenge of poverty, inequality and unemployment, immigrants frequently become scapegoats for broader systemic issues. 

How misinformation and stereotypes fuel xenophobia

The spread of inaccurate and sensationalist information about immigrants has played a huge role in promoting xenophobia. Often you will hear of a so-called “influx of foreigners”, without any reference to how many foreigners there in fact are in South Africa. Yet If we look at the latest census data, immigrants (which includes Europeans and Africans), Stats SA reports that we have just over 2-million documented immigrants. Additionally, The Migration Profile Report for South Africa published by Stats SA in March this year, shows that there are only 8.9% immigrants in our overall workforce, and with the majority in low-skilled employment (where they are probably being exploited). Immigrants are frequently, and wrongly, blamed for taking jobs, overburdening public services, and increasing crime rates, without any actual real data to back up these claims.

The online spread of xenophobia and its real-world consequences

The increased use of social media has provided another avenue to spread xenophobic misinformation. On X, the hashtag #PutSouthAfricaFirst has mushroomed into an online anti-migrant movement, whose tweets are often accompanied by #Spaza4Locals, #DrugFreeSouthAfrica and #SecureOurBorders. With these hashtags, inflammatory posts that blame immigrants for various societal issues can gain traction and go viral very quickly. In our current era of social media engagement farming, sensational content whether harmful or not, reaches thousands of people, with very little scrutiny or consequences for posting it. In addition to spreading misinformation online, these online movements often organise and coordinate real-world actions. For instance, Operation Dudula, an extremist nationalist organisation (now also a political party), has used social media campaigning to attract and inflame a substantial number of followers. In the real world, Operation Dudula has organised protests which have sometimes led to the harassment and incitement of violence against immigrants.

These online movements create a convenient scapegoat in immigrants, diverting attention from the systemic causes of unemployment and poor public service delivery. By attributing societal problems to foreign nationals, they simplify complex issues and offer an outlet for public frustration, further entrenching xenophobic sentiments.

Members of Operation Dudula protesting in Cape Town during the state of the nation address in February 2023. Photo by Mzi Velapi

Afrophobia and gendered xenophobia

Prejudices hardly happen in isolation and xenophobia intersects with gender discrimination. Online, women who are known to date foreign men, Nigerians to be specific, are slut-shamed and the derogatory slang term “Jollofina”, derived from the popular West African dish jollof rice, is routinely used to insult them. While it may seem like harmless online banter, in a country with a femicide rate as high as ours, it perpetuates a culture of intolerance of women’s choices. This form of gendered xenophobia not only targets women for their associations with foreign men but also reinforces harmful stereotypes about African immigrants, as in the myth that they lure women with money to traffic them or use them as drug mules. While South Africa does indeed have a gender-based violence crisis (including the kidnapping and trafficking of women and children), scapegoating immigrants, is a distraction from the real issues, and the misplaced blame makes it harder to combat gender-based violence effectively.

European “digital nomads”
seem immune to the
“they are stealing our jobs”

Another intersection is how xenophobia it is almost exclusively reserved for black, poor African immigrants. For example, European “digital nomads” flocking to developing countries like South Africa, where their currencies stretch further, exploit remote work privileges (while avoiding taxes), seem immune to the “they are stealing our jobs” backlash. I am also willing to bet that not a single member of Cape Town’s growing white expat community has ever been called “ikwerekwere,” or disparaged for being a foreigner. The racial and classist inclination of xenophobia then can more aptly be described as Afrophobia, highlighting how reactions to our economic and social inequalities are also compounded by racial and class-based discrimination.

The ultimate driver of xenophobia

Ultimately, the competition for limited resources and access to opportunities, such as jobs, housing, and public services, often exacerbates tensions between South Africans and immigrants. The xenophobic attacks that we have seen in the past in various townships were a symptom of the deep-seated frustrations within under-serviced communities. These attacks are emblematic of how the scramble for those limited resources can fuel violence and hatred against immigrants. The failure of the government to adequately provide basic services, such as healthcare, education, and housing, leads to heightened frustration among South Africans. This frustration is misdirected towards immigrants, who are seen as competing for these scarce resources and taking them away from South Africans. Often it is easier to blame “outsiders” than to seek accountability from our own leaders that we have voted for and who continue to fail us.

Organisations like Kopanang Africa Against Xenophobia (KAAX) believe that African immigrants especially are being scapegoated for government failures and the violence of the system.

We need class solidarity from all fronts

Solidarity is not an act of
charity but mutual aid
between forces fighting
for the same objective

Samora Machel

Divisions within the working class, whether based on nationality, race, or gender, are not only misguided but directly serve to weaken the broader struggle for social justice. Xenophobia, sexism, and classism among other prejudices distract from the real socio-economic and historical causes of inequality. By standing together, recognising our shared struggles, and fighting for common goals, we can achieve real, lasting progress that benefits everyone.  Because as Samora Machel once reminded us, “Solidarity is not an act of charity but mutual aid between forces fighting for the same objective”. It is through recognising how connected all forms of oppression are, from xenophobia, to racism, to inequality, we realise that dismantling them requires a concerted effort that is above all cooperative and against separatism. The liberation of all black people, calls for embracing an ethos of Pan-Africanism and transnational unity, rejecting all forms of discrimination, and promoting solidarity among the working class, within and outside of our borders.