from Africa in Transition

South Africa, Refugees, and Populism

February 22, 2017

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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Rosettenville, a suburb of Johannesburg, was the site of the February 11-12 burning of buildings alleged to have been used by “prostitutes and drug dealers.” These “prostitutes and drug dealers” have been  popularly identified as “Nigerians.” In the aftermath of the fires, the mayor of Johannesburg, Herman Mashaba, bitterly criticized the South African government for failing to secure South Africa’s borders. (Mashaba is a prominent leader of the Democratic Alliance, the official opposition to the African National Congress government of Jacob Zuma.)

Though many of its residents are poor, Rosettenville is far from being a “township slum.” Over time, waves of immigrants have settled there before moving on. Initial migrants to Rosettenville included eastern and southern Europeans who were followed by Portuguese settlers from Europe and former colonies of Angola and Mozambique. Most recently, immigration into this suburb has been from African countries north of the Zambezi River. This includes Nigerians. As elsewhere in urban South Africa, residents complain to outsiders about crime and the inadequacies of law enforcement. In general, crime is a major preoccupation and focus of government criticism by South Africans across all racial lines. Much like other countries on the continent, the police are national rather than local, and there is significant demand for private security services (particularly in wealthy Johannesburg suburbs).

South African immigration and refugee law and policy is among the most generous in the world. For example, while their cases are being reviewed, asylum seekers are permitted to work and move across   the country freely. Adjudication of asylum cases can take years, but, once approved, refugees have most of the rights of South African citizens. The extrajudicial killings of up to 116 Nigerian nationals over the past two years is indicative of the rise in xenophobia in South Africa. This has been fueled in large part, by popular rhetoric labeling illegal immigrants and refugees as criminals. The unrest is damaging to South Africa’s reputation across the continent, especially as the Nigerian government has expressed growing concern over the dangers faced by its nationals in South Africa.

More on:

Sub-Saharan Africa

South Africa

Political Movements

Politics and Government

Heads of State and Government

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