In Brief

What’s Behind South Africa’s Recent Violence?

Recent attacks that appeared to target immigrants have underscored South Africa’s struggle to combat violence and limit tensions with the rest of the region.

An outbreak of violence in South African cities in recent months that has been widely described as xenophobic has prompted questions over whether the country is safe for immigrants, with at least a dozen killed in the unrest. It is also forcing the government to confront widespread frustration over persistent poverty and unemployment.

South African police break up a sit-in outside the Cape Town offices of the UN refugee agency on October 30, 2019.
South African police break up a sit-in outside the Cape Town offices of the UN refugee agency on October 30, 2019. AFP/Getty Images

What is behind the recent wave of violence?

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Many see high unemployment as a driver of resentment against foreigners, who are viewed as taking away jobs from South Africans. Joblessness has reached up to 30 percent among males in townships across the country, and recurrent waves of rioting have often been tied to downturns in the economy. There is anecdotal evidence that mobs have targeted shops and small businesses owned by Nigerians, Somalis, and Zimbabweans. Rioting has been centered in Johannesburg, where about half of the country’s roughly four million migrants live, and has been less prevalent in areas with fewer immigrants, including Cape Town and Durban, and all but absent in rural areas. Though the media has described these attacks as xenophobic, most of those killed have been South African. President Cyril Ramaphosa has questioned whether the violence should be characterized as xenophobic.

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South Africa is a popular destination for African immigrants. Its informal economy is weaker than elsewhere in Africa due to apartheid-era prohibitions on independent black economic activity in certain areas. Hence there has long been a black entrepreneurial vacuum filled by African migrants, who often create jobs for local South Africans.

Is there any link between anti-foreigner attacks and ongoing violence in townships?

Townships are slums where the apartheid government warehoused black South Africans some distance from urban areas. They were the center of the anti-apartheid struggle and, in some, a culture of opposition to government authority persists. The extent to which foreigners are the focus of township violence remains unclear. Violence is prevalent in South Africa, which has one of the highest homicide rates in the world, and the current rioting appears to have an antiestablishment dimension. Especially in Johannesburg, there has been discontent with service delivery by the governing African National Congress (ANC). 

There are reports of refugees also facing violence, with hundreds seeking help at UN offices. What is their situation?

The number of refugees and asylum seekers—those with a well-founded fear of persecution based on religion, ethnicity, national origin, or political views—in the country is relatively small. Migrants in South Africa rarely apply for refugee status; instead they come and go, largely unregulated, in search of work and depending on conditions in their home countries. Most migrants come from Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Almost certainly it is mostly migrants—rather than refugees—who are camped outside the UN offices.

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The UN refugee agency has no jurisdiction over people not claiming legal refugee status. The highly publicized return of more than six hundred Nigerians last month was at the initiative of a Nigerian millionaire airline owner—not the Nigerian or South African government, or any part of the UN system.

How has the government responded to recent violence and protests?

Though Ramaphosa does not agree with the characterizations of xenophobia, he has traveled across the continent to apologize. At home, he has magnified his law-and-order rhetoric.

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South Africa’s regional relations are a challenge for Ramaphosa and the ANC. Other African states regard South Africa with mixed sentiments, aware of its apartheid legacy while acknowledging its modern-day economic heft. Ramaphosa aspires to restore the country’s reputation as an international leader under Nelson Mandela, and rioting perceived as xenophobic is a threat to this objective.

Where does the country go from here?

A culture of violent criminality held over from apartheid requires more police. At the same time, Ramaphosa’s government should enhance police training, with an emphasis on better relations with township residents. It should also consider creating local and provincial police forces, like the United States has, as South Africa currently has a national gendarmerie. At the local level, nongovernmental organizations have had some success in reducing ethnic-based conflict in the townships, but their progress tends to be episodic.

The root causes of township violence include poverty, unemployment, gross inequality of income, perceptions of ANC corruption, and residual racism. All are exacerbated by economic downturns. All will take at least a generation to resolve.

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