Posted on January 11, 2005

The New South African Racism

Eric Beauchemin, Radio Netherlands, Dec. 7 2004

Since the end of apartheid a decade ago, growing numbers of refugees from across Africa have been heading towards the continent’s richest and most industrialised country. No one knows how many African immigrants have settled illegally in South Africa. Estimates vary from 2 to 10 million people, or between 5 and 25 percent of South Africa’s population.

The refugees are coming from all over the continent: from nearby nations such as Zimbabwe and Angola, but also from further afield, like the Great Lakes region, the Horn of Africa and even West Africa. It may sound hard to believe, but many of them come on foot, says Bea Abrahams of the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation. “I’ve personally seen people arriving with their bodies swollen because of weeks or even months of malnourishment and sheer exhaustion,” she says. “I’m aware of people having crossed crocodile-infested rivers in tiny canoes to be able to get here.” According to a study carried out in 2002, says Abrahams, both male and female refugees are often forced to provide sexual favours to be able to cross borders, putting them at risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.


South Africa does not run refugee camps, so once the immigrants arrive, they must find their own accommodation and means of survival. They must also submit an asylum request at the Department of Home Affairs. While their application is processed, the immigrants are barred from working. Under South African law, the asylum-seekers should receive a response within six months, but that rarely happens. According to Joyce Tlou of the National Consortium on Refugee Affairs, “people can wait for years without knowing whether they’ve received asylum. In the meantime, people are expected to survive. I think South Africa is playing ostrich and just hoping that the refugees will manage to get by.”

So far, only 24,000 people have been officially recognised as refugees. And every two years, they are forced to renew their refugee permit. When Patrick Bilali, a Burundian refugee, applied to renew his status, he had to wait over two years for a response. During that time, he says, “I couldn’t work. I couldn’t even withdraw money from my bank account. I couldn’t travel. I couldn’t do any official business because I didn’t have any ID papers.” South Africa has the power to decide at any time that the situation in the refugee’s home country has stabilised enough for them to return, even if they have spent over a decade in South Africa.


Of greater concern to African immigrants is xenophobia. Shortly after Solange Mukamana arrived from Rwanda in 1997, for instance, a man accosted her on the streets and asked what she was doing in South Africa. He told her to go back because she had only come to steal jobs. A few years later, Mukamana went to a hospital to give birth. “The nurse treated me very badly,” she says. “She wanted to inject water inside my body. She said I was dirty and she wanted to clean me inside. I started saying, ‘oh sister, what are you doing to me? Please!’ I touched her, and she said ‘don’t touch me, makwerekwere!’ [a derogatory term used to refer to African immigrants]. I was dying because of that xenophobia.”

Abeda Bhamjee, a legal counsellor for refugees at the Law Clinic of Witwatersrand University, finds the racial nature of xenophobia in South Africa very disturbing given the country’s apartheid past. “Over the past four years we’ve had a high amount of foreigners thrown off trains and foreigners having acid thrown into their faces,” she says. In another incident in 2001, black South Africans looted all the homes and businesses belonging to a community of Somali refugees in Port Elizabeth. They then burnt all their shops and houses. What was particularly perturbing about the incident, says Bhamjee, “is that there’s a community police station within that township and the policemen simply turned a blind eye to this incident.”


Various explanations have been given as to black South Africans’ fear and hatred of their brethren from elsewhere in the continent. The long years of apartheid isolated South Africa from the rest of Africa. “We have very little experience and appreciation of our commonness with the rest of the continent,” says Bea Abrahams. “It’s actually funny how xenophobia is played out because even South Africans have been deported to Lesotho, Swaziland and other countries because their skin colour is considered too dark.”

Apartheid rule also left deep divisions within South African society, believes Abeda Bhamjee. “We’ve always been a society divided in terms of an ‘us and them’ ideology. And post-apartheid, our nation-building process is exactly around that. It’s an inclusive process for South African citizens and an exclusive process for non-citizens.”

The economy is another factor fuelling xenophobia: up to 40 percent of South Africans are unemployed. The vast majority of them are poor, uneducated blacks who depend on selling and trading on the street for survival. Many immigrants also wind up in the informal economy, even though 80 percent have a minimum of 12 years of schooling and up to 40 percent have a university degree.

Changing attitudes

South Africa’s National Consortium on Refugee Affairs, together with The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, has been trying to change attitudes towards foreigners. In 1998, they launched the so-called Roll Back Xenophobia Campaign. “We are working for example with government departments,” says Pumla Khulashe of the UNHCR. “Attitudes are changing slowly but obviously it’s taking time. There are still levels of downright ignorance in the government, especially amongst staff like receptionists. Higher up the chain, I think there is also a certain degree of resistance to giving jobs to foreigners if the job could be done by a South African.”

Attitudes have begun to change, but there’s still an enormous amount of fear and even downright hostility towards African immigrants, says Caroline Skinner of the School of Development Studies at the University of Natal. “This is mainly because our economy is not growing. The state is saying we have to prioritise our own people. The irony is that our big capital is moving into our neighbouring countries. So the main retailers are all in the big cities in our region, and yet we won’t allow their nationals to trade on our inner city streets.”

For many African immigrants, the changes are not coming about fast enough. Given the chance, they say, they would leave the Rainbow Nation. Solange Mukamana tried a few years ago. “Because I had no legal papers, they caught me and sent me back to South Africa. Even now, I wish I could leave because our life is not improving. I don’t see any future for us here.”

OUT OF ORDER: Paul and his wife left the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) seven years ago and took refuge in South Africa. He holds a management position in a government-run institution. Recently his wife tried to withdraw money from an ATM in Pretoria. The machine swallowed her bank card, and Paul went to assist his wife. But soon he found that bystanders and a group of Indians who owned a nearby shop were accusing both him and his wife of trying to steal money. “Then suddenly there were 10 or 15 Indians around me,” says Paul. “They all started beating me very seriously. They were hitting me in the head and kicking me because I was down on the ground. I thought they were going to kill me. A police car came. I managed to get up and went running towards the officers. I pleaded for them to save me but they wouldn’t listen. They just locked me up. I was bleeding from the mouth and in deep pain.”

A week after the incident, there are still wounds on Paul’s face and his arm is in a cast. He still finds it hard to believe what happened to him. “I know this happened because I’m black. In that shop, blacks have no rights. But when they noticed I was a foreigner, it was even worse. I’m just really traumatised”. Paul and his wife are now planning to leave South Africa. Life is not good in the DRC, he says, but at least you’re not killed because of your skin colour.

ALL THE TRAPPINGS: Many of the foreign immigrants guard cars to earn a living. Another popular profession is hairdressing. In downtown Durban, for instance, there are dozens of roadside barber shops. Inside, electric razors are hooked up to car batteries which also power sophisticated sound systems. Barbers like Chima Chima Nomashaka even have a mirror and a comfortable plastic chair for their customers. He arrived six years ago from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he worked as a primary school teacher. “I’m a barber because I can’t find any other work,” he says. “The business is good, and this is how I’m able to survive.”

Nowadays, many South African men prefer to get their hair cut by the refugees rather than by traditional South African roadside barbers. The reason is simple: South African barbers tend to be surly and lack many of the accoutrements which the foreigners have. Michael has seen his business drop precipitously over the past five years. “I think the authorities should send these people back,” he says. “They’re taking away our business. This is our country.”