South Africa Turns on Its Immigrants

Daniel Magaziner and Sean Jacobs, New York Times, April 24, 2015

For the third time in seven years, violence against immigrants has broken out across South Africa. Pogroms that began in late March in Durban, in KwaZulu-Natal Province, have now spread to Johannesburg.

Since the end of apartheid in 1994, approximately five million immigrants have settled in South Africa; most are Africans from further north pursuing economic opportunity or refugees seeking the political stability of the continent’s most highly developed nation.

Black South Africans, most of whom remain poor and marginalized in the post-apartheid era, have watched warily for years as networks of Malawians, Somalis, Ethiopians, Zimbabweans, Nigerians and Mozambicans have begun to build small businesses and take advantage of South Africa’s opportunities.

Now those immigrant shops are being burned and their owners killed.


Two decades after its transition to democracy, South Africa is in a restive phase. The governing African National Congress has tried and failed to undo the legacy of centuries of white-minority rule. Many of its unfulfilled promises are a result of the country’s negotiated transition in the early 1990s, which saw the A.N.C. and other liberation movements abandon their most radical demands for economic and racial transformation in the name of stability and compromise.

The recent outbreak of xenophobic violence is a direct consequence of those compromises. Usually labeled a “miracle transition,” the early 1990s were actually a period of tremendous violence in KwaZulu-Natal and around Johannesburg. The unrest was fueled in part by the apartheid government’s efforts to sustain itself by promoting rivalries between the country’s “traditional” or tribal authorities and the nationalists affiliated with Nelson Mandela’s A.N.C.

The country was beset by ethnic and regional conflicts, emanating from the white minority and the various ethnically defined homelands that the apartheid government had created. King Zwelithini was the symbolic leader of the strongest of these, representing nearly 10 million Zulus, the largest ethnic group in South Africa. The king’s brand of ethnic chauvinism appealed especially to young, poor men. Along with KwaZulu’s chief minister, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, and the Inkatha Freedom Party, he repeatedly threatened to sabotage the landmark 1994 election. One of the A.N.C.’s triumphs was to co-opt these nationalist leaders into the new South Africa, without requiring them to give up their Zulu chauvinism.

Traditional leaders like King Zwelithini were put on the state’s payroll as part of a group called the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa. This gave them new legitimacy and brought a measure of peace to KwaZulu-Natal–and eventually brought the province into the A.N.C. fold, but at a cost. It gave legitimacy to a form of ethno-nationalist politics that the A.N.C. had officially opposed during the anti-apartheid struggle.


The ethno-nationalism that marked apartheid’s dying days has now morphed into a malignant “nativism” that threatens post-apartheid democracy.


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