Xenophobia in South Africa: A lack of visionary leadership

One of the reasons cited for South Africans’ hostile attitude to foreigners is the causal link between foreigners and the country’s social ills, What's the role of the visionary African leadership in light of the current crisis.

Ozias Tungwarara's picture

Regional manager with the Africa Regional Office

April 15th, 2015

The other day I was listening to people phoning into a show on . The animated discussion was about the recent flare-up in xenophobic attacks on black African foreigners in South Africa. This time the attacks were largely in South Africa’s Kwazulu-Natal province, home to the Zulu nation. A woman caller opined that South Africans needed to civilize black foreigners because they were dirty and littered everywhere in the City of Gold. She also suggested that foreigners were the cause of South Africa’s horrendous death toll on the roads because they did not have roads as good as the ones in South Africa. She went on to suggest that all foreigners should have their driving licences taken from them and re-tested to prove that they could actually drive.

Recently King Godwill Zwelithini, King of the Zulu nation said “”. He made these remarks while addressing community members in the province against a backdrop of rising tensions between foreigners and locals. His remarks received support from one of Zuma’s sons who himself was born in exile in Swaziland. The Police Minister implicitly endorsed the King’s remarks when he said that the King had only been referring to undocumented foreigners and that it was true that most crimes were committed by illegal immigrants. A few days later African foreigners were fleeing their homes seeking refuge at police stations and other places of safety. They were under onslaught from their South African neighbours.

In 2000 a major scenario exercise: “Southern Africa in 2020” painted a grim picture of the southern Africa region in two decades, suggesting that only a new generation of visionary and democratic leaders as well as a spurt in economic growth would reverse the region’s fortunes. We have had very little if any of both these drivers needed for a positive scenario in the sub-region. If anything we are seeing much more of the other scenarios that would be driven by: violent conflict; corruption and patronage; authoritarian rule; uncontrolled globalization; ineffectual governance; extreme poverty and inequality; cyclical droughts; economic mismanagement; and rapid rural to urban migration.

The five scenarios were created by the Institute for Global Dialogue (IGD). Of the five scenarios, only one, regional renaissance under visionary leadership, gives a positive outlook for the region. It emphasizes the need for a region driven by enlightened leaders committed to building strong but democratic states and fully exploiting the economic possibilities of regional cooperation and integration. Visionary leaders in the region are almost an extinct species. It’s hardly a sign of vision for African leaders to vest the leadership of the AU and SADC in a 91 year old who can hardly stand on his own two feet let alone hold his country and political party together. That lack of vision has cost us in a big way.

Our leaders in the sub-region stomp democratic values with gay abandon and rejoice at decimating and emasculating regional institutions such as the SADC Tribunal and the SADC Parliamentary Forum in pursuit of short term self-interest. They smile glibly at stolen elections and warmly welcome dictators of the worst kind in their midst. SADC’s value system is underpinned by the principle of “See no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil”. Expecting the renaissance to come has become like waiting for Godot. Strong and sustained Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth rates have eluded most SADC member states making employment creation and infrastructure development only but a mirage. This is largely due to idiotic policies implemented by leaders whose combined intellectual capacity fits on the back of a postage stamp.

A couple of the negative dynamics cited in the IGD scenarios include:

  • Rampant urban drift, with more than half the populations of several countries concentrated in agglomerations like the Zambian copper belt, Gauteng, Durban-Pietermaritzburg and the Western Cape by 2010.
  • Growing economic migration to South Africa from the rest of the region, leading to mounting conflict around access to jobs. Slow growth in South Africa may, in fact, exacerbate such movement, because of the ripple effect on its neighbours.      

We are seeing these dynamics unfold before our very own eyes. A identified xenophobia among ordinary South Africans as well as among official bodies as a major source of concern. One of the reasons cited for South Africans’ hostile attitude to foreigners is the causal link between foreigners and the country’s social ills: unemployment; the breakdown of family structures; substance abuse and crime. In 1994 former Home Affairs The AfriMAP report warned that the South African policy of arrest, detain and deport to deal with illegal immigrants was woefully inadequate.

A 2007 Africa Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) report reported that “The search for a better life in the region has spawned new patterns of migration to South Africa. Despite the solidarity and comradeship between black South Africans and the rest of the people of sub-Saharan Africa during the decades of struggle against apartheid and for liberation, foreigners, mostly of African descent, are being subjected to brutality and detention. Xenophobia against Africans is currently on the rise and should be nipped in the bud”. Despite these stern warnings not much appears to have been done. Xenophobic flare-ups continue with alarming frequency with the South African government often denying that targeted attacks on African foreigners are driven by Xenophobia.

It did not surprise some of us, who have witnessed the demise of visionary African leadership, when the chair of the AU and SADC, the President of the Republic of Zimbabwe, the Chief Commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, the Chancellor of the University of Zimbabwe and all state universities, the first Secretary and President of the ruling Zanu-PF party met his counterpart on a recent state visit to South Africa, the issue of xenophobia was a non-issue. They would rather reminisce about Cecil John Rhodes’ statue in Cape Town and his grave in Matopo hills just outside of Bulawayo.   

About the author(s)

Ozias Tungwarara is the regional manager with the Africa Regional Office of the Open Society Foundations (OSF) network based in Johannesburg.


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