• Julia Azari

The Ideology of Xenophobia in South Africa

This is a guest post by Carolyn Holmes.


Building border fences. Restricting immigration. Scapegoating migrants. These are the well-worn strategies of the American and European right wing, in part because they speak to concerns of base voters, even if they aren’t always broadly popular. The rise of parties with these talking points, both in terms of vote share and influence, since the early 2010’s has resulted in major reductions in annual quotas for refugees and asylum-seekers across Europe and the United States.


But these vote-getting strategies aren’t exclusive to right-leaning parties. Last week, the latest rash of xenophobic violence in South Africa left many international commentators pointing fingers at parties across the political spectrum for stoking xenophobic and anti-African migrant violence. Similar accusations were made after outbreaks of violence in 2008 and 2015. How has stoking fears about migrants and promising to restrict immigration become a centrist, and even left-wing talking point in South Africa?

Public opinion surveys in South Africa have shown that over time, the South African public has become more intolerant of immigrants, specifically immigrants from elsewhere in Africa. 2016-2018 Afrobarometer surveys show 50.4% of respondents agree or strongly agree that “Foreigners should not be allowed to work here because they take jobs away from locals,” up from 45% in 2011. In fact, distrust of foreigners has been on the rise since 2008 in South Africa across a number of different indicators. These attitudes have translated into restrictive immigration policies, and a shift in the discourse of immigration from being a humanitarian concern to one about national security and the economy.


It is in this public opinion environment that South African parties across the political spectrum have turned to hardline immigration policies and fear-mongering about immigrants. Proposals from centrist parties like the Democratic Alliance (DA) include stricter controls on immigration and border fencing to prevent criminality and end illegal immigration. Representatives of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) have claimed that the city of Johannesburg is being overrun with foreigners, and that urgent action is needed to prevent the same thing from happening country-wide. Similar sentiments came from the leader of the Congress of the People (COPE) a splinter party from the ruling ANC, had claimed that immigrants are “flooding” South Africa, even in the absence of any documented uptick in numbers of migrants. Parties of the socialist left, like Black First, Land First (BLF) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), have histories of strong nativism and xenophobic rhetoric, though the EFF has recently released an anti-xenophobia platform. The newly registered African Basic Movement has called for all foreigners to leave South Africa.

Given how little else they agree on, why is there such a cross-partisan consensus around hardline immigration policies and anti-foreigner rhetoric, especially among centrist and left-wing parties? First, while all parties have their own constituency-driven reasons for adopting xenophobic stances, they share a common rhetoric of using state resources to serve “All South Africans First,” rather than unworthy foreigners. In the context of sharply increasing protest activity around the non-delivery of state services, high levels of unemployment, and steeply declining voter turnout, especially among young and poor South Africans, such appeals are compelling. By blaming the shortfalls in redistribution on the presence of foreigners, rather than mismanagement, scarce resources, persistent inequality, economic downturns, or lack of institutional capacity, the problems are addressed relatively simply, and at low cost to incumbents. Perhaps most dramatic, however, is the ruling-ANC’s deployment of anti-migrant rhetoric, including recent statements blaming attacks on foreigners on “criminal elements sewing discord,” rather than xenophobia, and expressing pride in their initiatives to curb immigration from elsewhere on the continent. Earlier this year, the ANC minister of health blamed the collapse of the healthcare system on “the weight that foreign nationals are bringing to the country.” But perhaps this is because the ANC has the most to lose. As the ruling party since the first multi-racial elections in 1994, they are the most likely targets of voters’ ire over unfulfilled demands. By scapegoating immigrants, party elites in the majority and in opposition, are able to elide their own role in the persistence of many social problems, including around the lack of redistribution since the end of apartheid.

Secondly, xenophobic rhetoric helps parties to overcome their regional, ethnic, and racial labels, as anti-foreigner rhetoric has broad appeal in the South African population and cuts across a variety of social cleavages. Parties like the DA, labeled as a “white party” despite changes in the demographics of their leadership and (to a lesser extent) their voting base, have used hardline immigration rhetoric to broaden their appeal outside of their traditional base. Parties like the EFF have historically used anti-immigrant rhetoric in the context of appeals for broader redistribution to appeal to constituencies beyond their core base of young, northern voters. In the run-up to the 2019 elections in South Africa, there was a surge in the use of anti-foreigner rhetoric, and an accompanying wave of violence, as parties sought to consolidate their bases on the eve of the election.


The cross-party consensus on anti-foreign sentiment in South Africa is, then, a strategic play for voters. In the increasingly intolerant and volatile environment of South Africa’s immigration debate, parties are betting on the xenophobic and the hardline. This positioning leaves the anti-xenophobic lane open. While the ruling ANC has released an anti-xenophobia plan, and the president and party-head Cyril Ramaphosa has condemned the violence of the last week, other party elites have been far less decisive. Only one party, the far-left EFF, has centered anti-xenophobic stances in their campaigns, though their calls to turn violence away from African migrants and onto domestic white capital holders is unlikely build a broad coalition.


The frustration over trenchant social problems seems to be fueling both the grass-roots and elite xenophobic sentiments that result in the campaign strategies of parties and the outbreaks of violence that have plagued South Africa for the last decade. These dynamics, in many ways, mirror the immigration debate in the United States and Western Europe. Frustrated and prejudiced voters motivated by anti-immigrant rhetoric shape electoral incentives and produce governing bodies more likely to restrict immigration and engage in xenophobic rhetoric. Elite messages, especially in the context of campaigns, reach large audiences and continually flag negative sentiments about outsiders to reinforce in-group identity. The underlying ideology, then, is less instructive than the outcome: a feedback loop in which xenophobia and anti-foreigner rhetoric are employed for electoral gain.


Carolyn Holmes (@carolyneholmes) is an assistant professor of political science and public administration at Mississippi State University. She has conducted field research in South Africa, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Fulbright-Hays Program.

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