South Africa: The Illusion Of A “Rainbow” Nation

By Raymond Nkannebe

Last week, the Republic of South Africa once again failed to live up to the billings of its cherished moniker and in the process betrayed once again the legacy of her mystical hero-Nelson Rohlihlala Mandela. The nation prides itself as a “rainbow nation” suggesting tolerance for all shades of people and opinion── yet, defining her ‘corporate behaviour’ is an ugly picture of morbid ultra nationalism highlighted by overweening ethnocentrism and identity consciousness that personifies anything but a rainbow.

A cursory study of its pre and post-apartheid history compounds the situation to a point that must worry apostles of globalization in a world where multiculturalism is advised. This is because; one is met with a disturbing visage of a patterned and methodical incidence of Xenophobic behavior with evidence of the imprimatur of successive leadership of the Republic. A tour thorough that history might suffice for our purposes here.

Wikipedia, the global encyclopedia records that between 1984 and the end of apartheid in 1994, an estimated 50,000 to 350,000 Mozambicans fled to South Africa. While they were never granted refugee status, they were technically allowed to settle in the bantustans or what was called the black homelands created during the apartheid system. The reality was however more horrible, with a particular homeland, called the Lebowa banning Mozambican settlers out rightly, while a sister-community─ the Gazankulu welcomed the refugees with support in the form of land and equipment. The story was however not completely rosy for the inhabitants among the Gazankulu, as they were denied access to economic resources and other social amenities for decent living.

Further, following the war in The Congo in the early 90s, large numbers of Congolese people emigrated to South Africa, most of them, illegally in 1993 and 1997. Unbeknownst to these refugees, they had just left the proverbial devil, and landed in a deep blue sea as they became victims of the vilest form of Xenophobic behaviour typified by a denial of access to primary healthcare to which they were technically entitled.

Following the end of apartheid in 1994 and given the sheer volunteerism of other African nations in the struggle for the abolition of Apartheid notably championed by the Nigerian government, one would have thought that the nation will turn a new leaf in its hostilities towards Africans of other nationalities. But that was not to be. If anything, it would appear that post-apartheid syndrome aggravated to make a bad situation worse. A study published by the South African Migration Project (SAMP) in 2004 proved as much as it showed that xenophobic behaviour increased with the election of a Black Majority government in 2004.

Parts of that study read: “The ANC government in its attempt to overcome the divides of the past and build new forms of social cohesion embarked on an aggressive and inclusive nation-building project. One unanticipated by-product of this project has been a growth in intolerance towards outsiders…. violence against foreign citizens and African refugees has become increasingly common and communities are divided by hostility and suspicion”.

Those fears of hostility came full circle in 1998 and beyond. A Human Rights Watch report in 1998 documented that immigrants from Malawi and Mozambique living in the Alexandra township were “physically assaulted over a period of several weeks in January 1995, as armed gangs identified suspected undocumented migrants and marched them to the police station in an attempt to “clean the township of foreigners”. That campaign which was known as “Buyelekha”- (go back home) blamed foreigners for crime, unemployment and sexual attacks.

Between 1995 and 2008, the situation remained the same with the only difference being the intensity of the individual attack and the nationality of their victims ranging from Zimbabweans to Senegalese, Somalians and so on and so forth. The 2008 attacks in the provinces of Gauteng, Durban and Mpulanga which left at least 62 persons dead and several hundreds injured, including South Africans, awakened global attention to what had become a hydra-headed monster. The attacks leapfrogged from a series of riots which started in the township of Alexandria in the north eastern part of Johannesburg when locals attacked migrants from Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe, killing two people and injuring 40 others. Some of those attackers were reported to have been singing then president Jacob Zuma’s campaign song, “Umshini Wami” which translates in local Zulu to “Bring me my Machine Gun”.

But that is not all. Some six years ago, precisely on the 30th of May, 2013, 25-year old Abdi Nasir Mahmoud, a Somali immigrant was stoned to death following misunderstanding with some local gang. The very graphic footage of the attack was captured on a mobile phone and shared on the internet. A month later, another Somali national in his 50s, was reportedly stoned to death and two others seriously injured when an angry mob of locals attacked their shop. Three more Somalis sustained gunshot injuries from the attacks while shops were looted in a typical pattern of the attacks.

Nor are the attacks of October 21 2015 which took place in Grahams town in the Eastern Cape, to be forgotten. It was reported that more than 500 people were displaced and more than 300 shops and homes looted. A distinctive feature of the October 2015 attacks was that it targeted Muslims. The attacks which lasted several days were instigated by what came to be known as the “taxi drivers protest “where local taxi drivers protested over the terrible state of roads, the rise in crime unempirically attributed to foreign immigrants and rumours of murder. How a protest which purportedly set out to ventilate frustrations over dilapidated state of national infrastructure, snowballed into unwarranted xenophobia sums up the psycho-social dimensions of the imbroglio.

Of the October 2015 attacks, it was reported by local media that taxi drivers attacked spaza shops owned by Pakistani, Somali, Bangladeshi and Ethiopian residents in Grahams town following a rumour that foreigners were responsible for the rampant murders in town. The rumour mills had it that an “Arab man had killed and mutilated women” around town, and that the police had not done anything to address these rumours. Residents of the city took umbrage against the police for allegedly not doing anything to dispel the rumours, and in response, took the law into their own hands by killing any Muslim that was on sight.

Leading up to the recent 2019 attacks, were the Tshwane Riots of 2016 Which was motivated by discontent within the African National Congress (ANC); the 2017 Anti-immigration protest where local South Africans took a petition to government authorities targeted particularly at Nigerians who they alleged were “arrogant and do not know how to talk to people”. Next stop was the Durban riots of March 25, 2019 which broke out in the towns of Sydenham, Jadhu Place and Overport, all of which are in the Durban province. As usual, lives were lost and businesses looted.
The above Tour de Force of Xenophobic behaviour in South Africa is rather instructive to underscore the historical perspectives of the monster we’re grappling with today. A rather disturbing dimension of the crises is the unapologetic disposition of the South Africans towards their execrable misdemeanor. In place of remorse, one observes that they embark on it with reckless helplessness even to the extent of using derogatory labels against foreigners, the sort that fuelled a most debilitating genocide in Rwanda some 25 years ago. For instance it is reported that in Alexandria, non-South Africans are known by and given a wide array of names. These are labels which carry racial, ethnocentric and xenophobic connotations. Some of these labels are outright degrading; others are “jocular, but often offensive”, as one commentator put it.

These labels it is reasoned emanate from culture contact and the result of the presence of people of other identities and ethnic nationalities. Each tag is value laden and relate to the socio-cultural origin of the carrier. Some of these derogatory labels include: ‘Makwerekwere’ which is the oldest label used for black immigrants who speak different languages and have completely different phonetic sounds as South Africans. ‘Magrigamba’ is another derogatory label used to describe particularly West African men who are generally presumed to come into South Africa without any valuables and after some time in South Africa, returned to their countries in affluence. Other derogatory names abound, such as ‘MaNigeria’ and ‘Broder’; ‘MaForeigner’; and ‘AnaXenophobia’.

A common denominator that runs through each of the attacks in a futile effort to find justification for the barbarity, is the allegation that foreigners were taking away jobs and economic opportunities from locals as well as supervising over a regime of crime. In this wise, Nigerians in South Africa have often been mentioned. But these allegations lack empiricism and are at best a product of romantic regurgitation. They are based on anecdotal evidence which verges into outright fantasy. What is more, a study by the Observatory Group (OG) in 2015 concluded that: “the belief that international migrants dominate the informal sector is false. We found that less than two out of 10 people who owned business in the informal sector in Johannesburg were cross-border migrants”. Quite to the contrary, the Group found that black immigrants play a beneficial role in the country through the payment of taxes, rent, etc. In their own words: “the evidence shows that foreigners contribute to South African economy and South Africans by providing jobs, paying rent, paying VAT and providing affordable and convenient goods”.

Against this backdrop, the only plausible explanation for the outright barbarism is the failure of leadership in South Africa and the disillusionment of people who looked onto post-Apartheid South Africa with great expectations. That hope, it would appear have been deferred hence the resort to exertions of frustrations at the wrong quarters. This hypothesis finds resolution with the research conducted in the USA in the 1970s by a notable Peace and Conflict Resolution expert─ Gurr .T who in his seminal work─ Why Men Rebel explained that in most societies where dreams are left unfulfilled and high expectations are met with disappointment and disillusionment, the result is a sharp rise in the rate of violence and crime. The learned author concluded that in such an instance, citizens usually look for an easy scape goat to blame for their misfortunes in life. Suffice to say that this is the South African situation.

Years of corrupt leadership by the ruling ANC have brought about a wild animalism in the life of South Africans such that they have turned against their own in what some persons have described as Afrophobia, given that victims of these xenophobic impertinence are most often than not, fellow Africans. A South African jurist confirmed this much in 2013. He held that “the inability of the ANC-led government in South Africa to create jobs, alleviate poverty and improve the overall living conditions of the black population in the country, has contributed to a sense of disillusionment and frustration among the majority of the black population” citing an increasingly incompetent Police service, poor service delivery and corruption in public departments as combustible factors fuelling the violence. This argument puts into perspective, the Social Contract theory of John Locke and the different levels of its manifestations in a nation state.

Yet, it would appear that the xenophobic crowd are buoyed by the tacit support of the authorities by their comments at critical moments and lack of accountability to xenophobic crimes. This attitude of the South African authorities is found in a consistent denialism and uncanny determination to label “savagery as criminality” as one writer captured it. The implications of these, is the frustration of efforts to nip the problem in the bud. This official state behaviour, is exemplified by the words of the former South African President, Thabo Mbeki after the xenophobic violence of 2008. Said the man:

“What happened during those days was not inspired by possessed nationalism or extreme chauvinism resulting in our communities violently expressing the hitherto unknown sentiments of mass and mindless hatred of foreigners-xenophobia…. I heard it said insistently that my people have turned or become Xenophobic…..I wondered what the accusers knew about my people which I did not know. And this I must say-none in our society has any right to incite or encourage xenophobia by trying to explain naked criminal activity by cloaking it in the garb of Xenophobia”.

Similar line of thought was echoed by the Minister of Home Affairs, Malusi Gigaba in 2015 following the Xenophobic violence of the time, who claimed that South Africans are not Xenophobic, but that “criminal elements in our country were behind these attacks”.

If these two embarked on a technical excursion into the jurisprudence of crime and whether or not Xenophobia is of a distinct class, it has not been the same for other ranking members of successive South African governments. In 2015 for instance, following few incidences of attacks against foreigners in some parts of Gauteng, a South African township, a member of the National Executive of the ANC and the then minister of Water and Sanitation-Nomvula Mokonyane stated on social media that in the town of Kagiso, “almost every second outlet or even former general dealer shops are run by people of Somali or Pakistan origin…. I am not Xenophobic fellow comrades and friends, but this is a recipe for disaster”. It was a most unfortunate statement that was writ large of the sentiments of the state.

Another uncharitable remarks of a senior member of the South African authorities are those of a former high-ranking minister in the Mbeki government, Lindiwe Zulu who while in charge of Small Business Development at the time, told the media that: “Foreigners need to understand that they are here as a courtesy and our priority is to the people of this country first and foremost…They cannot barricade themselves in and not share their practices with local business owners”..

Even the Police who ordinarily should be neutral, have unfortunately taken sides with the locals. A 2004 study by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) of attitudes amongst police officers in Johannesburg area disturbingly found that 87% of respondents believed that most undocumented immigrants in Johannesburg are involved in crime, despite no statistical evidence to substantiate the perception. Such views have unfortunately reduced the average foreigner in South Africa to an Orwellian Saint, who must be presumed guilty, until proven innocent against the run of play.

Some 15 years after that Study, it’s findings are still apt. And there’s no better confirmation of this, than the statement of the extant Deputy Police Minister, Mr. Bongani Mkongi who in a press conference that made the rounds on social media during the week, questioned menacingly, the alleged domineering presence of foreigners in South Africa. “How can a city in South Africa, be 80% foreign nationals?” he asked rhetorically. He however didn’t mention the names of this imaginary city, nor did he suffer to tell us the source of the numbers he threw around before a sycophant audience who clapped intermittently when it pleased them.

Even the current president of South Africa-Cyril Ramaphosa is not spared. Just last year he pandered favourably to the “Aphrobic militia” by condemning African immigrants whom he said were invading townships and establishing small shops. A statement that unwittingly affixes the seal of the state to the unwritten pact of Xenophobia between the citizens and the leaders.

It would appear that the corrupt and inept administration in South Africa might just be cashing in on the situation politically to buy time before the people wakes from their ignorance and take their battle to the ANC leadership (in Arab Spring style) who in actual fact have presided over the economic handicap of many South Africans. The government surely understands the root cause of the problem, but have elected to tell the people what they want to hear, namely, that their fault lies in foreigners amongst them, so as to pitch them against the immigrants for as much as it can. Which then begs the question: how soon before the people come to the realization that their government have failed them, and not the foreigner from Nigeria, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Congo or anywhere for that matter, who struggles day by day to put food on his table?

Where does all of these leave South Africa and her relations with other countries in the sub-region? Even more instructive is the question: what are the implications of a hostile and unfriendly South Africa to the noble idea of Pan Africanism? Of what practical relevance is the notion of Pan Africanism when Africans turn against their own? It is this context that the African Union must quickly step in to finally put a stop to the recurrent decimal of xenophobic behaviour in that part of the continent.

For all her pitfalls, South Africa occupies a cardinal position in the continent being a promising economic power house with huge prospects for African enterprise. And because of this, her territory cannot afford to be perceived as hostile and unwelcoming. At a time when Africa has enlisted on a Free Trade Area as encapsulated in the ambitious AfCFTA document ratified only months ago, the continent cannot be seen pulling in different directions. And South Africa, one of the leading markets in the continent cannot afford to miss out on the opportunities that the Free Trade Area guarantees for any reason.

The 2063 Africa Agenda, has as its motto: One Africa, One Destiny. That is instructive enough for the importance of unity in the region. Thus, in the spirit of “Ubuntu” the African believe in the universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity, South Africans must learn to appreciate the commonality that pervades the whole of the African race and the centrality that attend the destiny of her peoples. The government of the country no doubt have a great role to play in that. Since it is proven that at the core of xenophobic behavior, is the scarcity of opportunities, the government must make a concerted effort to transforming the national economy. An unemployment rate of 29% for a nation of about 56 million is really worrisome. Efforts must therefore be made to down the numbers so as to up the per capita income of the population.

It is not enough for the leadership to continue to play the ostrich. That can only amount to postponing the doomsday. The South African parliament assuming there is no law that makes xenophobic behavior a capital offence, should see to the passing of such legislation, while law enforcement agents must be neutral and accountable at all times in the prosecution of xenophobic offences.

Further, there appears to be a gap in the information space in the country. Too many a millennial at the forefront of the Xenophobic attacks do not seem to appreciate the extent of support from other African states in the darkest hour of that nation. To this end, efforts should be made at a mass sensitization campaign highlighting the contributions of Africans and sacrifices made by other African countries in the heat of Apartheid. This will serve to enable citizens to be more tolerant of their neighbors from other African countries.

All said and done, these are indeed very sad times for the country. And I assume it’d afford her people a moment of deep introspection. It is however hoped that the product of that exercise will be one of a tolerant attitude by black South Africans to people of other nationalities and races. For it is only when this is done, that they can truly be called a “Rainbow” Nation as they like to be described.

Nkannebe is a Lagos based legal practitioner and public interest commentator. He tweets @RayNkah. Comments and reservations to

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