This essay explores the linkages between xenophobia, politics and religion, in the run-up to the general elections in South Africa. Despite this year’s general elections coinciding with South Africa’s 30-year anniversary of democracy and freedom, there is very little to celebrate: while there have been gains in the promotion of human rights and democracy since the end of the Apartheid era, such gains have been overshadowed by the critical energy crisis, high profile cases of corruption, high unemployment, increased inequalities, and incidences of xenophobia. Xenophobia is defined as the “dislike, hatred, or fear of outsiders. This can manifest as hostility toward immigrants, but it can also manifest as hatred toward members of another tribe, culture, or religion.”1 In the South African context, xenophobia has mainly manifested itself in a unique way: local black South Africans have been channeling their dislike or anger towards Black immigrants from other African countries, a phenomenon referred to as Afrophobia. In recent years, there has also been the formation of militia groups such as Operation Dudula, which has been responsible for mobilizing local citizens against foreigners by terrorizing neighborhoods with large concentrations of immigrants living within communities. Additionally, Operation Dudula also confronts companies and businesses suspected of employing foreigners and/or illegal immigrants, at the expense of local citizens. Operation Dudula was recently registered as a political party.2 This anti-immigrant organization has been accused of engaging in physical violence, hate speech, and calling on the government to close borders and “clean up” big cities, such as Johannesburg and Pretoria—where foreigners are allegedly illegally occupying and hijacking dilapidated building within the city centers.

In most cases, foreigners living in abandoned buildings have been accused of engaging in illicit activities, such as selling drugs and contraband goods, as well as engaging in violent crimes. These allegations were fueled when, months ago, more than 70 people occupying an old building in Johannesburg (most of whom were people from Malawi, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, and Mozambique) died after the building caught fire.3 Recently, these xenophobic perspectives have shifted slightly from primarily focusing on African immigrants from neighboring countries to include Indians and Pakistanis—particularly those owning Spaza shops—by accusing them of selling poor-quality, expired or contraband goods.

According to the 2022 census, the number of known economic and political immigrants in South Africa is estimated to be around 3.95 million.4 However, the real number of foreigners living in South Africa may exceed 3.95 million because of the existence of a large number of undocumented immigrants. Most of these foreigners, particularly those deemed illegal immigrants, live below the poverty line, engaging in informal jobs as a means of survival. Most of the foreigners regarded as “illegals” are blamed by local South Africans for taking jobs from them. However, such claims cannot be easily verified. Foreigners with work permits are not allowed to occupy a position when there is a local citizen who is qualified for the job. When compared to the overall population of 53 million people in South Africa, the allegation that foreigners—topping 3.95 million in total—are taking away jobs from local citizens cannot be substantiated. Some scholars have regarded this influx of immigrants from the neighboring countries as forced immigration,5 because of the political turmoil and collapsed economies in their countries. It can be argued that the upcoming elections in South Africa are of critical importance to the country’s ability to play a pivotal role in enhancing democracy, economic growth, peace, and security in the neigbouring countries.

The South African context of xenophobia

There has been much speculation about the causes of xenophobia in South Africa. Some scholars, such as Harris, regard it as a mindset that was engendered by the Apartheid era.6 The oppression of the Black people in South Africa during the years of Apartheid rule is regarded as being responsible for a closed mindset, including prevailing suspicion and lack of trust of foreigners.7 Other scholars have regarded the mushrooming of xenophobic tendencies in post-Apartheid South Africa as a political tactic aimed at diverting the attention of local people from the real issues that are affecting them, such as growing inequality, unemployment rates, high levels of corruption, and poor service delivery in the country. From a religious perspective, xenophobia is regarded as having emanated from a heretical theology, a replica of a reformed apartheid theory that instilled an element of superiority and entitlement among Black and white South Africans.

The different perspectives on what could be the cause of xenophobia clearly indicate the intertwining of different social, political, and religious issues still affecting the country despite the end of the Apartheid era. The different facets describing the cause of xenophobia in South Africa also indicate that the country is divided along social, political, and religious lines despite extensive effort to bring reconciliation in the post-Apartheid era. Churches have been unable to deal with the problem by promoting inclusivity. This indicates the existence of an inherent problem that needs serious attention. The energy crisis in the country and the high levels of unemployment and poverty has exacerbated the divisions by creating an environment brimming with crime, violence, and xenophobia. The need to deal with the different forms of divisions ravaging the country is high. The search for solutions must go beyond simply uniting different races and establish the initiation and promotion of ethnic and racial cohesion, immigrant integration, and social and economic justice for all.

Effects of xenophobia on regional security—and what can be done to deal with the problem

The problem of xenophobia is not only a South African problem. Xenophobia can spill into other neighboring countries, given the influence that South Africa has over the region. However, the lack of capacity to deal with the underlying issues fueling xenophobia indicates that the problem is likely to continue for years to come. As the 2024 elections on May 29 approaches, we are already seeing xenophobic trends, as politicians are already raising the alarm on issues pertaining to open borders and expired contraband goods sold by Asian immigrants, Ethiopians, and Somalis. Such politicians are also calling for the change of visa and residency conditions to expel illegal immigrants and refugees. The cases in point include ActionSA and Patriotic Alliance, which have been using their campaign streams to incite local South Africans against foreigners; ActionSA, in particular, “was able to score points with xenophobic sloganeering during the 2022 municipal elections.”8 Although the ruling party appears to portray a non-xenophobic face as it prepares for its toughest elections in history, the chances of joining the xenophobic campaign trail are high since there are so many xenophobic forces within its ranks, some of its top leadership even having been responsible for uttering statements that have fueled attacks on foreigners in the past.9 The coming on the electoral scene of the uMkhonto weSizwe Party (MK), which has already been labeled ethnocentric, and the quest of the Economic Freedom Front (which is openly xenophobic) to secure votes, might create a volatile and tense atmosphere. Although the influx of African and Asian immigrants is a serious problem in South Africa, there is a need to deal with the problem in a proper and organized manner. The tendency of politicians to exploit immigration issues to inspire violence and xenophobia, in order to gain political mileage and win public favor by taking advantage of a partly broken society that has not completely healed from the legacy of Apartheid. This is a sign that the political leaders are selfish and unethical in their bid to win votes.

According to the report of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), an independent organisation which is based in Pretoria, the South African immigration situation is not unique to the world. “The xenophobic rhetoric” by anti-migrant groups, politicians, and public officials, claiming the country is overrun by immigrants, is not true. This rhetoric has only succeeded in creating an atmosphere of resentment towards migrants.10 The step taken by President Ramaphosa to establish the “National Action Plan” in 2019, for the purpose of combating racism and xenophobia’ and condemning anti-migrant protests and vigilante groups for attacking and harassing foreigners, has played a great role in calming the situation. But experts say that the government needs to do more in order to solve the problem.11


Xenophobia is a growing problem in South Africa and, with the coming of elections it poses a serious security challenge to citizens and immigrants alike. The solution to the problem does not lie in denying the existence of growing intolerance of African and Asian immigrants in the country. It is only by accepting that this problem exists that genuine steps can be taken toward resolving it. The solution lies in promoting inclusivity, equality, unity in diversity, and social and economic justice for all. There is also a need for all sectors of society to be involved in dealing with the problem. Politicians must desist or refrain from making statements that violate the rights of the vulnerable in society, sowing seeds of division, racism, and xenophobia. People in positions of power have an obligation to create an environment that promotes peace, security, equality, and respect for the rights of all people, enacting laws that protect immigrants. Therefore, election campaigns should be based on the rule of law by focusing on eradicating corruption, creating employment, bringing development, and building a stable economy through foreign investment rather than being used to fuel discord in the country.


  1. Villines, Z. “Xenophobia: Meaning, signs, examples, and more.” August 5, 2022. (Accessed October 25, 2023)
  2. Allison, S. “South African anti-migrant ‘vigilantes’ register as party for next year’s polls.” September 26, 2023. (Accessed October 30, 2023).
  3. Bezuidenhout, C. “Another building fire breaks out in Joburg CBD.” September 23, 2023. (Accessed October 10, 2023).
  4. Gordon, S. “Xenophobia is on the rise in South Africa: scholars weigh in on the migrant question.” April 14, 2022. (Accessed October 30, 2023)
  5. Concern worldwide. “Six causes of forced migration.” Concern worldwide US. June 29, 2019. (Accessed November 01, 2023).
  6. Harris, B. “A Foreign Experience: Violence, Crime and Xenophobia during South Africa’s Transition.” Violence and Transition Series 5 (2001): 70
  7. Kaziboni, A. (2022). Apartheid Racism and Post-apartheid Xenophobia: Bridging the Gap. In: Rugunanan, P., Xulu-Gama, N. (eds) Migration in South Africa. IMISCOE Research Series. Springer, Cham.
  8. Schwikowski, M. 2023. South Africa faces growing xenophobia problem. November 4, 2023. (Accessed on January 04, 2024)
  9. Guilengue, F. Xenophobia and Social Cohesion in South Africa. September 9, 2023. (Accessed January 04, 2023)
  10. Charlie, A & Ford, T. Inside South Africa’s Operation Dudula: ‘Why we hate foreigners.’ September 18, 2023. (Accessed January 04, 2024)
  11. Saudi Gazette. Why South African vigilante group hates foreigners. September 18, 2023. (Accessed January 04, 2023).
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