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Covid-19 Worsens Xenophobic Attitudes in South Africa

zimamweans illegally crossing the new border fence in to South Africa

As Covid-induced hardships bite deeper, hyper nationalistic hashtags such as #PutSouthAfricaFirst and #WeWantOurCountryBack are becoming increasingly popular with many in South Africa.

As soon as the Coronavirus was declared a pandemic in South Africa, one of the first reactions of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government was to hurriedly erect a $2,5 million 40 km reinforced fence on its northern border with Zimbabwe. This was justified as a necessary measure to protect South Africans from the virus despite the fact that not even a single Covid-19 case had been reported in the neighbouring country.

A few weeks later, holes started emerging in the fence – these holes were made, not by desperate Zimbabweans trying to illegally enter South Africa illegally, but by South Africans trying to smuggle beer and cigarettes from Zimbabwe, where these items have remained freely on sale throughout the pandemic. 

As the year wore on, it turned out that this investment was actually more beneficial to Zimbabwe than to South Africa. The fence helped the Zimbabwean government to manage the movement of its citizens who were fleeing abuse in South Africa but were not keen to pass through quarantine centres. 

Stronger Together?

Barely four months previously, when South Africa won the Rugby World Cup against England in November 2019, there had been wild jubilation across the whole of the African continent, as Africans had embraced the South African national rugby side, the Springboks, as their team in their final showdown against England.

Most mainstream British media outlets attributed their side’s defeat to the exploits of one player, Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira. “England had no answer to the brute force of The Beast… Tendai Mtawarira’s demonstration of power drove England to the edge – and South Africa to the top of the world…” said a report in the Daily Mail

However, in the midst of the chanting, cheers and tears of joy, the irony wasn’t lost on some, who were quick to highlight that this hero, who had spearheaded the demolition of the English side, was also one of those immigrants that the ordinary South Africans love to hate, often with a murderous passion.

Tendai Mtawarira in his Springbok blazer. Image

“Let’s not forget Zimbabwe also won the World Cup today,” tweeted South African rapper AKA, who has over four million followers on Twitter. “Now, that’s the definition of #StrongerTogether,” reflecting that the Springbok’s World Cup campaign had been running under the hashtag #StrongerTogether

It, however, appears that the #StrongerTogether spirit ended with Rugby World Cup victory. It would no longer be applicable to South Africa’s do or die fight against the spread of the Covid-19 virus.

As home to millions of both legal and illegal migrants from all over the African continent and beyond, the Covid-19 pandemic appears to have given free rein to xenophobes at all levels of South African society to unleash venom on those that they blame for all social and economic ills facing Africa’s second-biggest economy.

Increasing Discrimination

Shortly after South Africa went into a lockdown on March 27 last year, scores of foreigners started jostling to exit the country, most of them carrying with them heart-rending tales of the harsh treatment and discrimination that they had received from the authorities.

From being excluded from Covid relief support to being roughed up by security officials, to discrimination over jobs, right up to attempts to exclude them from getting vaccinations, foreigners living in South Africa have seen it all.

Attacks on foreigners are commonplace in South Africa: Image Africa-Online

South Africa’s Finance minister Tito Mboweni caused a huge outcry when he announced that in the post-Covid era, preference for employment should be given to South Africans, that only businesses employing more locals would benefit from relief funds, whilst a regulatory requirement for foreign-owned businesses would be tightened.

At the start of the COVID-19 lockdown, the government introduced a social relief grant of R350 ($20) for citizens, but asylum-seekers and other immigrants were being denied any form of help. There were many reports of starvation among immigrants, a development that prompted Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town, a local not-for-profit organisation seeking to foster integration between migrants, refugees and South Africans, to approach the courts on behalf of these immigrants. There was huge relief among immigrant communities when the court ruled in their favour

Huge Immigrant Population

Apart from foreigners that are legally in the country, South Africa is also home to millions of undocumented immigrants, with estimates putting their numbers at somewhere between three and seven per cent of the country’s nearly 60 million population. According to Scalabrini Centre statistics, most of the immigrants in South Africa come from troubled African countries like Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe as well as from as far afield as Bangladesh and Pakistan.

So serious are xenophobic tendencies in official circles that on November 30 last year, a South African High Court judge had to halt the country’s Home Affairs Department from implementing controversial provisions of the country’s Refugees Act that allow it to arrest and deport asylum seekers that were unable to renew their visas on time because of Covid lockdown. 


Read More: What Xenophobia in South Africa Means for The Ideal of Pan-Africanism


Implementation of these provisions, which came into effect in January 2020, would have resulted in many members of this vulnerable community being deported back to their home countries where many of them face grave risks. 

Non-governmental organisations working with refugees and asylum seekers in South Africa say even before Covid-19 restrictions made movements difficult, a lot of administrative bottlenecks and red-tape, as well as rampant corruption within the system, made it hard for these foreigners to update their documentation, leaving them at risk of being sent back to the home countries which they had fled due to political violence, detention without trial, rape, torture and threats of death, especially as South Africa is one of the few African countries that provides asylum for LGBTQ+ people from all over the continent

Attempt to Exclude Foreigners From Vaccination

When South Africa received the first consignment of Covid-19 vaccines from India in early January, Health Minister, Zweli Mkhize, announced that the vaccines were for South African nationals only. The announcement caused a considerable outcry and it forced had a statement from President Ramaphosa reversing it.

“We aim to make the vaccine available to all adults living in South Africa, regardless of their citizenship or residence status,” said President Ramaphosa in a statement.
“We will be putting in place measures to deal with the challenge of undocumented migrants so that, as with all other people, we can properly record and track their vaccination history. It is in the best interests of all that as many of us receive the vaccine as possible.”

The attempt to exclude foreigners from vaccination prompted Human Rights Watch (HRW) to issue a statement urging the South African government to act responsibly by ensuring equitable distribution of the vaccine.


Read More: African Debt: The Hidden Story of How the World Bank and the IMF Destroyed Africa


“For South Africa to effectively combat the Covid-19 pandemic, authorities should fully implement President Ramaphosa’s promise of inclusion by ensuring that everyone living on its territory has equitable access to vaccines and is included in the national vaccination program, regardless of their nationality or residency status,” said HRW Southern Africa director, Dewa Mavhinga. “The authorities should embark on awareness-raising, information campaigns, and ensure those without documentation can travel safely to vaccination centres.”

Some Locals Oppose Xenophobes

While the frustrations brought about by the pandemic are understandable, many see these campaigns and inflammatory statements by senior public officials as bad for a country that is known for its regular bouts of xenophobic violence. 

This current drift towards hyper nationalistic tendencies is worrisome for many.

“#PutSouthAfricansFirst is being used in tandem with sinister phrases like #CleanUpSA,” said Suntosh R Pillay, a South African clinical psychologist in an opinion piece. “It takes little historical acuity or imagination to see why these catchphrases lay the discursive foundations for dehumanising processes of “othering”. If ‘we’ want ‘our’ country back, then ‘they’ must go back to ‘their’ country. 

Members of the Workers International Vanguard Party, march through Cape Town against xenophobia. Image

Similar linguistic bullets were consistent precursors to atrocities in Germany, Rwanda, Burundi, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and Idi Amin’s Uganda. “Normalising these phrases and then deploying them strategically can incite a panga-wielding mob already primed by divisive political utterances. At the core of this vulnerability to violence is centuries of suffering, expressed in the only emotion that a toxic society openly permits: anger,” said Pillay

Pan-Africanist Brotherhood Being Tested

As the pandemic is showing signs of lingering for much longer, the spirit of pan-Africanism, which has always supposedly governed African nations’ relations with each other could be fully tested and it is yet to be seen if the anything of the idealism it embodies would remain. Already most African countries are losing patience with the xenophobic attitudes of South Africans.

After the xenophobic attacks on foreign nationals during September 2019 that left more than a dozen people dead, there was a chorus of condemnation from across the African continent, with a few cases of reprisal attacks on South African business interests abroad. Nigeria started evacuating some of its citizens, recalled its High Commissioner to South Africa and – together with Zambia, Malawi and Rwanda – went on to boycott the World Economic Forum on Africa summit in Cape Town.


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President Ramaphosa was loudly booed down when he visited Zimbabwe to attend the funeral of the country’s former president, Robert Mugabe.

These rebukes forced the South African government to act swiftly to contain the situation while profusely apologising to African nations that had started to consider the draconian measure of imposing economic sanctions on Pretoria over its alleged failure to protect her migrant community.

As in other cases of xenophobic attacks in countries across the world, the South African attacks – which have become known as Afrophobia, as they almost exclusively target only citizens from other African countries – are always stereotypically premised on the local belief that foreigners, both documented and undocumented, are to blame for the country’s fast-growing social and economic woes.

Featured Image: Zimbabweans illegally crossing the new border fence into South Africa

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