10 min read
16 Jan

For convenience, our News24 article of earlier this month in one unedited piece. 



Our leaders have responded by predominantly labelling xenophobia a crime. This is true. In an obvious sense. But also only partly true. The bigger, more horrendous truth is that it is crime with an edge – an anti-migrant crime, an anti-African migrant crime.

Edwin Cameron 

Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu

African proverb 

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. 

Hebrews 13:2 (The Bible, RSVCE) 

Complex challenges arise when our neighbour happens to be an immigrant. 

Pope Francis 


The bronze sculpture “Angels Unawares” on St. Peter’s Square grimly depicts migrants and refugees from different cultures and moments in history. It reminds us of this perennial human situation and how various nations have had to deal with this economic and moral challenge throughout the ages. It also reminds us that the question still demands an answer, a response. This article seeks to examine the current South African response to the question of migrants and refugees present or coming into the country, whether our response can be seen to be xenophobic or justified, what impact the current position has on this particular and related conflicts, and whether there are any measures that we can adopt to prevent or mitigate any problems found in such assessment. The assessment will be viewed mainly through the lens of conflict management principles. 

In 2019 some 7% of South Africans were foreign born. By those same statistics we were the largest recipient of immigrants on the African continent. Migrants and refugees of various classes and causes live among us and seek to start a new life here, or at least to try and earn an income on a temporary basis. Adding significant numbers of people competing for already scarce resources and jobs in a country still suffering from jaw-dropping levels of inequality, poverty, lack of relevant and commercially viable skills and education, unemployment and the distrust, paranoia and fear that results from that was always going to cause further conflict and tension. Our legal framework is quite clear and unambiguous in dealing with immigration. Our official policy recognizes immigrants and makes use of various categories (for example those who can contribute to the economy and those who cannot) to deal with the situation. Our Constitutional Court judgments generally follow and apply a modern and liberal approach to these rights and protections. It is however closer to real life on the streets where the picture starts to change. 

The general perception of the migrants, these Others, among the South African public shows the tensions we referred to earlier in stark numbers.   A Pew Research poll conducted in 2018 concluded that 62% of South Africans viewed immigrants as a burden on society (by taking jobs, social benefits) and that 61% of South Africans thought that immigrants were more responsible for crime than other groups. The by now rather regular attacks on foreigners (see for example the May 2008 or April 2015 events) all emphasize the simmering unease, distrust and resentment that many South Africans feel towards these immigrants. Conflict with them always seems one incident, one torch-waving tweet away. 



Conflict resolution theory and practice both exhort us to accurately find the source(s) of these conflicts before we try to remedy it. While some of these sources and triggers are quite self-evident (competition for scarce resources, inequality, unemployment), others are less apparent. The sense of threat perceived by the average citizen is turned into a powerful political fuel, drumming up support and votes, deflecting from governmental ethical and service delivery failures, creating a sense of action, that something is being done about the other symptoms of our often dysfunctional state. Whether by design or sheer insensitivity, we regularly find public statements by senior politicians like Lindiwe Zulu (Small Business Development Minister) claiming that foreign business owners cannot expect to co-exist peacefully with local business owners unless they share their trade secrets, or Gayton McKenzie tweeting that “we will make life hell for illegal foreigners this year” (tweet dated 4 January 2022). 

Researcher Christopher McMichael captures this tendency well: 

“This shared state-corporate project of building up a 'fortress South Africa' also reveals a deeply entrenched seam of xenophobia, in which undocumented migrants and refugees from African countries are painted as a security risk akin to terrorism and organised crime. Parliamentary discussions on border security are rife with claims that foreign nationals are attempting to drain social grants and economic opportunities from citizens. The packaging of illegal immigration as a national security threat, which often relies on unsubstantiated claims about the inherent criminality of foreign nationals, provides an official gloss on deeply entrenched governmental xenophobia, in which African immigrants are targets for regular harassment, rounding up and extortion by the police. This normalisation of immigrants as figures of resentment may also fuel outbreaks of xenophobic violence.” 

Immigration has become an important conflict wedge strategy for populist and right-leaning groups the world over, and it is irresponsible conflict management to simply leave the issue to resolve itself. In complex conflicts like immigration policies and practices the original facts and considerations get lost in the sound and fury, and the us-versus-them dynamic takes over.        

From the cautious denial and scepticism of presidents Mbeki and Zuma to the more nuanced policy statements on immigration found in modern day party political manifestos this cyclical conflict between South Africans and immigrants are rarely effectively addressed by South African politicians. Our government’s current public dispute with Zimbabwe on the issue of special dispensation permits seem to be another example of an immigration issue that could have been handled better. Whatever the origin of this inefficiency may be, whether it is for malicious political gain or by sheer inertia caused by other seemingly more pressing crises, our political structures should at this stage be seen as a part of the causes, triggers and perpetuation of this simmering conflict. Other, less apparent causes for these views must also be acknowledged before we can be assured that we have accurately assessed the causes of the conflict. The lasting effects of apartheid, especially where people often had no other perceived remedy to oppression and threat other than violence are there for all to see. We are an incredibly violent society, and much of that has its roots in our past. Violence is still seen as a solution to threats, real or perceived, especially when these threats deal with the survival and prosperity of the parties.    Properly understood we then see the interconnected nature of our various economic and political problems all clearly manifesting in our responses to these” others”. 


To what extent though is the general reaction to foreigners unjustified? How much commercial and moral value do international best practices, policies and the experiences of Europe, the US and South America really hold for a South African parent or child on the receiving end of unemployment, hunger and other real world symptoms of our unequal society? Does charity not begin at home, should South Africans not have preference when it comes down to sharing out scarce resources? An honest initial answer must probably be “Yes, of course”. 

But does that solve any of these problems? A large number of South Africans, if not a majority, hold very strong immigration views that range on a spectrum from increased and improved influx control to an actual closing of our borders. It is disrespectful and, certainly from a conflict resolution perspective, unhelpful to simply reject such views.     Here our society is indeed distinguishable from several other jurisdictions in important respects. Our levels of inequality and unemployment often make these conflicts much more of a zero sum battleground, at least in the popular understanding, than what may be the case in Europe, where immigration may simply serve to (in reality or perception) adversely affect issues relating to lifestyle, culture and so on. The EU has, as a possible comparative example, extensive experience in immigration disputes and related policies. 

As a result of conflict work done in recent years the European concept of liberty has evolved to mean, inter alia, that persons should have direct access to and the capacity for participation in multiple communities.   Internationally we find several examples where countries that have successfully integrated migrant groups reap the benefits of such integration. The US is (despite its current disputes) a particularly clear example of a beneficiary of the skills and power that integrated diversity can bring, as is Switzerland and a few others. Practical statistics on comparable African countries are harder to assess. Anatol Rapoport reminds us of the problems surrounding xenophobia and witch-hunting that we saw during the years of Soviet isolationism. Brexit seems to be telling its own cautionary tale about such isolationist policies. 

John Paul Lederach, in his wonderful book “The Moral Imagination” argues that 

“We must not fall prey to the trap of narrowly defined dualisms, which severely limit the framing of our challenges and choices. We must find ways to nurture an inquisitive capacity that explores and interacts constructively with the complexity of the relationships and realities that face our communities.”  

Other conflict experts, like Amanda Ripley, warn that  

“Any modern movement that cultivate us-versus-them thinking tends to destroy itself from the inside, with or without violence. High conflict is intolerant of difference. A culture that sorts the world into good and evil is by definition small and confining. It prevents people from working together in large numbers to grapple with hard problems.” 

An unemotional look at these arguments of course show us that they are not compelling, not here, not in many other countries, to the average citizen on the receiving end of a series of real world results caused by poor leadership, service delivery failures, unemployment, inequality and Covid-related results. Populists will continue to find people willing to listen to their arguments while these conflict cycles continue. If properly managed and effectively integrated immigration policies are going to become a part of the South African reality, as I suggest that they can and should become, then a more practical approach to this process must be adopted than what is currently the case.  


And herein lies the benefit of taking a classical conflict management approach to the question of our alleged xenophobia – the question of whether it is in fact advantageous for a country to allow immigration need not be definitively answered before we can move on and start making measurable progress. While I am personally convinced of the commercial and moral wisdom of following an enlightened immigration policy, it is of tremendous strategic (and hence political) value not to have to first deal with this debate before we start working on the project itself. To solve the problem we do not need to allocate a winner in the current debate, not that such a project would have any chance of success in any event.   


So let’s look at a few practical measures, taking this specialized conflict resolution approach, that we can bring to our immigration debate. 


 Here we need to avoid an understandable tendency to deny the problem of xenophobia in South Africa. These efforts can be seen and heard from political rallies to social media. Where incidents of xenophobia occur, we must call them out and deal with them according to our laws as they are in place already. We do ourselves as a country, and those suffering from the conflict the most, no favours by denying the extent of the conflict. On the macro level this of course means that government should create jobs, revive the economy and renew confidence in social structures, but of course individuals and communities can start addressing this at grassroots level. 


   South Africans often take offense at being termed xenophobic, and this tag simply brings up the defences, which in turn leads to either a never-ending or unproductive debate about preferences, relative rights, loyalty of politicians and so on. Accept the legitimacy of the concerns at the negotiating table and work from there. Break the us-versus-them paradigm, and discourage politician and public figures from manipulating this as a tool of division. Focus on, develop and publicly discuss the joint goals and shared interests that South Africans may have with immigrants (shared skills, employment creation, skills transfer etc). We can all change the way we look at this, speak of it and approach actual incidents in our lives. 


 Most organizations and individuals in South Africa that do participate in the immigration debate still mainly use a fact based argument for their respective points of view. Statistics and spreadsheet approaches are used, and these facts are arrayed against each other in the various instances of the conflict. While such facts are of course important at a relatively minor level, such a strategy uses the wrong tool (fact based arguments) in a conflict that is essentially one of values and identity. Here case studies and research show convincingly that such fact based arguments simply entrench people even further and cause further polarization and cyclical conflict, despite the objective accuracy and best intentions of the parties using such strategies. The arguments we often see on social media and on the political platforms therefore simply lead to further harm and conflict. The persuasive tools to be used in identity/value based conflicts are very different, and those involved in these debates and conflicts need to become competent in applying them. Bluntly put, it is simply not good enough, or of any meaningful use, to simply take a stand on the political spectrum and to argue the matter from there. 


 Xenophobic violence is often caused by feelings of localised helplessness, a feeling of being isolated and disregarded or disrespected, a community’s sense of having run out of options, with no reasonable alternatives left to them. Government and other able organizations or individuals should create community level structures that can effectively deal with the specifics of an escalating conflict. This should include a certain level of organization and coherence, persons skilled (at some level) in a practical understanding of the causes and triggers of xenophobia, being able to mediate successfully and to approach these escalations as joint problem solving demands, not as acts of war to be retaliated against. Teach such groups basic conflict resolution skills and ensure transfer and practical application of that in that specific community. These informal structures need not be standardized nationally, and effective models that respectfully deal with local customs and problems can be engineered and even resourced by government or anyone that sees the value of such a structure. It need not even be new structures, as this function can simply be incorporated into existing structures such as community forums, faith based organizations and so on. Government may serve its own purposes well by playing a limited role in education and maintenance of such local groups. 


 A large part of xenophobic violence that we see are the end result of a period of pent up frustration, of individuals and communities coming to a conclusion that their voices are not heard. The skillful management of this, immediately, effectively and consistently, will prevent or reduce much of these conflicts. 


 Government, these community structures and anyone involved at grassroots level in these conflicts must seek to break the established thought patterns of despair and hopelessness that may be prevalent in that community. This must not be done with clichés and polite rhetoric, but actual examples of hope and progress – small successes in creating employment, collaborations between citizens and “the other” that benefitted the community, examples where dialogue brought about resolution and so on. This momentum must be built, maintained and effectively communicated. The country’s problems need not be solved overnight – for now just our street, our community, with the inclusion of strangers among us. It is here where the provisional acceptance of all views will be tested, and in time stand or fall. Academic or intellectual arguments in favour of immigrant integration and against xenophobia will be stillborn if the success and mutual benefits of such integration cannot be shown to work over time. 


 A conflict resolution approach to the problem can be as integrated or as localized as people may want to engineer it. Local conditions, histories and perspectives can be accommodated respectfully and weaved into short and long term solutions. In the beginning, teams of trained mediators can work with communities to transfer the skills necessary for such communities to take these projects further themselves.  Several models for such work exist already (for example the mutual obligations approach advocated by Michael Emerson and George Yancey), and existing principles and techniques can be adapted easily for local conditions. As several historical examples have shown, such a campaign against xenophobia can show very successful results if built around or supported by a charismatic figure or respected local leaders. Campaigns can be built around sport and entertainment figures. Inspiring work is being done with storytelling and identity integration with children and adults. Many of the tools engaged in establishing and propagating this “othering” so inherent in xenophobia can be used to reverse such harm. Born of the conflicts of Europe in particular Pope Francis has advocated a simple four phase strategy that could very well work in our environment, that is to welcome, protect, promote and integrate. 

CONCLUSION I do not believe that we are inherently xenophobic. To the extent that such tendencies may be present in our society they are created or exacerbated by the threats that we looked at above. This understanding does not excuse any of the parties involved in this complex, cyclical conflict. Far too many acts of criminality involving immigrants exist, far too many acts of xenophobic violence fill our media and our communities to be excused or wished away. Our politicians often play a toxic role in this process, whether it is in the discreet dog-whistle to their current or new followers, or the crude and blatant war-cry. It is high time that our politicians (at all levels) take responsibility for the fire that they are playing with. 

Until such time as we can assure South Africans of hope and a future, this festering conflict will continue to grow in hostility and social acceptability, and create its own conflicts. Approaching this situation from a focused conflict management perspective brings all of the above benefits and addresses our other problems at the same time. We can, as Ben Phillips so often shows us, can build power together. And who knows, in doing so we may meet some angels. 


  • Further references, courses, coaching and study material are available on request.

   (Andre Vlok can be contacted on andre@conflictresolutioncentre.co.za for any further information)


* The email will not be published on the website.