The Time-bomb of Xenophobia – by Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi MP

Dear friends and fellow South Africans,

The tragic xenophobic attacks taking flame in various parts of our country are not a new phenomenon. They are not even unpredictable, and should not have taken us by surprise.

In May 2008, South Africa experienced a rash of attacks against foreigners which saw bloodshed, loss of life, destruction of property and deep social trauma. In the aftermath, speculation was rife on what could have ignited the tinderbox of xenophobic sentiments. Was it our divisive past? Was it Government’s failure to deliver services? Or was it simply the grinding day to day battle against poverty, hardship and finite resources that finally lit a spark?

In the midst of the speculation, far too little was said by the leaders of our nation to condemn the attacks and attempt to create social cohesion. I visited one of the affected communities and was moved to tears by the plight of a Mozambican woman who had lost all her belongings to mob violence.

It was not only because I had served my nation as Minister of Home Affairs, but because I am a human being, that I felt compelled to speak on behalf of fellow human beings who were being treated by my compatriots like animals. Deeply ashamed and distressed, I apologised on behalf of my country.

Did it make a difference? So often people of goodwill ask what difference it will make if one person stands up and swims against the current. If the social tide is flowing against foreign nationals, what difference will it make if one South African stops to question the direction of the tide?

I believe it makes a significant difference.

It is terrifying to see children and women and ordinary community members involved in the looting of foreign-owned shops. This is not just a small criminal element targeting foreign nationals. Many are being swept up in the tide of xenophobia and are becoming criminals; though they may never see themselves as such.

Where are the parents whose children are looting? Quite possibly, they are right beside them. Our children are acting in the pockets of lawlessness created by authority figures; including adults who actively participate and police officers who fail to react.

We are doing tremendous damage to our country, both within our own borders and on the international stage. When I acted against the xenophobic attacks of 2008, I drew the attention of the Greek Orthodox Church of Alexandria and All Africa in Egypt. The following year, the Pope and Patriarch of the Church bestowed upon me the Order of St Mark in recognition of what I had done. It is the highest order the Church can bestow on a foreign national.

Clearly the world is watching to see how we will handle xenophobia in South Africa. Within Africa, our neighbours have good reason to balk at our wholly inadequate response. They rightly question why we did not act to prevent xenophobic attacks from igniting again. And they rightly feel betrayed.

When South Africa’s liberation parties were banned in 1960, many of our people fled into exile in countries across Africa. It was not only fear for their lives that sent them outside our borders, by the desperately painful daily existence of life in poverty that was created by the apartheid system. Countries like Zambia, Angola, Tanzania, Nigeria, and many others across Africa embraced black South Africans and helped us build a new life on their soil.

It was not easy for them to do so. The powerful South African Defence Force invaded countries across our borders because they gave sanctuary to our exiles. These countries were no richer then than South Africa is now and resources were just as limited. Yet it was not just the governments of other countries that opened their doors to South Africa’s exiles. It was the people themselves; the ordinary citizens struggling with their own daily battles.

I travelled extensively in the seventies to thank leaders like President Julius Nyerere, President Olusegun Obasanjo and President Kenneth Kaunda for giving sanctuary to our exiles.

How is it that we now reject foreign nationals on our own soil?

In the first blush of democracy, efforts were made to protect the constitutional rights of every person in South Africa. Our Constitution, of which we are rightly proud, extends basic human rights to everyone by virtue of them being human, not by virtue of being South African.

When it became clear that many South Africans did not understand this, the South African Human Rights Commission set up the “Roll Back Xenophobia Campaign” and partnered with various organisations to study migration, xenophobia and human rights.

One of the studies, which still plays on my mind, was by the Southern African Migration Project (SAMP). It was repeated in 2006, just before the spate of xenophobic attacks, and showed that no matter how far we walked on the road of democracy, the attitudes of South Africans towards foreigners somehow failed to improve.

To quote SAMP’s 2008 report titled, ‘The Perfect Storm: The Realities of Xenophobia in Contemporary South Africa’, “Compared to citizens of other countries worldwide, South Africans are the least open to outsiders…” Over time, more South Africans have begun to accept that foreign nationals have constitutional rights. But no matter how much time passes, the overwhelming majority of South Africans do not believe that refugees, undocumented migrants and temporary workers are entitled to police protection.

By implication, many, if not most, of our police officers feel that foreign nationals do not deserve police protection. This is fundamentally wrong. Yet it explains why xenophobic attacks find space in our communities. Studies have long found a trend of police officers and other officials exploiting the vulnerability of foreign nationals, treating them like walking ATMs. The mentality that foreign nationals are not entitled to the same legal recourse and police protection as citizens, changes this kind of corruption in the minds of the perpetrators and makes it somehow justified or acceptable.

But it is outright corruption. Just as looting the shop of a foreign national is theft. These are criminal acts. The identity of the victim changes nothing. If we are to prevent the present attacks from escalating and spreading, our country’s leaders need to speak directly to those in positions of authority, particularly our men and women in the SAPS.

Prosecution of corrupt officials as well as prosecution of looters must be pursued. We need to close the space in which xenophobia-driven criminal acts take place, by restoring the rule of law and the pre-eminence of the Constitution in every community. But then we will still need to do the work of changing hearts and minds and attitudes among the children, women and men of our communities.

As SAMP’s report points out, “South Africa cannot hold its head up in Africa, in SADC, at the African Union, or any other international forum, if it continues to allow xenophobia to flourish.”

Let us have the courage to open a national, government-sponsored, high profile debate, so that we might understand how to defuse the time-bomb of xenophobia. This deserves no less energy, resources and airtime than we give to racism. Hating someone for the colour of their skin or for where they were born are equally irrational. Both end in disaster.

Yours in the service of our nation,


Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi MP