Hate speech and misinformation – South Africa

In the midst of the pandemic, anti-foreigner sentiment has flourished

Hamimu Masudi

News headlines of violence against immigrants in South Africa started to appear in 2008, when mobs in the country’s economic heartland province of Gauteng, and later KwaZulu-Natal and Western Cape, sporadically attacked foreigners and their businesses, leaving close to 60 people dead and displacing thousands more, in the process forcing many back to Zimbabwe, Mozambique and other countries of origin.

Since then, anti-foreigner attacks have been commonplace, reinvigorated by economic hardships and, most recently, by the COVID-19 pandemic. With its economy performing remarkably well in comparison to most of the continent, the country has been attracting people seeking asylum or in search of work opportunities, mostly from Southern Africa but also from elsewhere, such as Nigeria, Somalia and Bangladesh. For many poor black South African communities, still reeling from their experiences of apartheid and who make up most of the country’s large numbers of unemployed, the presence of migrants is viewed as a threat. This perception has only sharpened in the wake of the pandemic, with national unemployment levels rising to almost a third (32.5 per cent) of the population by the end of 2020.

According to some market surveys, a foreign-born resident is more likely to be employed than a South African citizen living in the same neighbourhood – although, crucially, foreigners are also more likely to be employed in precarious or informal sector work than South African nationals. Most commentators conclude that this difference in employment chances informs the widespread belief among South Africans that foreigners are depriving them of employment and other business opportunities – which, in turn, has contributed to periodic waves of deadly xenophobia.

With the onset of the pandemic, violent anti-foreign sentiments are again re-emerging. In September 2020, as part of a movement calling itself Put South Africa First, a group of South Africans took to the streets with banners, shouting that foreigners were taking away their jobs and demanding that they leave the country. Among other measures, the movement called on the government to undertake a citizenship audit, impose service fees on foreign residents and halt the provision of non-essential work permits immediately. The groups driving these anti-migrant sentiments have also spread rumours accusing foreigners of trafficking children and other unfounded allegations. The implications of these coordinated hate campaigns have been felt even beyond South Africa’s border, with previous xenophobic attacks in the country provoking retaliatory attacks in Nigeria and Zambia targeting South African businesses.

For many poor black South African communities, the presence of migrants is viewed as a threat. This perception has only sharpened in the wake of the pandemic, with national unemployment levels rising to almost a third (32.5 per cent) of the population by the end of 2020.

Other practices adopted to control the spread of COVID-19 have also been reported to be discriminatory towards refugees, asylum seekers, migrants, foreign workers and foreign business. This was especially so during the initial days of lockdown, when the government targeted these groups with stringent control measures, as illustrated by the abrupt closure of some refugee centres, mostly without any prompt and decisive safeguards. For some asylum seekers, such moves had immediate repercussions; since they were unable to renew their permits, their bank accounts were frozen, leaving them unable to purchase food and other necessities.

In many cases, government officials have not only failed to challenge xenophobic attitudes but actively encouraged them through their words and actions. Further still, government officials also came under scrutiny for using non-inclusive language in their public messages, a case in point being the tendency of the officials to refer to South African ‘citizens’ instead of ‘all in South Africa’ in their communications around COVID-19, further stoking divisions in the midst of a collective public health emergency.

One particularly egregious instance of this took place in March 2020 when South Africa’s Small Business and Development Minister, Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, deliberately excluded foreign-owned grocery shops from the list of designated essential service providers that could remain open during lockdown. Even though a new directive was issued in April, reversing the minister’s position, the damage had already been done, and human rights defenders castigated her for playing into popular prejudices against migrants in the country. To make matters worse, in the process of implementing the directives, police had used unnecessary force and themselves uttered xenophobic statements. In one instance, Mohamed Surat of Enjeni Spaza told reporters that he and his customers had been pepper sprayed by the police in his shop.

The prevalence of hate speech against migrants in a variety of contexts – South Africa’s media has also been criticized for conveying messages that frequently normalize xenophobia – means that addressing the rise of xenophobia in the country requires a range of social and economic interventions to challenge misinformation and address underlying grievances around poverty and inequality, many rooted in the legacy of apartheid. Though COVID-19 has made these issues more visible, targeted violence against foreigners in South Africa long pre-dates the pandemic and is likely, without adequate measures to tackle it, to continue indefinitely – posing a public health crisis of its own to the millions of migrants and asylum seekers living there.


Photo: Police check asylum papers of an African foreign national refugee in Cape Town, South Africa. Credit: Guy Oliver/Alamy.