Migration, Integration and Xenophobia in South Africa

how the issues are being faced in a Township in an Industrial Metropolis

Seminar Paper 2008 23 Pages

Ethnology / Cultural Anthropology


Table of Contents


1. Introduction

2. Defining the problem
2.1. Migration
2.2. Integration
2.3. Xenophobia

3. Migration to South Africa
3.1. Labour Migration (before 1994)
3.2. Developments after 1994
3.3. The 2002 Immigration Act
3.4. Current Situation

4. Foreigners and Society
4.1. Xenophobia in the social order
4.2. Attitudes towards Foreigners in South Africa
4.3. Recent Xenophobic Occurrences in South Africa
4.4. Reasons for Xenophobia and its Persistence

5. Case Study in a Township in an Industrial Metropolis

6. Solutions and Suggestions

7. Conclusion and Outlook


Interview Guide


illustration not visible in this excerpt

1. Introduction

In May 2008 South Africa dominated the international press in a negative way. Xenophobic attacks occurred all over the country and horrified the national and international public. In a short period of time violent actions spread from the greater Johannesburg area in the North to the rest of the country. Pictures of mobs aggressively advancing innocent foreigners shocked people around the globe.

How could this happen, in a state which celebrates its diversity as “rainbow nation”? Government officials, political activists as well as ordinary South African citizens are clueless on how this situation could arise so unexpectedly and how the situation should be handled. Who was to blame for the recent rise of racial intolerance and xenophobic aggression? How widespread is xenophobia really in the South African pulic? Could the integration policies and programmes be held responsible? What went wrong in the society in the past and at present? How is this issue being confronted on a social as well as on a governmental side? These are all questions that need to be discussed in a public debate to bring the nation forward in a time, when most people have no idea on how to cope with the situation.

The immigration legislation and the whole treatment of aliens in the country were also brought into discussion. Allusions of a ““flood of illegal aliens” who bring disease and crime to the country and who are seen to be a threat to the social and fiscal stability of South Africa” (McDonald 2000: 813) are existent in the public. It is therefore necessary to learn about the definite situation of migrant labourers in the society before trying to change the way of how things work on an official level. The “recent trends in South Africa towards the blaming of noncitizens for stealing jobs and competing for scarce resources are not only disturbing in terms of their implications for violence against foreign workers and residents, but also because they do not necessarily represent the realities of noncitizen participation in the South African economy” (McDonald 2000: 838).

By investigating the complex situation of migration, integration and xenophobia the research aims to provide an understanding. Furthermore is the enquiry necessary in the attempt of tracing down the different paths in which xenophobia builds up and finds its way into society. It is believed that a lack of integration of migrant labourers fosters the development of racial intolerance.

After the essential terms migration, integration and xenophobia are defined, the history and contemporary situation of migration to South Africa is explained. The following chapter focuses on the conditions of foreigners in the society and is additionally linked to the issue of xenophobia. Thereafter is the presentation of the case study conducted by the researcher, which will be also used as the foundation for the following unit on suggestion for the confrontation of xenophobia. The final part will provide an outlook on the South African society and its struggle with racial intolerance.

2. Defining the problem

2.1. Migration

Migration (from Latin migratio: movement), is the term to describe particular processes of local movement by people. The term describes the movement of people (individuals, groups or tribes) „from one part of something to another“(Oxford Dictionary 1911). This is accompanied by a permanent change of place of living. These movements are either within a certain area or region (urbanization – the movement from rural to urban) or across borders as emigration (leaving the home country) or immigration. These movements occur in different variations. It is not always voluntarily but can also be forced by the outside.

The idiom `migrant laborer´ includes a range of patterns of participation in the labor force, but simultaneously leaves out numerous other types of migration (Stichter 1985: 2). There is an tendency for immigrants to come first “as laborers in a typical migrant pattern, but then establish themselves as independent producers and bring in their families” (Stichter 1985: 3).

Migration counts as one of the most important factors of population development and is therefore one of the core problems of economy, society, politics and culture in retrospective as well as in present times.

2.2. Integration

Integration derives from the Latin word integratio and indicates the restoration of the whole. It either means the procedure of combining or being combined to form a whole or of the bringing or coming into equal participation in an institution or social group (Oxford Dictionary 1911). It is therefore either the union of parts to one unit or the incorporation into a bigger whole. The term is used in the social sciences to describe the rather harmonic conscious as well cultural incorporation of a populations group or individual into a community, society or social institution. A social integration can only be achieved by a minimal agreement over basic common values and behaviour.

2.3. Xenophobia

Xenophobia is an “intense or irrational dislike or fear of people from other countries” (Oxford Dictionary 1911). It describes in particular the rejecting, mostly aggressive attitudes of a particular social group or an individual towards people from a different culture. It is considered as a specifically form of phobia, as it refers to the “fear […] of the Stranger” (Bihr 2006). This anxiety is “combined and reinforced with the phobia of other individuals, those with whom I unite against the feared, hated and rejected Stranger” (Bihr 2006). This notion is often linked to forms of ethnocentrism, nationalism, racism and anti-Semitism. Therefore it is an expression of superiority of the own collective. The establishment of a feared object is a process through which groups “keep out, push away, reject, or even oppress individuals or groups from other cultures and civilizations”; it therefore shows an exogenous character (Bihr 2006).

“The status of Stranger is defined in relation to a reference group, in relation to one´s culture […], in relation to one´s selective open- or closed-mindedness towards other groups and cultures” (Bihr 2006). Some people grasp, for this reason, the political division of citizenship -the one between nationals and foreigners- to identify “Stranger”. The xenophobic attitude supposes common traits of the nationals.

Xenophobic attitude is political. It takes over the side of the own national state, for the national economic system, but against the foreigners who are being made responsible for the limitations of one`s own life. Consequently is the notion of racial intolerance linked to the prejudice regarding the foreigners’ alleged preferential treatment on the labour market or regarding housing. In the opposite, outsiders are blamed for the harmful traits in the society as unemployment, poverty and crime. They serve as scapegoats for the negative effects of the economic system.

Violent conflicts with a xenophobic background do not always occur between nationals and foreigners, but are also associated with skin colour, religion or special cultural traits. The Stranger is not targeted in his position as a singular individual or subject, but it is aimed at him as a supposed typical […] representative of a foreign group (Bihr 2006).

3. Migration to South Africa

3.1. Labour Migration (before 1994)

South Africa’s economic development is heavily influenced by labour migration. The country “is the product of continuous process of migration” (Vale 2002: 9). This “begins with the discovery of the vast mineral wealth […] in the second half of the nineteenth century” (Böhning 1981: 7). The exploitation of diamonds and gold, and the development of these industries needed enormous contribution by labour. “The demand for labour by a rapidly expanding economy in a relatively underpopulated southern Africa led to growing labour shortages” (Böhning 1981: 7). This directed the path to the establishment of the mine contract-labour system between 1890 and 1920 which still continuous today. It was based on bilateral agreements between the former apartheid government and its neighbouring countries, to regulate the flow of migrant workers into the mines (Vale 2002: 20). It centralized the labour recruitment (Böhning 1981: 13) and put it in the hands of the major mining companies. Foreign as well as black South African migrant labourers “were allowed to take work only on the basis of contracts not exceeding one year, at the end of which the worker had to return to his home labor bureau and re-register.” (Stichter 1985: 187). Foreigners were not allowed to remain in urban areas nor in the country itself, after their contracts expired (Stichter 1985: 187).

The movement of labourers to metropolis areas also led to the advanced development of commercial agriculture, which underpinned the need of large amounts of workforce. This was confronted by the apartheid state through the channelling of unauthorized migrants to commercial farms by offering them the option of working on farms or being deported (Crush 2008). This sanctioning of undocumented migration from the region led to the incorporation of such migrants into the distressed labour-supply schemes. It can be summed up, that the people of Southern Africa “have continuously serviced South Africa´s growing wealth, and its assertion of political and strategic hegemony over the states that have been constructed around it.” (Vale 2002: 21)



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Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University – School of Governmental and Social Science
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Migration Integration Xenophobia South Africa Seminar African Ethnography




Title: Migration, Integration and Xenophobia in South Africa