Johan Fourie's blog

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South African xenophobia: We are all immigrants

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Consequence of the 1885 Berlin Conference? Source: Zapiro

South Africa is a country of immigrants. 2000 years ago, when Romans were conquering Europe, Chinese invented paper making, and Jesus was born in the Middle-East, only the San lived in South Africa. Visit Aliwal North, or Lesotho, or Fish Hoek, or Kwazulu-Natal, and you will find evidence of their existence. Around 300 CE, groups of blacks crossed the Limpopo, settling within the boundaries of modern-day South Africa. Roughly three hundred years later, these groups reached the Eastern Cape. This slow process of gradual migration – known as one of the largest migrations in world history – created the cultural differentiation within black society that we still observe today: the clicks of the Xhosa, for example, is the result of assimilating the Khoesan language. The reason they supplanted the ‘indigenous’ San was iron-working and crop cultivation: two key ingredients to support larger populations. Recent evidence shows that another group – the Khoe – moved into South Africa roughly between 900 and 1300 CE. A pastoral people, they came from Botswana, crossed the Gariep, and settled in the Western and Eastern Cape. (They were roughly 10 cm taller than the San, who still relied mostly on hunting and gathering, although with the arrival of the Khoe, the San often lived in a servant-relationship with the Khoe.)

It was the Khoe the Portuguese first met on their visit to Africa’s southernmost trip in the fifteenth century. And it was the Khoe who lost their land when the Dutch settled the Cape in the seventeenth century. And after 1652, that dreaded date in South African history, came more Europeans: Germans, English, French, Scandinavians. And with the Europeans came slaves from the East: mostly from modern-day Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, Madagascar and Mozambique, but also China, Iran, and the coast of West Africa (even as far as the Canary Islands).

During the nineteenth century came more Europeans, British mostly, moving to sunny South Africa to escape the working-class squalor of the early Industrial Revolution. And when diamonds and gold was discovered, more came, this time from all across Europe, and America, and Australia. But the diamond mines required labour, and so millions of Africans came from across southern Africa: Tswanas from Botswana, Shonas and Ndebele from Zimbabwe, Makua and Tsonga from Mozambique, Chewa and Lomwe from Malawi. At the beginning of the twentieth century, more than 60 000 Chinese were brought to work on the mines, although the experiment proved disastrous and most were sent back. In Kwazulu-Natal, however, the settlement of more than 150 000 Indians on sugar plantations proved more enduring.

Immigration never stopped, not even during apartheid, comprising many nationalities, religions and ethnicities: Jewish, Portuguese, Greek, to name a few. The world wars brought thousands of Western and Eastern Europeans to South Africa. And mines continued to bring foreign workers to the country, in their tens-of-thousands. And it continued after 1994: Between 1995 and 2010, more than a million Basotho (from Lesotho) and Swazi (from Swaziland) traveled to South Africa every year. The New South Africa brought Chinese and Pakistani and Cuban and Bangladeshi and Nigerian and Somali and Congolese and Vietnamese and Senegalese immigrants to our shores. Many of the Italian and German and Irish and American tourists who fall in love with the country and its people, stay behind. More than a million Zimbabweans now call South Africa home.

South Africa is a country of immigrants. And yet, we treat our new arrivals like shit. This week, xenophobic attacks in Soweto relived the awful attacks of 2008. Poor communities are disgruntled because immigrants ‘steal the jobs of locals’. And while the attacks on foreigners are limited to townships, the vitriolic sentiment is pervasive, even into upper middle-class households. “Send them back to their own countries” is the standard response on news sites.

It is certainly sad that many of the foreigners’ origin countries are struggling economically, notably Zimbabwe. But South Africa should be thankful to these immigrants, welcoming them, offering them work visas (and, after a few years, citizenship) and allowing them to build our economy. They are not a drain on our resources, but a boon. The literature on the economics of immigration suggest that immigrants stimulate the domestic economy, creating jobs (and not stealing them). That is because immigrants are often better-educated, more resourceful and more driven; they have to make a success because their support structures (family and ethnic networks) are limited. Especially in South Africa where skills are in short supply, foreign skills are critical if our economy is to thrive.

South Africa, the rainbow nation, should be the one place where we celebrate diversity, where we live Thabo Mbeki’s vision of the African Renaissance. It is deeply ironic that we consider our African neighbours ‘foreigners’ only because they live in countries created by European colonial officials randomly drawing lines on a map.

Instead, we despise these ‘foreigners’. We attack them. We loot their shops. We don’t give them work visas, which means they can’t find work as nurses, or electricians, or university professors. They find it difficult to open a bank account, register a car, or buy a house. In short, we make their lives a living hell. (Read Jonny Steinberg’s latest novel – A Man of Good Hope – to get a sense of the hope and determination of these immigrants, but also of the sad reality of their unwelcoming arrival here. The Economist reviews the book here.)

I am sure we can all do better. For the future of South Africa, we need to do better. That a country which has survived apartheid can be so hostile to outsiders is perhaps the greatest indictment against our generation. Especially considering that we are all, essentially, immigrants.



Written by Johan Fourie

January 25, 2015 at 10:34

17 Responses

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  1. Why is Morocco called “not really Africa” I want to know because I’m an Morocan but apparently this picture says something different (sorry for my bad English)

    Have No name

    April 26, 2017 at 09:37

  2. I have a serious problem when cartoonists are careless with writing articles where the truth becomes a victim. There is no where in our history that Blacks came from Zimbabwe. Mzilawegazi kaMashobane migrated to Zimbabwe and not the other way round. He left my forefathers at KwaNtabamnyama because they coul not immigrate with him. The white men cannot contest that the Khooisan people were the first people in SA when bona they first saw them at the tip of Capetown. We already existed in the Northern Natal as the descendants of Mashobana.They, the whites have no right to tell us who was where and when as we still know.That we do not write things down , we have ubuciko bomlomo where history traverses from gen to gen through the word of mouth. let them enjoy their thieving of the land while it lasts and we will sort the rest step by step.They have polluted our land it shows and Shaka was very sckeptical of their love for land(read Mazisi Kunene’s epic on Shaka).

    Nokhwezi Dladla

    November 5, 2016 at 21:02

  3. I think that Whites don’t like where this could lead – I.e. A rich conspicuous minority.A lot of the xenophobia in the poorer communities is economic pressure with lots of people and few resources The history of movement of people is irrelevant.


    November 22, 2015 at 05:48

  4. This is a really interesting piece – perspective on a grander scale is always helpful when we get caught up in the details. This and stories of all the positive vibes that are going on in South Africa much more than the xenophobic attacks that are getting all the airplay and we need to find more and better ways of sharing those stories:

    Thank you for this
    love brett fish


    April 21, 2015 at 08:02

  5. history tells no shit,there are companies from south africa and those who work there are from south africa,in countries like zimbabwe,zambia,malawi etc
    But would a human dream of a xenophobic act when his brother is in a foreighn land?
    It just shows how ignorant and heartless a human can degrade his moral standard.
    Even if xenophobia would stop today,those who do it and support it will still be enslaved with that mentality of mental slavery of fear and disatisfaction,
    We need to get schooled not just academically but also socially.


    April 15, 2015 at 21:18

  6. south africans would kickdown a statue of a whiteman but will not even attempt to slap a live one,yet they can stone to death a fellow blackman just simply because he is a foreighner.


    April 15, 2015 at 21:12

  7. Though your article is good it does not address present day realities. south africans need jobs and education. u dont feed another mans kids when your kids are starving. allowing foreighners here while the democracy is in its infancy is wrong.

    vernon goldstone

    April 11, 2015 at 14:42

  8. […] Prof. Johan Fourie at Stellenbosch: “South African xenophobia: We are all immigrants.” […]

  9. There is evidence through out South Africa that the “Bantu” people lived here thousands of years ago. there are ruins through out South Africa that show that the “Bantu” have been in South Africa for thousands of years. So this propaganda that all the “Bantu” came from the north a few hundreds years ago must stop. We tired of being lied to when there is evidence that shows that we have been here since. PLEASE STOP THIS PROPAGANDA


    January 27, 2015 at 10:50

    • Hi Lebo. Bantu peoples have certainly lived in South Africa for more than a thousand years. That is indeed what I say in the post. The archaeological evidence of earlier inhabitants you refer to are certainly not of Bantu-speaking peoples, however, but San peoples, which inhabited all of southern (and eastern) Africa before the Bantu migration from modern-day Cameroon and Nigeria (which began roughly around 3000 BCE).

      This is not to deny that black South Africans were dispossessed of their lands when the Europeans settled and migrated into the interior of South Africa. Apartheid propaganda certainly made it seem as if whites entered an ’empty space’, which we now know was not the case. (The several battles in the interior of South Africa between the Vootrekkers and the various black groups attest to that.)

      Johan Fourie

      January 27, 2015 at 12:38

      • But Johan, I hail from the Mzilawegazi kaMashobana clan and we know our history, we never came from Cameroon or Nigeria, but we existed in the Northern Natal long before the Zulu Nation existed, long before that. We coexisted with the Khoisan who allowed whites from the Cape to colonize our land. The whites, remember, were not just the VOC, but were coming from all ports from different countries and that is why we ended up observing the Anglo-Boer war as they faught over our land as if we never existed, I hate that history, it makes me wanna puke.

        Nokhwezi Dladla

        November 5, 2016 at 21:09

  10. Good article.

    1) Rather than view us as a diverse nation, it is more appropriate to view us as a “mixed” nation. It is generally racist thinkers that find difficulty to understand that we are mixed. A discussion with any geneticists should clear this up.

    2) It was not the Khoe who had their land stolen, for they were themselves immigrants! The Land issue is in fact not an issue about land, but an issue about Capital. Land without Capital is dust. Each wave of immigrants has added to the accumulation of Capital. The argument of Land cannot be sustained unless underpinned by the equally tenuous notion of birthright. It is only the urban areas that have real value and these have effectively be constructed in the last generation.

    3)The argument about immigrants adding value is not clear cut. It is time to start giving credence to the idea that people are a liability not an asset to an economy. The labor theories of value (Marx or Riccardo) are simply no longer relevant. Manufacturing simply does not require labor as the dominant component.

    Philip Copeman

    January 26, 2015 at 12:23

  11. Black Africans were aware of the “other” long before anyone came up with the word “xenophobia”

    The Creation of the Zulu Kingdom, 1815–1828
    War, Shaka, and the Consolidation of Power
    Author: Elizabeth A. Eldredge
    Date Published: November 2014
    availability: In stock
    format: Hardback
    isbn: 9781107075320

    Let us not just look at SA ( WHY do all these immigrants come here ? ) but extend the investigation to other parts of Africa.

    Perhaps one will discover that similar events also take place there ( without any reference to what happens in this southern tip of the continent.)

    By the way Zapiro’s cartoon is multi-layered.
    Ask a rural South African to name and point out the different geographical entities on the African continent — their capital , ruling party and president.

    IF one wanted to be “Eurocentric” why not look at Italy and the influx of “boat-people” ………


    January 26, 2015 at 07:32

  12. A good point as always Johan. Anyone interested in why the foreign-owned spaza shops are successful should have a look at this ECON3x3 post:

    Waldo Krugell

    January 25, 2015 at 19:55

  13. Brilliant!!


    January 25, 2015 at 16:50

    • What a blatant foolish ideology. There is nothing mixed la. The only mixed people were a product of the inter=relations between blacks and whites , which saw the advent of the so called” Coloureds” as they say.

      Nokhwezi Dladla

      March 8, 2017 at 19:29

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