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Essay Example on Xenophobia in South Africa

7 pages
1735 words
Carnegie Mellon University
Type of paper: 
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1. Introduction

Attitudes of xenophobia can be traced back to the colonial time in South Africa, and has escalated since their first democratic election in 1994 (Neocosmos, 2006). Government has taken measures to overcome the divides of the past and build new forms of social cohesion at the local, regional and national level (NA, 2002). However, over the years, the Rainbow Nation has seen a dramatic increase in the level of intolerance towards the outsiders, the aliens, and the foreigners (Aljazeera, 2017) in their country. Violence against foreign citizens and African refugees has become common and communities are divided by hostility and suspicion.

South Africa is now infamously known as one of the more hostile places in the world for foreign migrants. Widespread attacks targeting foreigners took place in May 2008, killing 62 people, making international headlines. Another wave of violence occurred in April 2015, leading to an uproar across Africa. These are not attacks caused by small bands of criminals; both qualitative and quantitative evidence suggests widespread participation in, and support for, the violence in the affected communities (Claassen, 2014).

This paper aims to examine the causes behind xenophobic violence in South Africa. It will focus on a single empirical case study, violence against foreign migrants in Johannaesburg in May 2008 (BBC, 2008). The case study will be analysed using the theories of horizontal inequality in order to understand the root causes and how it fed into the escalation of violence. Varshneys theory on the importance of civic engagement, will also be examined which he suggests promote peace or at minimum, contain violence.

The structure of this paper will be as follows: firstly, the theories and hypotheses will be introduced, followed by the operationalization of variables. Thirdly the case study and analysis will discuss the explanatory power of these theories in the case of South Africa. Finally, concluding remarks will be made.


2. Theory

There has been an abundance of explanation for the causes of xenophobia in South Africa. In order to understand the causes behind the hostile attitude towards foreigners and how that escalates to violence, I will look at two theories in this paper. First, is the horizontal inequality. It is said, that one of many causes of the rising xenophobic violence in South Africa has been explained by the rate of socio-economic inequality in the country (Patel, 2013). Horizontal inequality which is, multidimensional in focus will be able to explain how socio-economic inequality feeds into violence.

Another theory is that of civic engagement. Varshney (2001) stress the importance of civic engagement to maintain peace. As civic engagement works as a bridge between communities, if there is lack of interaction within an interethnic or intraethnic group, there is a potential for violence.

2.1 Defining Conflict

Before going into the two theories to explain the causes of xenophobic violence in South Africa, it is essential to understand the kind of conflict that we are going to be analyzing. Given that the actors within this conflict are the local South Africans and the foreign migrants, it is appropriate to use Brosche (2014, p14)s definition of communal conflict. He defines the term as conflict between non-state groups that are organized along a shared communal identity. He further elaborates that conflict refers to the involved parties wanting to gain control over perceived indivisible resource. In the case of South Africa it is the perceived inequality of socio-economic status between the local South Africans and the foreign migrants.

Brosche explains that the groups involved in communal conflict are generally non-state groups i.e. neither parties involved are empowered with the authority that the government has and neither of them are usually in the national army. They are usually of a non-organised rebel group, and come together occasionally to engage in organised violence (2014). In addition, these kind of organised groups usually share a common identity. Common identity does not just equate to religious or ethnic group (although I believe that this is one of the main concepts). It can be conceptualised as group identification based on common history, culture or core values.

In this study, the conflict is seen as a form of communal conflict where local South Africans who are the original settlers of the country have come together with the same perception that the foreign migrants, them or others are taking away their socio-economic status (such as access to jobs).

2.2 Horizontal Inequality (HI)

Horizontal Inequality (HI), as Brown and Langer (2010) explain, is different from a normal definition of inequality. Normal, or vertical inequality is a measurement of inequality between households or individuals not groups, while horizontal inequality is essentially multidimensional, and includes economic, social, political and cultural status dimensions of groups (Stewart, 2009).

Economic HIs include inequalities in access to and ownership of assets financial, natural resource-based and social. In addition, they comprise inequalities in income levels and employment opportunities, which depend on such assets and the general conditions of the economy.

Social HIs include inequalities in access to a range of services, such as education, health care and housing, as well as in educational and health status (Stewart, 2009).

Economic and social inequalities, as well as in cultural status inequalities are more likely to motivate mobilization of the mass population into violence, whereas political inequalities (political exclusion) are more likely to motivate group leaders to initiate rebellion groups (Brown and Langer, 2010).

The causes and origins of the prevailing socio-economic inequalities between different ethnic groups and/or regions are related to such factors as ecological and climatological differences, the geographical distribution of natural resources, as well as the differential impact of colonialism and post-colonial economic and developmental policies. Socio-economic horizontal inequalities are often very persistent, sometimes lasts for decades (Brown and Langer, 2010).

The preceding statements on HIs have led to the following hypothesis that when socio-economic variance intensifies between different groups within a community along with an already prevailing attitude against an issue or certain group of individuals, there is an increased chance of violence.

2.3 Theory of Civic Engagement

Varshneys (2001) explanation on ethnic conflict refers to whether or not the community at play has preexisting local network of civic engagement between two communities (in this case between local South Africans and foreigners). He stresses that having civic engagement is the most important variable and can be an immediate explanation for the difference between peace and violence in a community. Where engagement between two communities exist, tensions and conflicts can be regulated and managed; where this interaction is weak or nonexistence, ethnic or communal violence is quite likely to breakout.

These networks can be broken down into two parts: first, associational forms of engagement and second, everyday forms of engagement. Associational forms of engagement, is engagement that occurs in a formal setting, of business associations, professional organisations, clubs and unions. Everyday forms of engagement takes place in a more informal setting of simple, routine interactions within a community. An example of this would be interaction of families within different communities, eating together regularly, jointly participating in festivals (Varshney, p363). Both forms of engagement, if inter-communal, encourage peace.

There are two mechanisms that connect civil society and ethnic conflict. First, by promoting communication between members of different communities. Civic networks often make neighborhood-level peace possible. Routine engagement allows people to come together and form organisations in times of tension. These organisations as Varshney explains, creates a significant difference, even when it is temporary. The second mechanism clarifies why associational forms of engagement are stronger than everyday forms in dealing with ethnic tensions. Everyday forms of engagement may make associational forms possible, but associations can often serve interests that are not the object of everyday interactions. For example, in India, intercommunal business organisations can resist (ethnic) conflicts because the business interests of many Hindus with those of Muslims are inline with each other. However they are not built on the warm relations between Hindu and Muslim families (Varshney, p375).

Looking at the explanations above on civic engagement, it can be hypothesized that if different communities were to interact with those outside of their own community on a daily basis or are provided with a space for associational forms of engagement, they may be less inclined to commit violence against them.

3. Research Design

The absence of a universal definition of Xenophobia inhibits the methods in which it can be measured. Xenophobic and resentment attitudes are embedded and generate the question how it can be operationalized. Currently, there is no agreed or clear methodology through which Xenophobia can be measured. That poses challenges to studies that are comparative in nature. However, detailed attitudinal surveys have in the recent past been carried out in many European countries with programs that focus on generating data for social research. From such studies, this study will utilize information from attitudinal surveys to measure Xenophobia hence its operational definition. According to Svensson and Teorell (2007), attitudinal surveys are the operational definition of Xenophobia in that participants responses on immigration and immigrants help the researcher to make conclusions.

The Dependent Variable

There are several questions included in an attitudinal survey that address xenophobic attitudes. Therefore, in order to test the hypotheses, it is important to differentiate between actions and attitudes when selecting the dependent variable. Based on the operational definition, the attitudes of people towards immigration and immigrants is related to their likelihood of engaging in xenophobic actions. In particular, Hjerm (1998)s index will be used to show the relationship between xenophobia and national identity and national pride. The respondents will be required to respond to the following statements in a scale of 1-5 whereby 1(Agree strongly), 2(agree), 3(neither agree nor disagree), 4(disagree), and 5(strongly disagree).

Immigrants generally good for economy

Immigrants take jobs away from people

Immigrants make society open to new ideas, cultures.

Immigrants increase crime rates

The higher the number the higher the likelihood of being xenophobic.

The Independent Variable


The horizontal inequality theory asserts that people with low income or those that perceive they earn low income than they deserve are more likely to have prejudices against a certain group of people. The level of income of an individual or family is dependent on many factors. In South Africa, most of these factors trace back to the apartheid regime whereby some families were disadvantaged and others privileged.

Employment status and opportunities

This variable will reflect whether an individual is employed or not. It will also indicate how they perceive the employment opportunities and the likelihood of getting a job. According to horizontal inequality theory, unemployed people have a higher...

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