Xenophobia does not tell the whole story of migration to SA

Xenophobia is the influential story of immigration to South Africa. The issue is regularly in the news, focusing on both provocative political rhetoric and acts of violence against foreigners.

Anti-immigrant sentiment stems from South Africa’s dire economic situation. Some people complain of immigrants “taking jobs from locals” amid growing poverty and lack of resources. There are also allegations of fueling crime against immigrants. While the exact number of immigrants is not known, what is clear is that South Africans believe that there are actually many more immigrants in the country.

Lately, hostility against immigrants has been waged by organized groups such as Operation Dudula and the political party Putin South Africa First.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has condemned the new anti-immigrant movement as a “warning-type” organization.

Research has consistently shown that many statements that fuel xenophobia are false.
They fuel a national narrative of inconsistent differences between South Africans and Africans from anywhere else on the continent.

This is simply not true. Peaceful and mutually beneficial relations between South Africans and immigrants regularly exist and can. Xenophobic discourse obscures this reality.

Anti-immigrant attitudes have a very real effect. It is estimated that more than 60 people have been killed since the first large-scale xenophobic violence broke out in South Africa in 2008, and thousands have been left homeless in the wake of xenophobic violence in the country.

However, this does not tell the whole story of immigration to the country.

For our study, we shifted the focus away from areas of violence to areas where migrants have been able to settle and live a normal life among South Africans. The study mainly examines the healthcare practices of immigrants. But in the process we gained insights into ways to use local practices to build peaceful and mutually beneficial relationships between immigrants and locals.

Our ethnographic study of immigrants in the town of Gianni in the northeastern part of the province of Limpopo examines how the Zimbabweans who settled in the area developed their social ties with it.

This ethnographic study explores the forms of friendship and trust between the Zona Tsonga-speaking South Africans who have heard of immigration from Zimbabwe and the Gianni. The small town was created in the 1960s by the racist government as the capital of the then Gazankulu Bantustan, where the Tsonga-speaking people were largely confined to racist policies.

We have seen that, despite all the evidence of xenophobia in the country, immigrants were able to build and maintain happy social relations with South Africans in many everyday local contexts.

Such networks are important because they can be used to avoid both physical xenophobic attacks and less explicit forms of social exclusion and marginalization. Even where large communities may be hostile to foreign nationals, transparent social networks provide immigrants with a level of privilege and protection.


Our qualitative study was based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted in 2017 and 2018. The work was part of a broader project of ongoing ethnographic work on immigrant healthcare access and indigenous knowledge. A total of 52 people were interviewed about their health-seeking practices.

During the field work, we were also able to see ways in which immigrants who have lived in the country for up to two years have been able to change their relationship with the locals, so that they move from being outsiders to being part of the community.

They did this using locally relevant aboriginal practices. Friendship A Zimbabwean heard word that loosely translates as “friendship” but can also include a set of structured activities, such as gift-giving, that bring the concept of friendship into practice.

The idea of ​​it Friendship Aligned with the South African word Xitsonga Get with each other (Translated separately to help each other survive). Together, these exercises allow for structural social cohesion. To employ ideas Friendship It enables researchers to test ways in which people build mutual friendships that are a little “like family.”

Both Shona and Tsonga cultures see people as part of a community. This is a more widespread phenomenon across South Africa. Being a “right” person in this area means being part of a set of socially connected networks From the pre-colonial era, Friendship Gift-giving and exchange practices have been used in existing social networks as a way to include newcomers, such as immigrants.

Our research has shown that Zimbabwean immigrants to Gianni have carefully and deliberately drawn to such locally relevant practices in order to formalize their relationship with Sitsonga-speaking South Africans. The practice included the creation of a stockwell (mutual savings club) to which South Africans were then invited to join; Giving gifts or lending money; And join parties and traditional ceremonies together.

Such practices open up a semi-formal transactional relationship that brings people together in mutually beneficial ways. Friendship Relationships cause informal friendships, and divisions between formal business or family relationships. They are walking a line between the gift and the market economy. In contrast to the influential xenophobic descriptions that African immigrants occupy are detrimental to South African society, these relationships are mutually beneficial.

Lessons learned

We do not want to dismiss the reality of xenophobic violence. But we believe that studying relationships built by immigrants in this hostile context can show us just how important those networks are for peace-building.

The African idea of ​​making strangers feel at home has had a good effect on Gianni. Where xenophobia is prevalent, it has implications for policy and intervention.Conversation

Shannon MoreraAssociate Professor, University of Cape Town and Tamuka Chekero, PhD candidate in Anthropology, University of Cape Town

This article has been republished from Conversations under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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