Bullet holes in a shopkeeper's jacket, Thokoza, South Africa. Photo by author.

Anti-foreigner violence: At the Intersection of Identity and Economics

The conflation of foreign individuals in a country with their country’s political agenda or identity is often used as an explanation for anti-foreigner violence. In South Africa, foreigners – in particular, African immigrants from Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Malawi, Somalia, and Ethiopia (although also many immigrants from Bangladesh) – have been targeted for years in bouts of xenophobic violence. South African voices sometimes cite these immigrants bringing their countries’ lawlessness or poverty with them into South Africa; yet more often, the targeting of foreigners has a strong economic component. Furthermore, it is not only locals who engage in anti-foreigner violence: rumors abound in the South African Somali refugee community about Somali shop owners fomenting violence against shops owned by other Somalis. Anti-foreigner violence takes place under a range of conditions, and itself has the potential to create a unique opportunity structure for foreigners.

To put anti-foreigner violence in context, we can look numerous other places, from attacks on Korean businesses during the 1992 L.A. race riots to attacks on foreigners in Germany in the early 1990s. Yet xenophobic violence in South Africa provides perhaps the clearest example of conditions conducive to violence against foreigners in the African context. South Africa’s status as an emerging democracy characterized by multiple political and ethnic identities also makes it an example that is relevant to anti-foreigner violence elsewhere in Africa and the developing world.

Conditions for anti-foreigner violence in Africa

In South Africa, violence against foreign nationals has been shown to have several characteristics: It is most common in peripheral areas (townships/“locations”); it generally takes place in poor areas, but not in the poorest areas (Polzer, 2010); and it is often fomented by rival business owners, local leaders, or politicians seeking to garner popular support (Krause-Vilmar & Chaffin, 2011); and it often takes place during times of popular dissatisfaction or unrest (according to interviews with Mozambican and Somali business owners in Atteridgeville, South Africa, xenophobic attacks were standard after unsuccessful public protests for housing and pubic service provision). Anti-foreigner discourses in South Africa point primarily to economic competition between foreigners and locals, although politics and discrimination are mixed up in the discussion. The War on Terror has also provided space for the targeting of Muslim immigrants and refugees in numerous countries as suspicions – and actual cases – of home-grown terror surface within certain elements of the immigrant population (although this is by no means a widespread phenomenon and gives no real reason to suspect the majority of immigrants).

Furthermore, a social landscape constituted by politicized ethnic identity can contribute to violence against foreigners, as was evident in the L.A. riots of 1992. This is compounded when there is an aspect of militarization in the community, as in South Sudan, where Eritrean nationals report having been targeted in recent violence in Bor. In South Africa, the area of Katlehong/Thokoza, near Johannesburg’s airport, has a somewhat fractured ethnic landscape as there are many Xhosa as well as Zulu and Sotho living there. The location is also, according to locals, a site of police violence as well as the location to which many of Jo’burg’s stolen cars are brought. In 2011-2012 I interviewed several shopkeepers there who reported being “at war” with the local population. Shopkeepers in Katlehong/Thokoza in general reported more violence than those in the 10 other townships included in the study. Their shops had been subject to shootings and attempted arson numerous times. A young man had recently been killed in a shop only a week after he arrived from Somalia; two shopkeepers had bullet holes in their clothes (see photo).

Bullet holes in a shopkeeper's jacket, Thokoza, South Africa. Photo by author.

Bullet holes in a shopkeeper’s jacket, Thokoza, South Africa. Photo by author.

With risk comes opportunity

While the danger is lamentable, what appears more relevant to some immigrants in desperate situation is the economic opportunity offered by these dangerous areas. Like Jewish immigrants in America’s inner-city neighborhoods in the mid-1900s, many immigrants recognize that no reward is without risk. In fact, higher risk often can mean higher reward for those who survive. Exploratory data collected from over 40 shops in South Africa’s townships indicate that employees receive significantly higher pay in dangerous areas. Shops appear to make more in these areas because of the lack of competition. This can push the more impoverished and desperate immigrants to a country to seek employment in these areas. Somalis in South Africa, according to one refugee in Johannesburg, have come “out of the fire, into the frying pan”; the reward of providing significant remittances to family at home is worth the risk.


Average attacks per month

Highest attacks per month

Average income (USD)[1]

Average employee income (USD)
















[1] Includes enterprise employees as well as shareholders working in the enterprise.

Ethiopian immigrants in other African countries are often in similar circumstances, although in South Africa the Ethiopian (Habesha – Amhara and Tigray/Tigrinya) community has in general set itself up in inner-city areas that are less prone to xenophobic violence by locals and more prone to bouts of abuse and extortion by city officials and police. Many Ethiopian workers in Johannesburg work under a contract in which they are not paid until their defined time of service has expired, while their employers pay their rent, food, and transport costs and promise to hold the employees’ salary in order to give them the full amount to start their own business at the end of the contract term. The presence of the workers on the street makes them more vulnerable to harassment and extortion; as with the Somalis in the townships, it is often the workers who come from impoverished backgrounds who are exploited and subjected to the highest risk.

Anti-foreigner violence is an issue that needs to be addressed seriously as African economies grow, and particularly because there are very real and legitimate concerns on the part of locals, who fear that foreigners are taking away their opportunities and sowing the seeds of discord in their countries. In order to address this phenomenon, we need to realistically assess the factors involved and take a holistic approach to immigration, economic development, and political discourse surrounding foreigners. There needs to be a move towards regularization of foreign enterprise to allow for taxation, and also towards development in the sending countries and harnessing remittances to create productive enterprise and opportunity, as has been done in some towns and cities in Mexico through remittances from workers in the United States. Particularly in countries like South Sudan, where political deadlock and economic frustrations are coupled with militarization, immigrant communities face significant risks when they come to do business.

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