Economic wealth as a driver of xenophobia in South Africa

Economic wealth as a driver of xenophobia in South Africa

Deep-seated income inequalities and poverty are driving xenophobic violence in South Africa, which is targeting in particular shops owned by foreign nationals.

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By Tendaishe Tlou

South Africa is increasingly becoming a nation divided among itself; increasingly characterized by violence, as epitomized by another round of looting of foreign national-owned shops in January 2015. Since 2008, the country has plunged into a pervasive and recurrent xenophobic campaign, instilling fear in foreigners – popularly referred to as ‘makwerekwere’ – particularly in Gauteng and Cape Town. Precarious conditions of poverty, unemployment, poor service delivery, increasing living costs and deep-seated economic inequalities are driving xenophobia which has contributed to the outbreak of violent looting.

The frustration-aggression theory, developed by Dollard (1939), asserted that it is intrinsic and innate in human beings that when deprived of their basic needs they become frustrated, which leads to aggressive behaviour. When the source of the frustration cannot be challenged, the aggression is displaced onto an innocent victim. Relative deprivation leads to the development of negative attitudes and behaviour towards the real or perceived sources of deprivation; namely, in the case of South Africa, foreigners who own shops that are much more profitable.

Xenophobia can be defined as a “hatred, dislike or fear of foreigners”; combining the Greek xenos (foreign) with phobos (dislike/fear). In South Africa, it has come to be understood as the often violent dislike of foreigners or “makwerekwere” in a bid to monopolize and control a certain valued resource, in this case economic wealth, at the expense of other groups. Xenophobia in South Africa can be explained by the increasing rate of socio-economic inequality in the country.

Apartheid entrenched economic inequality, yet the outcomes are seen through the violent looting of foreign national shops in Soweto and Alexandra-Gauteng in January 2015 and, most recently, in  Phillipe, Cape Town, in February. Given that the gap between rich and poor is rising exponentially, the looting and killing in Soweto are a constant reminder of the aggression that results from frustration and anger. In the context of South Africa, aggression is a result of peope’s perceptions that foreign nationals are preventing them from attaining their goals (Dollard, 1939). From colonialism and apartheid to the formation of the Black bourgeois, the Black majority has been constantly marginalized; as epitomized by the expansion of slums (shacks) and high density suburbs mostly populated by Black South Africans, Zimbabweans, Somalians, Ethiopians and other refugees.

Foreign nationals have become victims of circumstances in a state engulfed by deep socio-economic inequalities. The greatest scourge of xenophobic violence are confined to the margins of formal society, wherein foreign nationals compete with the poorest South Africans to eke out a menial living through ‘spaza shops’ and other small-medium enterprises. Therefore the best strategy to reduce competition and monopolize the market is to loot foreign-owned shops, leading foreigners to evacuate the area. Indeed, representatives of the Black business association in Soweto told the Minister for Small Businesses that foreigners must evacuate Black South African communities; allegedly for squeezing South Africans out of business.

It is now a pervasive belief in South Africa that economic resources are being exploited by foreign nationals, such that South Africans who are not benefiting have become so much aggrieved that they use aggressive xenophobic violence to air their frustration. In communities such as Diesploot, Alexandra and Soweto you can find foreign national-owned shops at every turn. These owners often giving customers groceries on credit and providing goods that are cheaper than the Black-owned shops; thereby fueling further frustration. In the context of South Africa, Dollard (1939) predicts that riots and revolutions are both caused by poorer and more deprived sections of society who express their bottled-up frustration and anger through violence.

The looting that started on the evening of 20 January 2015 in Gauteng and eventually spread to Phillipe, Cape Town in February was not mere criminality, but an organized xenophobic attack by South African business owners and the community. Community residents were tasked with the responsibility to commence targeted looting and then the business community would express their discontent during government reactionary meetings which they knew would follow. Were it not xenophobia, both foreign national- and local-owned shops should have been looted, and the local business owners should have supported rather than castigated their business colleagues by adamantly emphasizing that they should vacate townships; thereby the frustration-aggression theory.

Closely linked to socio-economic inequality is acute poverty. Slums are expanding due to plummeting standards of living, further driving xenophobic violence. The Black majority is residing in communities such as Soweto, where looting is rampant; leading to the hypothesis that poverty sparked the looting of foreign national-owned shops. Coupled with massive unemployment, youth poverty helps explain why young people spearheaded the looting. Juxtaposing the precarious living conditions of South Africans in Soweto and other high density communities and relatively stable livelihoods of foreign nationals in the same areas, poverty is a variable which confirms the insinuations of the frustration-aggression theory.

As foreign nationals in South Africa are relatively wealthy, drive affluent cars and live in brick houses, part of the looting was motivated by greed. According to Collier (2000), greed always results in conflict. It is difficult to pacify greed, which helps explain the cyclical nature of xenophobic looting since 2008 in South Africa. It is widely believed that resources are taken and controlled by a few people – namely, foreign nationals in South Africa – at the expense of the masses. Many people therefore participated in looting not because of poverty or inequality, but simply out of mere greed and an inability to want to share the country’s wealth.

Impact on the South African economy

Investors tend to avoid volatile countries; hence the impact of xenophobic violence on the South African economy is damaging. In the face of escalating crime, service delivery protests and the recent looting of foreign national’s shops, xenophobic violence only serves as catalyst for economic decline. South Africa is bound to experience economic decay, despite President Zuma’s efforts at the World Economic Forum to boost investor confidence in the country. South Africa is at a critical stage in its socio-economic development and citizen lawlessness will prove costly. The closure of shops and evacuation of foreigners from Black communities will also take a toll on the national economy, because South Africans who are employed in these shops will unquestionably lose their jobs. The violence that is apparently engulfing South Africa is similar to the instability which followed Chris Hani’s assassination in 1993 wherein the prominent economist Tony Twine lamented that “investment is falling like a stone…and this is bad news for an economy mired in a harsh recession” (The Citizen, 1993).

The closure of retail shops in Black communities will generate a negative ripple effect on producers due to a loss of customers. Foreign shop owners are contributing significantly to the national economy and it is the responsibility of the government to protect them. With an acute shortage of investors, these are the immediate registered investors South Africa has. The government and the civil society must take responsibility to educate its citizenry about the importance of foreigners in sustaining the economy, whilst at the same time curtailing socio-economic disparities, otherwise the effects will be detrimental sooner or later.

Tendaishe Tlou is a freelance researcher and writer specialising in human rights, environmental security, peace and governance issues. He holds a BSc (Honours) Degree in Peace and Governance with Bindura University of Science Education and a Post-graduate Certificate in Applied Conflict Transformation. He works with various NGOs and Government Ministries in Zimbabwe and South Africa. However, these are his personal views; no authors, NGOs, Universities or any other Institution must be held accountable for the arguments in this article.


  • Collier,P (2000), ‘Greed and Grievance in Civil War’, The World Bank,USA.
  • Dollard,J (1939), ‘Frustration and Aggression’, New Haven, Yale University.
  • Gultang, J (1969), ‘Violence and Peace Research Journal’,Vol.6 no.3,University of Peace,USA.
  • Global Campaign for Peace (2010), www.globalcampaignforpeace.infor.2010.
  • Statistics South Africa (2015),2014 Human Development Report, Stats, SA,Johannesburg.
  • The Citizen (1993), ‘Investment is dropping like a Stone, said Economist Tony Twine’, The Citizen 14-16 Apri,1993, Johannesburg.

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