n IFE PsychologIA : An International Journal - The politics of xenophobia : race, national groups and the anti-immigrant violence in South Africa

Volume 16, Issue 2
  • ISSN : 1117-1421



The recent anti-immigrant violence that erupted in South Africa in May 2008 did not only shake that country to its roots, but also shocked the rest of the world. Before that ugly incident, South Africa was often referred to as the 'rainbow nation', a term originally coined by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the country's revered cleric and Nobel laureate, to describe the country's heritage as a land of diverse cultures. In the aftermaths of this latest violence in South Africa, the country has acquired a new reputation as one where xenophobia holds sway.

Xenophobia refers to "the strong feeling of dislike or fear of people from other countries". It is the citizen's disapproval of foreigners living in one's own country or earning a living in one's country. From this viewpoint, it is obvious that the events of May 2008 in South Africa were clearly xenophobic violence. It must be noted however that those events were not the first of its kind as xenophobia has a particularly long history, even in Africa. In the 1980s, Nigeria was awash with anti-immigrant feelings that ultimately culminated in the expulsion of Ghanaians from the country. In the 1990s, it was the turn of Nigerians to be expelled from Equatorial Guinea amid tales of violence and intimidation.
Further back in history, xenophobia has always been a topical issue. Rome had experienced severe stresses after non-Roman members of the empire settled in the capital, and on many occasions, anti-immigrant actions were undertaken by citizens to curtail the influx and influence of foreigners. Between the 17th and 19th centuries, Japan had isolated itself from the outside world in order to prevent the infiltration of foreign ideas into the fatherland. And in the 19th and early 20th centuries, America was the setting for so much ill-will against the influx of Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants, this providing the basis for landmark racist laws in the country's past.

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