By Khadija Patel and Azad Essa

photography by Ihsaan Haffejee

No place like home



Xenophobia in South Africa

Running small convenience stores in the townships is a dangerous business for foreigners.


Often serving their customers through locked gates, they are accused of spreading disease, stealing jobs and sponging off basic government services like electricity, running water and healthcare.


But as violence against them continues, the South African government insists that criminality is behind it, not xenophobia.

The foreigners


Xenophobia in South Africa | Chapter 1

In a haze of violence in late January,

an angry mob approached a convenience store belonging to Abdikadir Ibrahim Danicha. They pried open its iron gates and looted everything inside. Even the large display refrigerators were carried away.


Danicha's life was upended.


"South African people don’t like us," Danicha, a 29-year-old Somali national, told Al Jazeera, while sitting on his bed in a small room he shared with three others in Mayfair, a suburb popular with foreign nationals in Johannesburg.


The violent outburst that led to the looting

of Danicha’s store began in Snake Park,

in the western reaches of Soweto, when

14-year-old Siphiwe Mahori was allegedly killed by another Somali shop owner, Alodixashi Sheik Yusuf.

Mofolo Central, Soweto

Mahori, a South African, was allegedly a part of a group of people who attempted to rob Yusuf’s store on January 19. His death sparked a week of mob justice, which appeared to be inflamed by xenophobia.


Scores of people were injured and hundreds of stores were looted. As the violence spread to nearby Kagiso, a South African baby was trampled to death.


For the foreign nationals affected by the violence, the actions of the mob were inexplicable.


"I don’t even have clothes … I lost all my things," said Masrat Eliso an Ethiopian national, four days after his shop in Protea Glen, a suburb of Soweto, was looted.



I don't have money.

I don't have anything

and I'm scared for my life"



Calm was eventually restored and most foreign-owned stores reopened. Shelves were restocked and customers returned, poking their arms through the closed metal gates

of the stores to buy a loaf of bread. Groups

of children clamoured to buy lollipops, while tired looking men eyed the fridges for energy drinks.


It appeared to be business as usual, but to the foreign nationals who returned to their stores in Soweto, there was a shared fear

that they may soon be the subject of another attack.


Danicha returned to his shop in Mofolo, another suburb of Soweto, three weeks after the violence subsided.


"I don’t feel safe," he said in early March, outside his partially restocked shop.


He is one of a few hundred thousand Somali refugees in South Africa who have found some measure of success in operating small stores in townships around the country. He is also one among thousands of foreign nationals here who report multiple incidents of persecution.



I came to South Africa in 2012 and

I thought life would be easy."



But Danicha's life in South Africa has been filled with hardship. And the scars, which run across the entire left side of his body, act as

a stark reminder.


In June 2014, he and a friend were running

a small store in the Johannesburg suburb of Denver, selling groceries and basic cosmetics when their store was set upon by an angry mob.


"The first day, a group of people came to the shop. They wanted to loot us. We closed the doors but then they started stoning us," he said. "Then, on the second day, they just came and threw a petrol bomb at the shop.

I was inside the shop."


Danicha was one of four people who sustained severe burns in Denver on that day.



Abdikadir Ibrahim Danicha

"Everywhere, everywhere I am burned,"

he said. "I was in hospital for three months."


After being treated at the Charlotte Maxeke public hospital, Danicha was then forced to rely on the Somali community in Johannesburg for assistance.


“A brother of mine helped me out by giving me a share in a shop in Soweto.”


Two months later, another mob attacked

his store.

"Unless I have the capital to start another shop, I don’t know what I can do."


Estimates suggest that more than 50,000 Somalis have fled to South Africa since their home country erupted into civil war in 1991.


Many of them have settled in townships across the country, operating small businesses among the poorest South Africans.


While the store in Mofolo has reopened, and Danicha helps his co-owners periodically, he has not been able to contribute to the capital needed to get the store sufficiently restocked.


It is very difficult

to start again

and again"





From Soweto and Kagiso the violence in January spread to Sebokeng in the Vaal delta, Eden Park in Ekurhuleni and Alexandra, in northern Johannesburg.


As researchers begin to unpack the stories

of yet another bout of violence against foreign nationals in urban South Africa,

many of the victims are beginning to feel

that the pain caused was not just the loss

of goods, earnings and trading days.


“We came to South Africa because we needed to save our lives,” Mohamed Rashad, an Ethiopian national from the Oromo community says. He runs a store in Snake Park and is angered by the lack of justice in cases involving foreign nationals.


“The law is forgetting us so soon we will also forget the law,” he warned.


Back at the store in Mofolo, Danicha watches as his co-owners serve customers through

a gate. He is not sure what the future holds for him.


 “At first I had a plan but the plan has been destroyed two times now,” he said.


With Somalia still reeling from conflict, he has nowhere else to go.


Despite the ongoing violence, South Africa

is home.




Muhammed Hukun Galle Hassan

I came from Somalia in 2009. And the South African government is good, they let us work for ourselves. I say the government thank you very much and I was working myself and I was looking my food and to trade.


Ismail Adam Hassen

Some people come to South Africa by plane. Others come with taxis and busses.

But I took a very long route to South Africa.

I came to South Africa in 2010 and it took me three months to get here.


Salat Abdullahi

We can be attacked anytime here in the shop.

It is like an ambush attack. We are not safe here.


We can’t even say that we will sleep peacefully tonight because we don’t know what we will face tomorrow.


Nasser Abu

I am in South Africa as an asylum seeker.

You see, in my country, Bangladesh, there are political problems. We are suffering. So we’ve come here honestly. We’re not robbing anybody. We are not doing any crime. We just come here

to do business.  And we hope to help South African people also.


Ebrahim Khalil-Hassen,

Public Policy Analyst in Johannesburg

Al Jazeera:

Is it hard to do business in South Africa?





Xenophobia in South Africa | Chapter 2

In May 2008, 62 people were killed in a wave of xenophobic attacks across townships.


Foreign nationals, mostly migrants from Somalia and Ethiopia,  were dragged through the streets of Alexandra, barely a few kilometers from Johannesburg’s plush Sandton suburb, and “necklaced” -

a throwback to the summary execution tactic used in the Apartheid days.


A rubber tyre, filled with petrol, is forced around a victim's chest and arms, and set alight.


In an instant, the story of South Africa’s much-touted rainbow nation of black, white and brown people happily living together, fizzled away in an outburst of vengeance.


Tens of thousands of people were displaced, forced to seek refuge in churches, mosques and even police stations. In the end, it took military intervention to quell the violence.


South Africa is a nation of multiple ethnicities, languages and nationalities.

From the Zulu and Xhosa, to the Dutch and the British. Somali and Tutsi to Indian Tamil and Gujarati, Chinese and Zimbabwean.


However divided, unequal, and structurally flawed, South Africa is home to a very diverse population of people. A country with deep pockets, it remains attractive as a home for migrants, some of them seeking greener economic pastures, others safety and security.


The economy relies heavily on migrants, be it to make up for a massive skills shortage or as cheap labour in farms and mines.


Despite the violence meted out to foreign nationals, tens of thousands continue to seek asylum there, as many as 60,000 to 80,000 per year.


According to the UNHCR, there were almost 310,000 refugees and asylum seekers in the country as of July 2014. By the end of 2015, this number is expected to top 330,000.


Xenophobia in South Africa is not new.

Some, like Michael Neocosmos, Director of Global Movements Research at the University of South Africa (UNISA), recall anti-migrant sentiment in the early nineties, when the new government was in the midst of planning new economic policies and politicians of all stripes began drumming up anti-immigrant sentiment.


“It is important to recognise that xenophobia can exist without violence. And it’s not sufficient to simply recognise it when people start killing each other,” he said.


A survey in 1997 showed that just six percent of South Africans were tolerant to immigration. In another survey cited by Danso and McDonald in 2001, 75 percent of South Africans held negative perceptions about black African foreigners.


In a most painful of ironies, many South Africans associate foreign black Africans with disease, genocide and dictatorships.


The ills of Apartheid: skin colour, complexion and passes, in this case citizenship, are still the determinants of a better life, or discrimination.


Little illuminates this disparity more than the infamous Lindela Repatriation Centre, built in 1996 for undocumented foreign nationals entering the country. Lindela, outside Johannesburg, has been a scene of abuse, corruption and incessant overcrowding. But the undocumented are also held at police stations, even army bases.


“There is evidence that even in 1994, the records have shown that foreigners were thrown out moving trains because they are killed of bringing diseases, taking jobs, the same rhetoric we hear today,” Jean Pierre Misago, a researcher at the African Centre for Migration and Society at the University of Witwatersrand, said.


“It didn’t start or end in 2008. It had been building up,” he said.


And build up it did. In 1998, three

foreign-nationals were killed on a train, between Johannesburg and Pretoria. In 2000, a Sudanese refugee was thrown from a train on a similar route. The reasons were all the same: blaming foreigners for a lack of jobs,

or economic opportunity. In 2007, a shop in the eastern Cape was set alight by a mob.


The violence that escalated in 2008, was distinctive and decisive. It affected black, African foreign nationals; poor and disenfranchised South Africans; in the townships, but there is no evidence to suggest white Europeans were attacked,

or those from the Indian subcontinent.


A very particular demographic paid the

price, but researchers remind us that at least one third of the victims were actually

South African. Xenophobia is not a problem unique to South Africa.


With so many economies battling recession for the better part of the past decade, the deadly triad of competition-survival-blame has seen fear of the foreigner rise across the globe.


“Xenophobia is experienced in the north and the south, in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) regions and other countries. It’s a worldwide phenomenon,” Misago said.


But, contrary to popular belief, xenophobia in South Africa is not just a problem of the poor.


A national survey of the attitudes of the South African population towards foreign nationals in the country by the South African Migration Project in 2006 found xenophobia to be widespread: South Africans do not want it to be easier for foreign nationals to trade informally with South Africa (59 percent opposed), to start small businesses in South Africa (61 percent opposed) or to obtain South African citizenship (68 percent opposed).


The violence of 2008 was still shocking.


The country fell into mourning; South Africans understood that the innocence of democratic transition, purposefully packaged in cotton and celebrated with confetti, had finally

been taken. The mask had fallen.

This was a country now reverberating under the internal schisms of rising dissent and desperation. The South African government, for its part, refused to label the violence as ‘xenophobic’.


Then President Thabo Mbeki, at the very end of his second term in office, said those who wanted to use the term were “trying to explain naked criminality by cloaking it in the garb of xenophobia”.



When I heard some accuse my people of xenophobia, of hatred of foreigners, I wondered what the accusers knew about my people, which

I did not know ... and in spite of this reality, I will not hesitate to assert

that my people are not diseased by the terrible affliction of xenophobia which has, in the past,

led to the commission

of the heinous crime

of genocide."




The government attempted to reduce the perception of the terror meted out on foreign nationals as benign, unexceptional acts of criminality. If they were orchestrated attacks, they said, ‘a third force’ was behind the violence, apartheid parlance for acts perpetrated by outside forces, or intelligence agencies.


“Of course violence against foreign nationals is criminal. But it can be criminal and xenophobic, it doesn’t have to be either or,” Misago said.


And even before the onset of the latest wave of violence in 2015, there was more to come.


In early 2013, a young Mozambican man named Mido Macia was tied to a police van and dragged through a street close to Johannesburg by officers. He had parked his taxi on the wrong side of the road.


The violence was captured on video

and spread across social media. Resounding condemnation from the middle classes in South Africa and the international community followed. President Zuma himself condemned the incident, but there was still no acknowledgement that these incidents constituted ‘hate crimes’.


When the riots broke out in Soweto in January 2015, it surprised no one.



Jean Pierre Misago

Researcher at the African Centre for

Migration and Society at the University of Witwatersrand


Al Jazeera:

Does South Africa have a history of violence against foreign nationals?

Al Jazeera:

How is it xenophobic?

Al Jazeera:

Do we know how it was created culturally? And what’s currently feeding it?

Michael Neocosmos

Professor and Director UHURU

Unit for the Humanities at Rhodes University

Al Jazeera:

How different is South African xenophobia different to what we see in

Europe, for example?

Al Jazeera:

Who in SA is xenophobic?




Xenophobia in South Africa | Chapter 3

On a busy Monday morning in mid-March in Soweto, Mphuti Mphuti, the acting head of the South African Spaza and Tuckshop Association, appeared on national TV, waving his South African identity document.


“Your government is saying this document means nothing. They are saying foreigners are equal to you,” Mphuti said.


In the weeks following a wave of attacks against foreign-owned businesses in Soweto earlier this year, groups similar to this association and claiming to represent some 3,000 businesses, have been particularly vocal about the presence of foreign nationals in the townships.


“There is tension, there is anger, especially amongst those who fear competition from the so-called foreigners,” said William Veli Sithole a 56-year-old food vendor in Dobsonville.


However, business owners in the country are not likely to be found hurling petrol bombs, or rocks, at foreign owned shops. Often it is a mob, made up of the township mainstay of unemployed youth that form the front lines of service delivery protests, vigilante justice, and repeated attacks against foreign nationals.


“At the time of looting the mob rule takes over, you do not have time to reason; you (only) have time to do what others are doing,” Sipho Mamize, a representative of the NGO Afrika Tikkun's Wings of Life Centre, in Diepsloot, told the national broadcaster.

But while the gall of the mob shocks other South Africans, their activities have also managed to escape censure.


Mphuti, however, said that at the heart of these township battles is the dereliction of government’s duty to its people that has spurred the resentment of foreign nationals here, culminating in the violent looting of foreign owned stores in January.


The people expect a lot from the government, he said.


For others, like Cynthia Khanyile, a street vendor in Jabulani, the blame lies elsewhere.


“I hate foreigners. I really don’t like them. They take business away from us. We work hard, but then the foreigners come and take our business and our jobs,” she said.

According to 2015 figures released by Statistics South Africa, 21.7 percent  of all South Africans live in extreme poverty. At least 53.8 percent survive on less than $75

a month.


It is the politics of survival.


The close knit structures of migrant communities which foster micro-lending and bulk buying schemes popular among Somalis, for example, has only served to disempowerment among locals. The upward mobility of those “from the outside” amidst local inertia is frustrating.


“As South Africans, we still cannot speak about the fruits of this democracy,” Mphuti said.


Sociologist Devan Pillay said that despite the redistributive rhetoric of the ruling-party, the new South Africa has “unleashed a socio-economic system of market violence against the majority of the population.”


Here, the perpetrators of xenophobic acts are victims of the violence meted out by the market.


“Whereas in other instances this might have taken a gendered form, or an ethnic form, in this instance, the convenient scapegoats were easily recognisable foreign nationals,” Pilay writes in “Go Home or Die Here”.


South African townships are a scene of daily pandemonium with residents protesting against poor service delivery, low levels of development or improvement to their lives. Twenty years on, the majority of  South Africans continue to live on the margins.

It is this desperate level of inequality, social scientists have warned, that continues to drive resentment and instability.


The attacks on foreigners do not happen in

a vacuum, nor can they be explained simply by hatred of all things foreign. This, after all, is a country still searching for social and economic reconciliation.


We have seen very little government intervention and upliftment of small businesses in the township,"




“And that’s why we are saying before government can say we are equal with foreign nationals, government must empower small South African businesses. But the critical thing is, South Africans must in the interest

of people who carry the ID book, the green ID book is our license to get preferential treatment from government.”


Days later, a formal agreement between foreign traders and South African business leaders was eventually reached.


The drama of Mphuti’s TV soliloquy was perhaps necessary to assert the will of

a subdued population. He understands the discontents in Soweto, and he also knows how those discontents spill out onto the streets.



Kwanele Godfrey Gumede

The trouble started in Snake Park and the violence spread everywhere. We were here in the city, and each and every shop is owned by the Somalians. You see what started this, we don't want these people here.

Orlando East

Jameel Buhle Gobile

I was born in Soweto, I know what is going on here. There is a way of dealing with this problem. I don’t want to blame government but people are hungry. Me too, I’m hungry. And people will do anything when they are hungry.


William Veli Sithole

In January,  it started when they said a schoolchild was killed by foreigners. Anger boiled, and then it sort of took over even some

criminal elements who saw a way of destabilizing the shop owners.



Jean Pierre Misago

Researcher at the African Centre for

Migration and Society at the University of Witwatersrand


Al Jazeera:

Who is responsible for the violence? Individuals or groups?

Al Jazeera:

Who are behind the looters?

Al Jazeera:

Does the larger community never ever





Xenophobia in South Africa | Chapter 4

Mxolisi Eric Xayiya, an aide to Gauteng Premier David Makhura, took photos of the fridges and assortment of goods covered in thick plastic at a Somali-owned wholesaler in Mayfair.


He was being ushered through the area west of the Johannesburg city skyline days after foreign traders were attacked in Soweto some 20 minutes away. Foreign owned stores were looted, foreigners were attacked and their lives threatened.


There, the parking lot of Awash Cash & Carry appeared to be overrun with the salvaged remains of foreign-owned stores.



“We only saw the foreigners leaving but we didn’t know where they were going,” Xayiya said in late January.


At the time, police were still battling to contain the violence and more than 100 alleged looters had been arrested. The violence threatened to spread even further.


And in an impassioned address to more than 500 affected migrants that day, Makhura condemned the violence, but insisted that it should not be seen as anything other than an act of criminality.


“What we have seen happening, ladies and gentlemen, is not xenophobia, it’s criminality,” Makhura told the crowd. “We have gone out to the community to talk, telling our community members that nobody in our communities must try to defend criminality.”



As Makhura continued to condemn the violence, he also commended the police for moving migrants out of what he called “difficult areas”.


A day after Makhura addressed migrant traders, flanked by senior police officials, the City Press made a shocking allegation.


The Johannesburg-based Sunday broadsheet said that people arrested in connection with looting foreign owned stores in Soweto that week claimed local police had spurred them on.


“Cops told us to loot,” the headline said.


Ten Soweto residents in various parts of the township, who had admitted to looting, told the paper that the police had either join in the looting, or looked on while they helped themselves to goods and fridges from foreign-owned stores, while victims raised allegations of police complicity, corruption and neglect.


Two days later, speaking on SAFM, a talk radio station owned by the public broadcaster, Lieutenant General Solomon Makgale, spokesperson for the South African Police Services vehemently rejected City Press’ claims. He said all allegations had to be registered as complaints to be investigated.


However, Makgale admitted that one particular police officer who had been caught looting toilet paper in a widely disseminated video had been identified and action had been taken against him.


“Unlike previous administrations, we don’t brush things under the carpet,” he said. “Any complaints of misconduct by police officers will be investigated without prejudice.”


The South African Human Rights Commission said its research has shown that “negative perceptions of and attitudes to justice and the rule of law abound at the level of affected communities”.


This then points to a “poor relationship between communities and the police and wider judicial system”.


Attacks against foreigners have continued. Researchers say recent bouts of violence against foreign nationals have already outstripped the carnage of 2008. Still no official mention of ‘hate’, or ‘xenophobia’; the language carefully coiled.


In fact, language goes to the heart of the problem, with South Africa conflating rights with nation-state citizenship, despite the promises of the Constitution, to protect all. When the South African government speaks of justice, rights or solutions, the emphasis on citizenship is marked. In so doing, Zuma’s administration, time and time again descend to the very games engendered to create outrage on the street.


In February, following January’s attacks, President Zuma spoke of a “need to support local entrepreneurs and eliminate possibilities for criminal elements to exploit local frustrations.”

And even as Minister of Small Business Development Lindiwe Zulu, recently established a Task Team to look at the underlying causes of the violence against foreign-owned businesses, her point of departure left observers beleaguered. Zulu was reported to the Human Rights Commission for inferring that foreign-business owners in South Africa’s townships could not expect to co-exist peacefully with local business owners unless they shared their trade secrets.


“Foreigners need to understand that they are here as a courtesy and our priority is to the people of this country first and foremost,” she was quoted as saying.


Minister Zulu later clarified her remarks, but the damage it seems, had already been done.



Jean Pierre Misago

Researcher at the African Centre for

Migration and Society at the University of Witwatersrand


Al Jazeera:

Is there a vacuum of governance that contributes to the problem?

Al Jazeera:

Where do we see violence?

The activists


Xenophobia in South Africa | Chapter 5

Addressing a group of around 300 migrant traders in early March, Amir Sheikh, the chairperson of the Somali Community Board in South Africa, appeared confident. Weeks after violence against foreign nationals erupted in Soweto, he was relating news of progress.


"We have had three meetings with the Minister of Small Business Development and we have given her a briefing of the challenges you face in the township, and what we think is the cause and the solution," Sheikh said.


We know that things are much better now but we don’t want this to happen again."




Most of the displaced foreigners had been restored to their stores and a fragile calm had been negotiated. Representatives from both the community and the South African business community in Soweto continued to meet with government to negotiate sustainable conditions for foreigners and South Africans to coexist. Sheikh told the assembled migrants that a cohort of lawyers had offered to take up the case of traders who were affected by the violence in Soweto earlier this year.


The victims of the Soweto violence certainly have a case.


The South African Constitution, along with various international treaties ratified by the South African government, ensures the protection of all persons who reside within the country from violations to the right to liberty and security of person.


And when it comes to cases of violence against foreigners, the state is particularly obliged to protect the victims from individuals who perpetrate the violence.


This time, however, legal redress is not being sought.


Sheik said its the safer, more practical option. He said that two years ago, Ethiopians, Somalis and Bangladeshis were attacked in Duduza in Nigel (east of Johannesburg).

“They actually interdicted the councillors, and the chairperson (of ANC Youth League), and these people were even all detained for up to one week .… But today you go to Duduza and and there is not even a single shop belonging to us there.”


Foreign nationals are reluctant to seek legal redress because of the consequences court cases often inspire. After all, how does justice protect the returning migrant looking to reintegrate into a society already hostile to foreigners?


Lessons learned, leaders of the migrant communities are now determined to prevent a mass exodus of foreign traders from Soweto. With more than 1000 foreign-owned shops in the township, Sheik says: “As long as we can co-exist and agree on certain terms, we don’t want to go the legal route.”


A South African Human Rights Commission report in 2010 (pdf below)

found that “the judicial outcomes for cases arising from the 2008 violence have limited the attainment of justice for victims of the attacks and have allowed for significant levels of impunity for perpetrators”.


About 180 people were arrested in connection with the looting and violence in January. It’s unlikely any of these will result in convictions.

Neocosmos says that the lack of convictions in cases of violence against foreign nationals in South Africa strips the government’s approach through the criminal justice system of any efficacy.


“I know one person was convicted for throwing a guy off a balcony in Durban. How many people are in prison now as a result of those murders? These are murders that were committed on camera in front of everyone. How many people have been convicted?”


The best known case of xenophobic violence in 2008 is of “The Burning Man”, Mozambican national, Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave, who was burned alive in the Ramaphosa settlement in full view of the world’s media.

The case was closed in October 2010 with the conclusion that there were no witnesses and no suspects. According to the Sunday Times newspaper, a single sheet of paper indicates detective Sipho Ndybane's investigation:

"Suspects still unknown and no witnesses.” The lack of political will screamed through the short conclusion.


Just over a month after January’s violence against foreigners in Soweto, reports emerge of a petrol bomb thrown at a foreign-owned store in Doornkop.  This time, it’s an Ethiopian national that has incurred severe burns. Police say they arrested nine people in connection with the incident.


Two months later this man is still in hospital. No word about his belongings or livelihood. The work of ‘a mob.’


Meanwhile, Abdikadir Ibrahim Danicha,the Somali national who was burned after his shop was petrol bombed in Johannesburg last year, is determined to have his case solved in court.


“I’ve been to court six times already for the one case about public violence and damage to property,” he said. “But the other case, about me burning, I’ve not yet been called to court about it.”


Danicha was one of the traders in the crowd that was addressed by Sheikh and the leaders of the newly-established “Township Business Development-South Africa” group. He is confident that the route chosen by the leadership, the choice of negotiations with government and Soweto business leaders is the right option.


“We have to try to work together,” he said. “Because there is nowhere else we can go.”


Marc Gbaffou



I moved to South Africa from Cote d’Ivoire,  in 1997 and in my experience, South Africa can

be very good, and very bad.

Amir Sheikh



South Africa is still ahead of many African countries in terms of its economy, its democracy and also the application of the law


Jean Pierre Misago

Researcher at the African Centre for

Migration and Society at the University of Witwatersrand


Al Jazeera:

What are foreigners supposed to do if justice fails them?

Michael Neocosmos

Professor and Director UHURU

Unit for the Humanities at Rhodes University

Al Jazeera:

Is there a solution to xenophobia in

South Africa?


No place like home

By Khadija Patel and Azad Essa

Photography by Ihsaan Haffejee





Mohammed Haddad and Alia Chughtai