One in every two South Africans wants foreign migrants to carry their identity documents on them at all times and 63 percent of citizens want electrified fences on the country’s borders.

Half of the population also feel that migrants without the required documentation should never receive police protection and 14 percent believe that migrants, regardless of their legal status, enter the country with the main purpose of committing crime.

These shocking findings come from the latest survey by the Southern African Migration Programme (SAMP) on South African attitudes towards foreigners, done every four years to assess levels of xenophobia and identify possible areas of concern. The xenophobia survey was conducted in November and December 2010.

The SAMP Xenophobia Index we use in our surveys is calculated using answers to 15 different questions for every participant and those with higher scores are assessed as being more xenophobic.

Important positive findings from the latest survey, published this week, include a noticeable reduction in the intensity of xenophobic sentiments among several groups, including Coloured South Africans, Afrikaans-speakers, South Africans who speak the same languages as migrants, and poorly educated citizens.

Attitudes to migrants from other Southern African countries have improved. Also, some 41 percent want mandatory HIV testing of refugees as compared to 60 percent in 2006, and one in three thought migrants contribute to skills development, an increase from 25 percent in 2006.

In 2010, close to one-third wanted refugees to live in border camps. Support for this discriminatory policy has dropped from nearly 50 percent in the previous survey.

Interestingly, in 2006, xenophobia was inversely tied to income: the higher the income, the lower the xenophobia scores. But in the latest survey, levels of xenophobia increased with increasing income. Those in the lowest income groups were the least xenophobic.

However,  the proportion of South Africans willing to transform their anti-foreigner attitudes into forceful action against migrants has remained constant, suggesting that no  lessons were learned from the mass xenophobic violence of May 2008.

The number of South Africans ready to remove migrants violently increased slightly from 2006 to 2010. South Africans unwilling to engage or participate in such actions actually declined in 2010 and the proportion of those prepared to unite with others in collective action against migrants remains unchanged from 2006.

Researchers asked questions about citizen reactions to the violence of May 2008. Respondents were asked to identify what they felt were the underlying reasons. Close to half felt personally guilty over the violence, 54 percent agreed that migrants did not deserve such treatment and a similar proportion indicated that they would not endorse such actions. However, another one-third was unmoved by the violence and a minority showed their approval. These differences are erased when it comes to offering reasons for the violence. Most accepted popular explanations or were apathetic. For instance, more than 60 percent thought the violence occurred because of migrants’ involvement in crime or because they take jobs from South Africans or are culturally different.

So, while South Africans expressed their discomfort with the violence, they held migrants and refugees responsible for it, falling back on migrant stereotypes and falsehoods to justify it.

The survey looked for dissimilarities on a variety of indices in hotspot areas of May 2008 violence and other areas and did not find any significant differences.  It did find that residents of hotspot areas were less accepting of the violence compared to other South Africans, but fewer felt guilty about it or wanted to do something to repair it.

While violence directed at migrants and refugees has certainly not disappeared from South Africa since mid-2008, it is still explained away by  government officials as the work of criminal and anti-social elements.

With the continuing attacks on people, their shops and other property, there is an urgent need for a concerted effort by citizens and the state to counteract the negative attitudes that exist, which fly in the face of the rights and entitlements that the Constitution affords foreigners in South Africa.

Myths that underlie many xenophobic attitudes need to be dispelled. Although the Census shows that less than five percent of South Africa’s residents were born outside the country, more than half of South Africans believe that foreigners constitute a great majority of the country’s population. The same applies to jobs. While there is evidence that migrants often bring necessary skills into the country and create jobs for locals, South Africans want very few migrants even when jobs are available for them.

Globally, South Africa is the country most opposed to immigration, with many favouring a complete prohibition on the entry of migrants. Thirty percent of South Africans probed in a recent international survey wanted a total ban on all migration to the country for work. This was higher than any other country surveyed. South Africa also had by far the lowest number of people who wanted a migration policy linked to the availability of jobs in the country.

The fact that the convictions of those willing to use violence to exclude or expel migrants from communities, and join with others to achieve this end, remain fixed is cause for great concern.

Disturbing signals from the survey include that one in four South Africans is ready to jointly prevent migrants from neighbouring countries from operating a business. This is a troubling indicator because of the escalation of attacks on migrant-owned businesses in recent years. 

Perhaps it is unsurprising that the Ministry of Trade and Industry has joined this xenophobic campaign in its proposed Licensing of Businesses Bill, which will give the police and citizens new powers to harass and destroy the operations of migrant-owned small business.

A quarter of South Africans are willing to prevent migrants from moving into their neighbourhood and some 20 percent would take action to prevent the enrolment of children from migrant families in the same schools as their own.

Despite a fall in support from 2006, one-quarter of South Africans continue to want all migrants to be deported, irrespective of their status. Half of all South Africans feel that irregular migrants should never receive police protection. And only 18 percent want to give them legal protection.

Refugees fared marginally better with 36 percent of respondents wanting to give them protection through the police. The recognised vulnerability of such migrants to poor treatment, extortion by state officials, and to xenophobic violence makes this a disturbing fact.

To change the myopic siege mentality that the SAMP survey shows still exists, we need a state-owned and promoted comprehensive education programme that reaches into schools, workplaces, communities and the corridors of the public service.

The programme should breed tolerance and spell out what rights foreign nationals are entitled to when in South Africa, as well as the benefits of interaction with peoples from other countries.

Interestingly, citizens who have no contact or interaction with migrants are the most opposed to them, suggesting that increased contact between migrants and citizens has a beneficial effect on tolerance and xenophobic views.  There is reason for hope in the decline in intensity of xenophobic sentiment and the fact that growing contact between South Africans and migrants has had a positive effect in softening attitudes. However, this is a slow process.

South Africans continue to feel threatened by the presence of migrants and want to handle these anxieties by limiting numbers of migrants and refugees, deterring strongly their entry into South Africa and making conditions difficult for their existence here by restricting the rights and entitlements they can enjoy. The presence of an unyielding cohort that is ready to deploy violence to manage such anxieties is our most disturbing finding.

Until we make the necessary effort to change these realities, migrants and refugees will continue to be “soft targets” of discrimination and violence.

Xenophobic attitudes that are entrenched, pervasive and negative need to be attacked with the same commitment that the government and civil society show towards the scourge of racism in post-apartheid South Africa.

Xenophobic attitudes that are entrenched, pervasive and negative need to be attacked with the same commitment that the government and civil society show towards the scourge of racism in post-apartheid South Africa.
The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.