How should xenophobic hate crime be addressed? Asking ordinary people for solutions

DATE: 6 August 2019

Hoping to avoid the legacies of prejudice that defined so much of her history, the writers of the South African Constitution included protections from discrimination based on nationality or country of origin. But the problem of xenophobic hate crime has plagued the country in recent years. Using publically available data (e.g. media reports, original research, and crowd sourcing), the platform Xenowatch was able to identify hundreds of violent xenophobic incidents. Xenowatch recorded 529 such incidents between 1994 and 2018 (42 of which occurred in 2018 alone). Although this type of hate crime is difficult to quantify, hundreds of violent xenophobic incidents have been recorded over the past two decades. The South African state has struggled to develop meaningful strategies to deal with this problem.

What citizens believe about the causes of a conflict influences their desire for conflict resolution as well as the type of solutions preferred. In this media brief, STEVEN GORDON presents findings from a study on xenophobia. Using data from the South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS), the study argues that negative views about immigration influence how the general public thinks about anti-immigrant hate crime.  The outcomes of this analysis offer new insights on why a progressive strategy has not emerged to combat anti-immigrant violence in South Africa.

SASAS is managed by the Human Sciences Research Council and has been conducted annually since 2003. The survey series consists of nationally representative probability samples of South African adults aged 16 years and older living in private households. The sample size for the survey is more than 3000 with interviewing conducted between mid-November and mid-December. The survey data provides a range of indicators with which to better understand and monitor attitudes towards foreigners.

In the 2018 SASAS round, researchers inserted a question on what people thought about solutions to xenophobic hate crime. The phrasing of the item is as follows: “[t]here are many different opinions about how to stop people taking violent action against foreigners living in South Africa. What do you think can be done to STOP attacks against foreigners living in the country?” The question was open-ended and this format encouraged survey participants to give an unbiased answer. After reviewing the responses to the question, major themes were identified and responses were classified into distinct groups.

The most popular solutions put forward by the general public related to the management of immigrants and immigration. A fifth of the adult population felt that expelling all (or most) immigrants from the country would solve the problem (Table 1). A tenth identified more restrictive border management as the best solution while 8% said that foreigners should change their behaviour. Overall, two-fifths of the population put forward immigration factors as primary anti-xenophobia strategies. Education and community-based strategies were found to be far less popular. A tenth favoured education campaigns while only a twentieth supported community dialogue and attitudinal change respectively. Resource management strategies (e.g. job creation and poverty reduction) were only favoured by a tenth of the populace.

What people think causes anti-immigrant violence influences the types of anti-xenophobia strategies they prefer. SASAS introduced a question on what people thought caused xenophobic hate crime. The phrasing of this question was as follows: “[t]here are many opinions about why people take violent action against foreigners living in South Africa. Please tell me the MAIN REASON why you think this happens.” As with the previous question, this question was open-ended. The main categories identified were: (i) activities of foreigners; (ii) psychological factors; (iii) economic environment; and (iv) law and order.
Table 1: Main Solutions Proposed to Solve Anti-Immigrant Violence in South Africa by Reasons Given to Explain Anti-Immigrant Violence (multiple response)    

Half of the general population blamed the activities of foreigners for the violence. It is clear that recent participants in violence were more liable to give this type of response than non-participants. The most popular explanation given was the criminal activities of immigrants. Many specifically attributed the violence to foreigners’ involvement in illegal drug trafficking. Another popular explanation concerned the economic activities of the foreign-born. In particular, the manner in which foreigners allegedly 'stole/took' jobs from the native-born was highlighted as was the purportedly nefarious practices of foreign shop and business owners. A number of respondents accused these owners of selling expired or 'fake' products.

A minority identified psychological factors as the chief reason for anti-immigrant hate crime. Those who were welcoming of foreign nationals were found to be more likely to provide this type of answer as were non-participants in xenophobic violence. The most popular of these was common beliefs about foreigners –the most prevalent belief singled out was the assertion that foreigners undercut the native- born in the labour market. Only a few people selected the economic environment or law and order problems as the main cause of the conflict.

Immigration factors were utilised most often by those who identified the activities of foreign nationals as the primary causes of the conflict. Attributing the violence to psychological factors (e.g. beliefs and emotions), on the other hand, were found to be associated with solutions such as mass education and community dialogue. Indeed, identifying psychological causes of xenophobia made an individual three times more likely to select such solutions.

Responses given in this study seem to point to “victim precipitation” (i.e. immigrants allegedly bring their victimization upon themselves through their actions). Victim-blaming is dangerous as it demeans those affected by xenophobic violence and can diminish state authorities' ability to prosecute perpetrators. Law enforcement agencies may receive little support when investigating xenophobic hate crime as a result of victim-blaming. Finally, this kind of victim-blaming attitudes can contribute to a climate where xenophobic hate crime is seen as acceptable. This is troubling as it harms efforts to fight xenophobia in South Africa.
Policy discussions on anti-xenophobia strategies currently have a strong focus on law enforcement and promoting a zero tolerance policy. But a socially cohesive society is not maintained solely through the strong-arm of law. There needs to be recognition that xenophobia is not just a law enforcement problem. To solve this problem, there must be a greater focus on awareness and education. We must work to provide communities with better information about international migrants in South Africa.