Some Thoughts on Xenophobia in South Africa

For the past week, news headlines in South Africa have been dominated by reports of xenophobic violence — attacks perpetrated by South African citizens against South African immigrants. The attacks started in Durban and later spread to Johannesburg.

At first, I read these stories with the detached sadness reserved for bad news that doesn’t directly affect me. But the stories got worse and the violence moved closer to home. Foreign-owned shops were attacked and looted in Jeppestown, a part of Joburg that I visit frequently. A refugee camp sprouted at a church on the East Rand. My Instagram feed filled with photos of police clashes, broken glass, burning cars, and tent cities.

Yesterday morning a Mozambican man named Emmanuel Sithole was brutally beaten, clubbed, stabbed, and killed on the street in Alexandra Township. Two Sunday Times journalists witnessed the killing. Here’s the story about it, but please note that the photos are graphic beyond words.

Yesterday morning I woke up before sunrise to attend an Instawalk on a rooftop in Braamfontein. It was foggy and freezing cold, but still beautiful. The streets of downtown Joburg were quiet and peaceful. My friends and I went for breakfast at a café in Braamfontein, like we would on any other Saturday.


Downtown Joburg yesterday morning.

I went home after breakfast and curled up in bed, sick with a cold. I scrolled through photos on my phone while alternately reading stories about the violence.

Suddenly, it hit me: While I was up on that roof having fun with my friends, people were being attacked — and killed, I would later learn — just a few miles away. Emmanuel Sithole died while I was on that roof.

I’m white, American, and economically privileged. I’m not Malawian or Zimbabwean or Somali or Bangledeshi. I don’t own a shop in a low-income area. My skin isn’t black or brown. I live in a middle-class suburb. So I’m not at risk in this wave of violent attacks, at least not directly.

Nonetheless, I’m an immigrant too. I’ve chosen to make South Africa my adopted home, just like Emmanuel Sithole did.

I didn’t know Emmanuel and I don’t know the people who killed him. I don’t know what motivated Emmanuel’s killers to do what they did. I don’t pretend to know what it’s like to flee my country due to civil war or poverty. I don’t know what it’s like to live in a shack without running water, to live on a street without waste removal. I’ve never been hungry. I don’t know how it feels to be denied education or healthcare, or to be unable to find work.

I do know that what happened to Emmanuel is horrendously wrong. And I wish this violence would stop.

Yesterday afternoon I decided I needed to do something. I considered my options and decided on two: 1) Donate supplies to people affected by the attacks. 2) Write a post on my blog.

This morning, my friend Nina and I collected several bags of supplies: milk, sugar, tea, coffee, diapers, soap, pillows, toothpaste, books, clothes, toys. We loaded the bags into my car and I drove them to a refugee center, newly erected by Gift of the Givers on the grounds of Christ Church in Mayfair.

I handed our donations to the capable Gift of the Givers staff, and looked for people to talk to.

I had a long chat with Reverend Eve Abrahams, pastor of Christ Church, who told me about her work at the church and her partnership with Gift of the Givers. She told me about the history of Mayfair, which has long been a haven for Asian and African immigrants in Joburg, and her inability to comprehend why these attacks are happening.

Pastor Eve

Pastor Eve at Christ Church in Mayfair. Behind her is a Gift of the Givers truck full of donations and a tent for refugees.

Pastor Eve took me on a tour of the grounds. We visited the makeshift kitchen where Gift of the Givers staff prepared food for the refugees.

Gift of the Givers food

Food preparation for refugees at Christ Church.

We went into the tent where the refugees are living, lined with a neat row of thin mattresses and pillows.

Tent at Mayfair

A temporary home for victims of the violence.

This camp just opened so only a few refugees have arrived, mostly women and children. Several came last night but left again early this morning to go to work.

I tentatively asked Pastor Eve If I could speak to some of the people staying here. She led me to a corner and introduced me to Sandra Ngwenya and Pretty Shongwe, who arrived together from Alex last night.

“On Friday I saw the South Africans attacking Somalians on 4th Avenue [in Alexandra],” said Sandra. “Yesterday they started threatening us. So I decided to run away to the police station.”

Sandra moved to South Africa from Zimbabwe in 2006. She makes a living selling chickens and is married to a South African man. Her husband and four young children are still in Alex, presumably safe since they’re South African.

I asked Sandra why she thinks this is happening. “I think these guys, they only want to take our stuff,” she said. “They are just criminals.”

I asked Sandra and Pretty if I could take their photo. Their friend Thobekile Nkala, 20, sidled over with her eight-month-old son Mayibongwe.

Ladies from Zim

Sandra (left), Pretty (center), and Thobekile with Mayibongwe.

Mayibongwe crying

Mayibongwe didn’t care for my big camera.

I’ve read many articles and opinions about the violence. Some pundits contest that these attacks are part of a coordinated conspiracy to rid the country of foreigners. Others believe the violence has little or nothing to do with xenophobia at all — that it’s just opportunistic criminals keen to steal and wreak havoc. (Although that argument doesn’t explain Emmanuel’s murder.)

I really don’t know and can’t begin to guess. But I do know this: The vast majority of South Africans — rich and poor, white and black, native and immigrant — are outraged by what’s happening. This violence is not a reflection of South Africa’s spirit.

Also, to anyone reading this who happens to be planning a visit to Johannesburg: Please come. These horrific attacks are the exception, not the rule, and are limited to specific circumstances. Don’t let a few bad people deter you from coming to a wonderful city in a wonderful country.

If you’d like to donate, Christ Church is located at the corner of Park Road and Main Reef Road in Mayfair, Johannesburg. Contact Saadiq Natha at Gift of the Givers for details, at 082 557 507 or

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  • Reply Hilton April 19, 2015 at 5:34 pm

    This is a horrible outbreak of violence. From outside it seems to have just happened suddenly, after the Zulu king’s speech last, but were there rising anti-foreigner sentiment recently?
    Good post and kudos for donating and visiting people.

    • Reply 2summers April 19, 2015 at 6:18 pm

      Thanks Hilton. No, not really. But I think stuff like this frequently seems to come out of nowhere, even though the undercurrent is always kind of there at the same time.

  • Reply Tenney Mason April 19, 2015 at 10:44 pm

    Good post.

    • Reply 2summers April 20, 2015 at 5:30 pm

      Thanks, Dad.

  • Reply Sine April 20, 2015 at 1:14 am

    Very well said, I think this might be among your best yet! I love how you just reported your sentiments. Without being judgmental, you nevertheless show how horrific – and random and unfair – this really is. Chilling, and a dark shadow cast on South AFrica (which, as you say, is nothing really new, there is always that undercurrent – shortly before we moved there in 2010 there had been some bad xenophobic attacks too). Nevertheless, people shouldn’t discount the country, just like you say at the end. It’s not unlike Ferguson, MO. We can’t let that define the entire U.S. but it is also a black mark…

    • Reply 2summers April 20, 2015 at 10:08 am

      Thanks Sine. I didn’t have time to get into this in my post, but I remember the 2008 xenophobic violence very clearly because it happened just before my first work trip to Joburg. I remember being nervous and wondering if the violence could affect me when I went. That’s part of the reason why I really wanted to write this.

  • Reply Sunshinebright April 22, 2015 at 5:01 am

    The whole world is going crazy. This is a bad time for us all, unfortunately. I feel badly that the innocents are the victims – the children and women. Your report is written so well, I appreciate it.

    • Reply 2summers April 24, 2015 at 6:16 am

      Thank you 🙂

  • Reply James April 24, 2015 at 6:51 pm

    This is really barbaric and uncalled for. There so many other South Africans living in other countries. Crime is not peculiar to a particular group of people. While it is true that some commits crime, it shouldn’t be an excuse to start killing any one that is not from same country as you. This readily shows the lack of order and law that is prevalent in SA

  • Reply Genie Parrish April 25, 2015 at 3:57 am

    Country, nationality, religion, color of skin, gender — why do humans kill each other for such insane reasons? When I was young, small, female and white, there were a few places I might have been afraid of visiting but for the most part I felt welcome and reasonably safe. Now it seems you must be nervous no matter where you go, no matter who you are. Apparently it only takes one crazy compelling voice to start a mob. I’m still not too old to travel, but I’m very tired of the violence and sometimes I wonder if I really want to anymore. Too many people are destroying all the earthyly things I wanted to see. Your story is heartbreaking; thank you for being a sane voice on the internet.

    • Reply 2summers April 27, 2015 at 7:21 pm

      Thanks Genie, I appreciate the comment. I’m not sure things have really changed all that much though…There have always been crazy places where people kill each other for insane reasons. I think we just didn’t know as much about violence in other places because there was no 24-hour news or social media 🙂

      At any rate, that doesn’t make the news lately any less depressing. Fortunately the violence here in SA seems to have died down (for now). But now I hear there is violence in own home town of Baltimore. Always somewhere 🙁

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