Xenophobia in South Africa: A Mutation of Precedence

April 2015 has seen South Africa emerge on the frontiers of most news portals across the world, especially in Africa. This time, it was for the wrong reason: xenophobia. Scores of South Africans were reported to have attacked foreigners and looting their property in an apparent protest against “foreigners’” predatory economic progress at the expense of “natives”. A couple of friends I spoke with suggested that this is not new, and that it has happened before in some African countries. Yes; it has, but not in this manner. It is this apparent misconception that has motivated the writing of this article. I seek to bring into focus the dangerous role that xenophobia has played in the tumultuous post-independence pan-African relationship. In this article, I argue that although xenophobia may have played a role in the expulsion of foreigners from some countries in Africa in the past, the South African drama, when put in perspective, is different from the others.


In November 1969, Ghana took steps to expel foreign immigrants (especially West Africans) from her territory. A myriad of issues had preceded and motivated this move. There was a high rate of youth unemployment in the face of a high number of illegal immigrants’ economic activity in Ghana. Native Ghanaians had therefore mounted pressure on the government, at the time, to ensure a more prominent role for indigenous Ghanaian nationals in the economic life of the country. Among other things, the government’s response was to introduce a policy that would control the immigration traffic within its territory and restrict the extent of foreigners’ involvement in economic activities. So, this saw the expulsion of about 200,000 aliens, including Nigerians, Malians, Burkinabe and Togolese. This was backed by Ghana’s Aliens Compliance order of 1969, requiring all aliens without valid residence permit to quit the country within fourteen working days. However, this order made sensible exemptions for those who had been born in Ghana or had long history of residence in Ghana. Furthermore, the government had involved the mandated state agencies to carry out this controlled expulsion.

When I was growing up in Ghana, the term ‘Ghana must go” was synonymous to the infamous exodus of Ghanaians from Nigeria. Ghanaian immigrants in Nigeria had been caught up in the web of the Nigerian government’s expulsion of two million illegal aliens from her territory on 17 January, 1983.The justification: social and economic reasons. This action would have been expected attracted a barrage of sordid international criticism. Like its Ghanaian antecedent, whether this action was justified or not depended on the lenses from which they were analyzed. Again, this action by the Nigerian government, despite being laced with xenophobia of her citizens toward other African nationals, was very different in many respects to what we witness today. Generally, it was better organized.

This action has been argued to be in conformity with the Nigerian immigration law of 1963 and spared other nationals who had been in the country prior to the enactment of that law. More so, it was aimed at illegal immigrants. This defense is however without prejudice to the well-grounded criticism that it was too sudden and an affront to ECOWAS protocols on free movement of people and goods within the community. The bottom line is, there were no senseless murders on the streets amidst spiraling attacks and mayhem. It is important to note that aside these two, there had been other low key expulsion campaigns in countries like Togo, Ivory Coast and Benin. But the similarity between all of them is that they were largely controlled expulsions that watered down any xenophobic frustrations of nationals.

Mujahid Safodien/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

A nuanced comparison of these two acts in Ghana and Nigeria clearly shows that the South African situation had been left unattended and ungoverned by sound principles. It is fair to say that the perpetrators of the xenophobic attacks in South Africa have also cited reasons identical to the ones that informed the expulsion orders in the two West African countries. But unlike those, the South African government has been lax in responding appropriately to the warnings that begun to rear their heads in 2008, fourteen years after independence.

It is my opinion that the governments of Ghana and Nigeria saved themselves from the current ordeal being experienced in South Africa by using the strategic expulsion process to placate the ego and frustration of their citizenry. South Africa has an even greater problem because of the high profile of violence that its urban societies have been known for. Perhaps it is time the South African government looked at devising more controlled and humane means of assuring its citizenry by re-engineering its immigration policy. Twenty one years after independence, it is clear that there is a huge difference between the consequences of immigration on the socio-economic life of South Africa ‘then’ and ‘now.’ South Africa is probably going through what Ghana and Nigeria went through after independence. Ghana, twelve years; Nigeria, twenty-three years, and now South Africa, fourteen and twenty-one years after independence. That, I believe, is enough clue.

While it is true that the calls for foreigners’ expulsion is not new in Africa, this South African scenario is definitely a horrific mutation of such precedence and the ANC government’s inertia is most likely to blame.

Dennis Penu

Dennis Penu

Staff Writer at InPRA
Dennis Penu is a Ghanaian, and a Principal Research Assistant with the Institute for Development Studies at the University of Cape Coast, Ghana. He holds an advanced master's degree in Governance and Development studies from the University of Antwerp in Belgium and a research master’s degree in Peace and Development Studies from the University of Cape Coast, Ghana.
Dennis Penu

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