The rise of discriminatory rhetoric in Africa

Sub-Saharan African women look for clothes in a thrift store in the market of Ariana, on the northern outskirts of Tunis on February 22, 2023. A prominent rights group has accused Tunisian President Kais Saied of “racism and hate speech” after he vowed to crack down on sub-Saharan African migrants. File picture: Fethi Belaid/AFP

Sub-Saharan African women look for clothes in a thrift store in the market of Ariana, on the northern outskirts of Tunis on February 22, 2023. A prominent rights group has accused Tunisian President Kais Saied of “racism and hate speech” after he vowed to crack down on sub-Saharan African migrants. File picture: Fethi Belaid/AFP

Published May 8, 2023


By Ibrahim Steven Ekyamba and Bathromeu Mavhura

The AU was established to promote unity, peace, and development on the continent, among other things. However, despite its commitment to promoting equality and non-discrimination, some African countries have been accused of perpetuating discriminatory rhetoric against their fellow Africans.

Two notable examples are South Africa and Tunisia. In South Africa, xenophobic rhetoric has targeted African immigrants, with some South Africans accusing them of taking their jobs and contributing to crime. For instance, in 2008, more than 60 people were killed and about 100 people displaced.

In 2022, UN experts indicated that xenophobic violence was often explicitly racialised, targeting low-income black migrants and refugees. In 2015, xenophobic attacks also escalated in Durban, as well as in 2019, where foreign-owned businesses were targeted in Mayfair Johannesburg.

The rhetoric has resulted in several rounds of xenophobic attacks on black African immigrants and looting of their businesses. Oxfam International, Amnesty International, and other 11 civic organisations have in 2015, urged the AU during its 25th ordinary session to put pressure on the SA government to firmly deal with xenophobic issues in the country.

Groups like Operation Dudula have gained relevance by scapegoating African immigrants, to the extent of overriding home affairs powers by checking expired documents and asking African migrants to show their documents. The government has also launched controversial crime-fighting operations targeting African immigrants, for instance, Operation Fiela, which was heavily criticised by civic society.

However, despite huge numbers of African immigrants who were arrested during the operations, crime statics in South Africa have been increasing. The stats produced by the former minister of Justice and correctional services in 2017 indicated that only 7.5% of prisoners in South Africa were foreign nationals, thus, debunking the myth that foreign nationals contribute more to crime in South Africa.

The rhetoric has been fuelled by some political actors, trade union leaders and religious leaders, who have labelled African immigrants as “criminals” and called for their expulsion from the country. Some political parties adopted the populist approach, scapegoating African migrants to garner support during SA’s 2021 local government elections, arguing that the migrants were taking jobs and flooding the hospital facilities and that once they chased them away, more opportunities would be created for local people.

The Patriotic Alliance (PA) leader, Gayton Mackenzie, echoed that “the first illegal foreigners the Patriotic Alliance will arrest are the ones in hospitals” and that “illegal foreigners are overburdening our health facilities”. Similarly, the Limpopo Health MEC, Phophi Ramathuba’s video went viral on social media, telling a Zimbabwean patient that her department was not a charity organization and that Zimbabwe does not contribute to South Africa’s health budget.

The sentiment shows a lack of sympathy and the spirit of Ubuntu to fellow humans, worse the hospitalised ones. Ideally, removing or expelling Illegal migrants in South Africa will not resolve the political, economic, and social inequality being faced by the country. The PA leader also followed the stance of condemning foreign nationals.

The South African Department of Home Affairs enacted immigration policies aimed at preventing black Africans from obtaining possible residence permits in the country, including the abolition of special work permits for all Zimbabweans in South Africa, thereby encouraging them to return home.

This is still the subject of debate in the court as the ZEP grace period will be expiring at the end of June 2023, and many ZEP holders do not qualify for these permits, specifically domestic workers and those with little or no qualifications at all.

The biggest challenge is that back in Zimbabwe, the social and economic conditions have worsened. About 100 000 people lost their jobs in the first quarter of 2023 alone. There are so many gaps to the social and economic impact of this decision on ZEP holders, for instance, those ZEP holders who have been paying bonds, some paid 50%, some are almost done paying their properties, those who borrowed funds from banks for business and are still paying back, the children who will be writing matric this year, those who are on chronicle medical conditions because hospitals are dysfunctional in Zimbabwe. In addition, many Zimbabweans back home rely with those residing in South Africa who send them money through remittance services for survival.

Similarly, in Tunisia, black Africans have been subjected to discrimination and racist rhetoric and attacks after President Kais Saied’s racist hate speech “describing black African immigrants as ”hordes“ bringing ”violence and crime“ to Tunisia, adding that the unstated goal of the successive waves of illegal immigration was to regard Tunisia as a purely African country with no ties to Arab and Islamic nations, and alleging that immigration from Sub-Saharan African countries was aimed at changing Tunisia’s demographic composition.

The aftermath of this speech was marked by harassment, arbitrary detention, and violent attacks against black Africans by Tunisian police and citizens. The instances of discriminatory rhetoric within Africa go against the principles of the AU, which seeks to promote unity and non-discrimination on the continent. African leaders need to take proactive measures to address this issue and ensure that all Africans are treated with dignity and respect.


 Strengthen the African Union’s mechanisms for addressing discrimination: The AU should work to strengthen its mechanisms for addressing discrimination, including its human rights bodies and institutions. This can help to ensure that incidents of discriminatory rhetoric within Africa are brought to light and addressed in a timely and effective manner.

 Promote intercultural dialogue and understanding: It is important to promote intercultural dialogue and understanding between different African communities. This can be done through initiatives such as cultural exchange programmes, education programmes, and awareness-raising campaigns that emphasise the importance of respecting diversity and promoting unity.

 Encourage African leaders to speak out against discriminatory rhetoric: African leaders have an important role to play in promoting unity and combating discriminatory rhetoric within their countries. The AU should encourage leaders to speak out against discriminatory rhetoric and take concrete actions to address the issue.

 Address underlying socio-economic issues: Addressing the underlying socio-economic issues that often fuel discriminatory rhetoric is also critical. This includes ensuring access to education, employment, and housing for all Africans, as well as addressing issues related to poverty, inequality, and marginalisation.

 Strengthen regional co-operation: Regional co-operation can help to promote unity and address common challenges facing African countries. This can include initiatives such as regional trade agreements, joint development projects, and co-ordinated efforts to address issues such as migration and refugee flows.

These are just a few recommendations that could be considered to address the issue of discriminatory rhetoric in Africa. Ultimately, addressing this issue will require a concerted effort on the part of African leaders, civil society organisations, and the international community to promote unity and respect for diversity across the continent.

* Ibrahim Steven Ekyamba is a Doctoral candidate at the University of Pretoria and Bathromeu Mavhura is a Doctoral candidate at the University of Stellenbosch.

** The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Independent Media or IOL.