Shocking anti-migrant sentiment exposed
Share this article:
One in two South Africans wants foreign migrants to carry their IDs 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 on South African attitudes towards foreigners, done every four years to assess levels of xenophobia and identify possible areas of concern in which intervention may be necessary. The xenophobia survey was conducted in November and December 2010 in all nine provinces.
Census enumeration areas were used for household selection and respondent selection was random.
Respondents were all South African citizens and the survey used the same questions and indices as the survey in 2006, with additional questions about xenophobic violence and the Fifa World Cup.
The questionnaire was translated and administered in English, Afrikaans, Xhosa, Zulu and Tswana. The final sample of 2 400 citizens was weighted to make it nationally representative.
The xenophobia index we use in our surveys is calculated using answers to 15 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 citizens with low levels of education and income. Attitudes to migrants from other southern African countries have improved. At least 41 percent want mandatory HIV testing of refugees as compared to 60 percent in 2006.
One in three thought migrants contributed 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 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 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 guilty about 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, a 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 took jobs from South Africans or were culturally different.
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 hot spot areas of the 2008 violence and other areas and did not find any significant differences.
It did find that residents of hot spot 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 since mid-2008, it is still explained away by government officials as the work of criminal and antisocial 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.
Myths that underlie many xenophobic attitudes need to be dispelled.
Although the census shows that less than 5 percent of South Africa’s residents were born outside the country, more than half believe foreigners constitute a 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.
At least 30 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.
The fact that the convictions of those willing to use violence to exclude or expel migrants from communities and join others to achieve this end remain fixed is cause for great concern.
Disturbing signals from the local survey include that one in four South Africans is ready to jointly prevent migrants from neighbouring countries operating a business. This is a troubling indicator because of the escalation of attacks on migrant-owned businesses in recent years.
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 theirs.
Despite a fall in support from 2006, one-quarter of South Africans still want all migrants to be deported, irrespective of their status.
Half the population feel that irregular migrants should never receive police protection and only 18 percent want them given 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 survey shows still exists, we need a state-owned and promoted comprehensive education programme that reaches into schools, workplaces, communities and corridors of the public service.
The programme should breed tolerance and spell out the rights foreigners are entitled to when in South Africa, as well as the benefits of interaction with people 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 because the 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 the numbers of migrants and refugees, deterring 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 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.
* Crush is the director of the Southern African Migration Programme and an honorary professor at UCT.