Based on interviews with 51 people in Western Cape, Gauteng, and KwaZulu-Natal provinces, this report documents xenophobic harassment and attacks by South Africans, including government and law enforcement officials, between March 2019 and March 2020. In that period, mobs of angry rioters throughout South Africa have attacked and harassed non-nationals, blaming them for unemployment, crime, neglect by the government, among other things. In September 2019 in Western Cape, Gauteng, and KwaZulu-Natal, hundreds of people believed to be South African organized a national shutdown, blocking roads and highways; closing taxi ranks, schools, and businesses; and chanting for all foreigners to leave. The shutdown turned violent with mobs looting and torching homes, shops, and malls owned or rented by non-nationals. The government has said 12 people, 10 of whom were South Africans, died during the September 2019 unrest. However, Human Rights Watch’s research, based on interviews with shop owners, community leaders, teachers, students, truck drivers, lawyers, civil society organizations, academic scholars, and credible media reports, indicates a higher number of fatalities for both foreigners and South Africans.
In addition to being targeted by mob violence, non-nationals whom Human Rights Watch interviewed for this report said they have been harassed verbally and physically by South Africans for being foreign and not using local languages in their daily interactions, including while walking on the street. A common and hurtful insult thrown at foreigners is the label “kwerekwere,” a derogatory and slang word used by Black South Africans to mean “foreigner.”
Foreigners also reported to Human Rights Watch that government and law enforcement officials throughout the country have used counterfeit goods raids as a cover for xenophobic harassment and attacks. These raids are conducted by SAPS and Metro Police, but local civilians whose roles are to identify counterfeit goods routinely accompany them. A common practice is to storm shops suspected of selling counterfeit goods with the goal of destroying or removing such goods from the market. Non-nationals told Human Rights Watch that they believe their shops have been disproportionately targeted by authorities conducting counterfeit goods raids. Sometimes, they said their shops have been completely destroyed in the raids and police officers have beaten them and fired tear gas and rubber bullets on them. The government claims that counterfeit goods raids protect the local economy and South African jobs, but sellers told Human Rights Watch that the police have sold confiscated goods back to them after ransacking their shops in Johannesburg Central Business District and Diepsloot. SAPS, Metro Police, and Department of Home Affairs representatives also try to approach suspected foreigners unaware, or enter their homes to verify their documents and legal status, in what are known as documentation raids. During and after documentation raids, as with counterfeit goods raids, foreigners have been beaten by police just for being present or for not complying with orders quickly enough.
Documentation raids have led to arrests of hundreds of both documented and undocumented foreigners throughout the country. Foreigners told Human Rights Watch that despite producing proper documentation, the police arrested and detained them from days to weeks in dirty holding centers while the Department of Home Affairs verified their legal status.
Foreigners, including those who are community activists, told Human Rights Watch that law enforcement officials often responded with indifference or provided inadequate remedies when they reported xenophobic attacks, such as beatings or lootings by South Africans. In the same vein, government and law enforcement officials have often denied that such attacks were xenophobic in nature, insisting instead that they were routine criminal acts.
Human Rights Watch was also told that while non-nationals may be subject to prolonged detention, for example while their legal status is verified, and their lawyers were denied access to them, by contrast suspected perpetrators of xenophobic violence, if arrested, may be released within a few days without effective investigations into the crimes of which they are suspected. Such impunity emboldens others and perpetuates xenophobia.
Most interviewees for this report want to stay in South Africa and contribute to the country and its economy. However, they face challenges in acquiring and renewing documentation to maintain legal status to remain in South Africa. This in turn causes difficulties in accessing education, healthcare, and other basic services. Such challenges are also a pivotal barrier to accessing justice. With little to no access to justice, the path toward accountability for xenophobia, and therefore bringing an end to it, remains uncertain.
“Jean,” a Congolese shop owner, received a disturbing call on the night of September 2, 2019. On the other end of the line was his landlord, a South African, who told him that rioters had broken into his shop in Johannesburg. Jean promptly headed to his shop, where the violence was still ongoing. The rioters chased him away from his shop, threw stones at him, and forced him to flee. He counted himself lucky to escape unscathed, unlike his experience in a similar situation in 2008 when rioters beat him, and he sustained serious injuries. Reflecting on his experience, Jean told Human Rights Watch, “I am not feeling happy even though I am alive. I am trying not to be so angry, but I am
Another man in Johannesburg, “Syed,” a Bangladeshi shop owner, pointed at a row of shops ransacked by mobs during the same violence in September 2019. Over 1,000 Bangladeshi shops were looted, he said, by mobs estimated to be 300-500 people. Syed called the South African Police Service (SAPS), but he said they did not show up until the third day, forcing him and other shop owners to stand guard over the shops, without sleep, day and night, for three days, as the mob threw stones and other objects at them.
“Nathalie,” a grade-10 student at a public school in Cape Town, who came to South Africa in 2009 with her family from the Democratic Republic of Congo paid a heavy price for being elected class monitor. She was severely beaten on August 27, 2019 by fellow students who thought a non-national was undeserving of being elected to such a position. She spent nine days in the hospital because of her injuries. Education authorities took no action because, according to them, the offending students expressed remorse and taking further action would, in their view, inflame tensions. When this report was finalized in August 2020, Nathalie had still not returned to school out of fear, as her attackers are still attending the school but have faced no consequences for attacking her.
The violent mobs who destroyed Jean’s and Syed’s shops were made up of Black South Africans who are angry at the economic and living conditions they are experiencing – poverty and inequality, chronically high unemployment, high crime rates, and poor public services. They are directing this anger at African and Asian foreigners who they believe are taking jobs and livelihoods away from South Africans. Mobs also blame non-South African nationals for the high levels of crime and, as Nathalie’s brutal experience demonstrates, the demonization of foreigners, in particular other Africans and Asians, now permeates beyond disillusioned adults to their children.
In March 2019, the South African government launched its National Action Plan to Combat Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (NAP). Among the actions the NAP identifies to be taken to combat xenophobia, are creating mechanisms to ensure foreigners receive services they are entitled to, facilitating their integration, and embracing a humane and dignified approach to managing migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. However, as the incidents documented in this report show, implementation of the NAP should include steps that could quickly and effectively improve accountability for perpetrators of abuse motivated by xenophobia and justice for its victims. Potential measures include creating a dedicated portal or contact for non-South African nationals to report xenophobic incidents and standardizing how instances of xenophobia are recorded and responded to across provinces, stations, and community policing structures. This report documents some of the large scale and more individual experiences of xenophobia, discrimination, and barriers experienced by non-nationals in the year following the launch of the NAP, as well as the, at best, anemic response by the government.