"The kwerekwere are taking our jobs away!". "They're not running from war. They're coming here for economic reasons. To take advantage of our country!". This kind of rhetoric is commonplace in Europe and Western nations nowadays, except in this case it is South Africans saying it and the “kwerekwere” (the "foreigners" in the slang of the townships) are the thousands of immigrants who currently live and work in South Africa.

Since the end of segregation, the prosperous and emancipated South Africa is one of the main destinations for migrants on the African continent fleeing from conflicts and famines or simply in search of an opportunity.

Once Apartheid had been overcome, Nelson Mandela promoted one of the most open migration policies in the world and one of the most generous in terms of the welcome provided for refugees. South Africa was meant to become a rainbow nation with the dark years of racial segregation a thing of the past. In recent times however, these noble intentions are being quashed by a racial backlash accentuated by the crisis afflicting the nation.

Right now, the economy is recovering from a long drawn out recession, but is still weak compared to the golden age of the early years of the millennium. The country has been heavily affected by the drop in price of raw materials, which are one of its main exports and its GDP has suffered as a result ever since 2012. In 2017 there were signs of improvement with a rise in GDP of 1.3%, but this year things are unlikely to get much better (+1.4% according to the World Bank). Unemployment is still rampant, and hovers between 26% and 30%, while social inequality is among the highest in the world according to the latest Gini Index 2017 figures (GINI Index – World Bank).

This situation is compounded by the uncertainty surrounding the country's political leadership, tainted by instances of corruption and malfeasance under the previous government led by Jacob Zuma, replaced last February by Cyril Ramaphosa.

All this has done is heighten social tensions that often trigger wars among the poor and an intense aversion for immigrants.

In 2013, the UN's International Migration Report revealed that the flow of immigrants towards South Africa, for both humanitarian and economic reasons, totalled 250,000 people a year between 2000 and 2010 and was still rising. It's reasonable to surmise that the political instability and frailty of the African continent, partly the result of the devastating climatic disasters of recent years, have swollen these numbers and increased arrivals. Right now it's very hard to get a true picture of the situation owing to the porous nature of the vast South African borderlands which enable imposing and uncontrollable migratory flows. According to the most recent official figures, based on a 2011 census, at the time South Africa hosted to 1.7 million foreigners, which accounted for approximately 3.3% of its population (almost 52 million inhabitants). A more recent UN estimate in 2015 reported the immigrant population in the country as numbering 3.1 million.

In 2011, 75% of immigrants came from the African continent and most of these (68% of the total) from neighbouring countries that are part of the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Mainly from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho, Malawi, Swaziland and D.R.Congo. Only 7.3% came from other African countries such as Ethiopia, Nigeria or Somalia.

Economic migrants account for a large percentage of foreigners in South Africa. Many of them work there for a short time, constantly coming to and fro from the neighbouring countries of Zimbabwe and Mozambique into the frontier regions of Limpopo and Mpumalanga, or the small monarchic enclaves of Lesotho and Swaziland.

For refugees, the main migration routes to South Africa start from the Horn of Africa or the Great Lakes Region and cross through Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique and Zambia. A second major route departs from Nigeria, but not necessarily over land. These are mostly asylum seekers or "overstayers", migrants who enter legally and then stay on after their visa has expired.

It is currently estimated (by the Green Paper on International Migration) that the number of refugees in South Africa tops the million mark, of which 170,000 have been recognised while close to 900,000 still hold asylum seeker status owing to the slowness of the recognition procedure. Applicants mainly hail from countries such as Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, D.R. Congo, Nigeria and Somalia.

According to the 1998 Refugees Act, unlike other countries, an asylum seeker must file his or her request through one of the four registration centres in Pretoria, Durban, Cape Town and Musina. They are then granted a permit valid up to six months which allows them to travel freely throughout the country with the same rights as South Africans. In the meantime they wait for the request to be assessed and, if accepted, he will be granted a 2 year renewable refugees status.

"The problem is that the system has come unstuck" explains Johan Viljoen, Head of the Denis Huley Peace Insititute (DHPI), a South African Catholic institution that for years has been engaged in the reception of migrants. "It should take 18 months to assess a request but it actually takes years and the migrants are forced to renew their provisional permit of stay by returning to the centres. The rules are also getting much stricter and now only 4% of requests is approved. With the new legislation proposed in the 2017 White Paper on International Migration things could get much worse". Viljoen is referring to proposed legislation to be voted on this year which sets much stricter admission criteria, eliminates free circulation for asylum seekers and creates new reception centres.

This is ultimate proof of Pretoria's changing migratory stance which seems to match the hostile attitude festering among the country's poorer classes. In the slums and townships in the large urban centres in the provinces of Gauteng (the richest along with Pretoria and Johannesburg), Western Cape, Kwa-Zulu Natal, Mpumalanga and Limpopo, xenophobic acts have begun to make headlines for many years now.

In May 2008 there was a first wave of violence against immigrants which from the Alexandra township in Johannesburg spread throughout the country and as far as Cape Town and Durban, causing 67 casualties. The South African government was forced to relocate hundreds of foreigners into refugee camps. In 2015 there was a second wave of violence triggered by the Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini who ordered foreigners to "pack their bags and go back to where they came from". The result was seven dead, Ethiopian and Somali owned shops sacked and torched and thousands of migrants expelled. Finally, in 2017, another wave of attacks against shops run by foreigners and against the Nigerian community, accused of running prostitution rackets and drug trafficking, was followed by an anti-immigration march in Pretoria. But "the violence continues and immigrants are living in fear", as reported by Amnesty International last May 11, which marked the anniversary of the events that had taken place ten years earlier.

This war of the poor is brought about by the increasing chasm between the haves and have-nots which increases competition between unemployed South Africans and foreigners seeking access to the limited resources, social services and job opportunities available. Thuthukani Ndebele, head of research at the South African Institute of Race Relations (IRR), is sure about it. "Immigrants accept lower wages for the toughest jobs. And their tenuous and often irregular situation means they are unlikely to complain about working conditions. People are frustrated and take it out on other weaker subjects. It's the easiest way, much as happens in Europe… While the crisis lasts, it will be difficult to stem the violence".

South African opinion makers and the media have identified one of the roots of the problem in the rhetoric used by certain politicians. A "two-faced" policy which is officially welcoming, but often resorts to making discriminatory remarks against immigrants, using them as bait to attract popular consensus. "The instances of xenophobia are triggered from above. Certain politicians have used foreigners as scapegoats to distract people from more complex economic problems", according to Aimée-Noël Mbiyozo, a researcher at the Migration Programme of the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria (ISS).

When he was elected in 1994 Mandela announced: " Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another". Twenty four years on and certain phenomena are returning in a different guise. The rainbow's colours seems to be fading.

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