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ANALYSIS: Mapping, understanding & preventing xenophobic violence in SA

Since South Africa’s transition to democracy, the country has observed thousands of events of xenophobic violence.

The mass attacks in 2008 drew international attention to the issue, but since then, over 400 immigrants, refugees, asylum-seekers and those viewed as “outsiders” have been killed in similar events. More than 100,000 people have been displaced and millions of rands worth of property has been looted.

In recent years, we have seen increasing and more extreme forms of violence against perceived “others” - including South African citizens - with both attacks against people and looting of dozens of foreign-run shops every month.

In early 2017, trouble seems to be brewing again, with an anti-foreigner march reportedly planned for the end of February.

Extensive fieldwork conducted by the African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS) at the University of the Witwatersrand has found that fear and exclusion are part of foreign-born migrants’ and “others’” daily lives.

This research finds that xenophobic violence (that is, violence motivated by the victims’ geographic, ethnic, linguistic or other background) can clearly be distinguished from common crime in South Africa such as theft and assault.

Triggers of xenophobic violence

Many xenophobic attacks involve brutal violence and sexual assaults, ACMS research showed. Most attacks appear to occur in townships and areas surrounding hostels.

Typically, attacks involve mob violence against foreigners or “others”. In many cases, groups of local residents forcefully remove foreign nationals from areas, blaming them for social problems such as unemployment and crime. Additionally, intimidation or looting campaigns targeting foreign-owned businesses regularly occur across the country, as do individual attacks.

Xenophobic violence is caused by a number of factors. Existing research has found that xenophobic violence is influenced by racial and linguistic diversity among the local population, low education levels and limited access to basic services such as water and electricity.

Areas with recent migration histories (such as new townships or those with a high percentage of domestic migrants) are also more prone to xenophobic violence. Often, business competition motivates attacks on foreign shopkeepers working in townships.

Research by our colleague Jean Pierre Misago also showed outsiders are scapegoated and attacked as a way of empowering political factions, addressing disaffection or resolving local political competition.

Most typically, violence has been found to occur where formal governance structures are weak or considered illegitimate by the local community.

But government, international organisations and civil society responses to xenophobic violence are still hampered by limited information on the frequency, location and causes of attacks. To fill this knowledge gap, ACMS last year launched Xenowatch, a public tool to monitor xenophobic threats and violence across the country.

This tool collates and visualises data collected through media reports, original research, partner organisations and crowdsourcing of xenophobia-related incidents. Xenowatch receives detailed reports of xenophobic threats and violence, relays verified reports to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and makes anonymised reports publicly available on

Where xenophobic attacks happen

The mapping of social phenomena has exploded in the past decade, primarily due to the development of widely accessible computerised mapping techniques carried out in Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Like photographs, maps can provide many layers of information since they have the ability to offer an objective representation while also calling on people’s imagination.

Until recently, spatial data on crime in South Africa were not readily available to the public. In fact, spatial data on xenophobic violence were non-existent. Fortunately, it is now possible to map such crimes due to the efforts of research institutions and non-governmental organisations such as the ACMS and the Institute for Security Studies.

Since we are in the early stages of spatial analyses, however, researchers, practitioners and journalists must be mindful of the dangers in interpreting such visual imagery, especially “hot spots”.

For example, our map shows most xenophobic assaults occurring in Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape. We know, however, that there are increasing reports of assaults from small towns across the country. Since these incidents have not yet been spatialised, they do not appear on maps.

When looking at the map, many would interpret - and refer to - the red concentrations of xenophobic assaults as “hot spots”. This is a common and misunderstood term used to describe zones in which we find a larger than expected concentration of some characteristic.

However, hot spots are determined only after specific analyses and the term should not be used to characterise frequencies of attacks such as those depicted in the map.

Site-specific research is needed

Despite crime mapping’s growing popularity, these kinds of interpretations can be dangerous and can lead to inappropriate and ineffective policy responses.

New research in South Africa must move away from traditional Western research that superficially maps violent crime and should provide a more sophisticated analysis of the nature of the problem and the characteristics of areas with significant concentrations of xenophobic violence.

Thus far, interventions combating xenophobic violence have mainly focused on changing attitudes. However, these interventions fail to address the ecological, political, economic, and institutional triggers behind violence and the site-specific characteristics that cause observed patterns of violence.

Future research needs to measure the influence of location on social relations and xenophobic violence. Spatial data, measures and models can be applied to questions such as:

  • where are attacks occurring in relation to other places;

  • are they concentrated in city centres, rural areas, and/or townships;

  • what are the causes of the locational patterns;

  • does proximity to places experiencing xenophobic violence matter; and,

  • how is xenophobic violence influenced by conditions such as poverty, unemployment, and access to basic services


Only after such site-specific research will we be better able to understand, respond to and prevent xenophobic violence in South Africa.

Alexandra Hiropoulos is a postdoctoral research fellow at the African Centre for Migration & Society, University of the Witwatersrand.


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