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Key findings
  • As of mid-2018, close to half (48%) of South Africans “disagreed” or “strongly disagreed” with the idea that the country should always admit people who are persecuted for political reasons in their own countries. This opposition to political asylum was strongest in the North West (65%) and KwaZulu-Natal (58%) provinces.
  • Half (50%) of respondents “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that foreigners should not be allowed to work in South Africa because they take jobs away from citizens.
  • One in two South Africans (48%) said that placing refugees in camps is a good way of managing the influx of people into the country. Again, wealthier, more-educated, and urban respondents were more supportive of such a policy.
  • Three in 10 respondents (29%) said they would dislike having immigrants or foreign workers as neighbours, one of the highest levels of intolerance among 34 surveyed countries.
  • A majority (62%) of South Africans said the government is managing immigration badly, a slight improvement since 2015.

Every few years, since 2008, South Africa is rocked by xenophobic violence. Houses are burnt, shops are looted, and people are killed, injured, or forced out of their homes and communities. This violence usually erupts under the pretext that foreigners take opportunities from South Africans.

Recent attacks in Johannesburg, followed by protests in Pretoria and Cape Town, have reignited the debate in South Africa about immigration policy and the rights of immigrants and refugees. Months-long protests in Cape Town, in particular, have drawn attention as refugees and immigrants demanding to be relocated to a third country camped in front of United Nations offices, then were forcibly removed, sheltered at a local church, taken to court and evicted, and moved to a large tent outside town (Mitchley, 2019; Nombembe, 2020; Shoba, 2020; Kiewit, 2020; Stent, 2020).

The increasingly divisive immigration debate has included disagreements about tighter border controls put in place in early 2020 (Business Tech, 2020) that some observers have likened to “creating Trump’s America in South Africa” (Shivji, 2020).

Further complicating the issue, the COVID-19 outbreak has led the government to close 35 of the country’s 72 ports of entry and suspend the issuing and renewal of permits for asylum seekers (Bornman, 2020). The small business development minister announced that only South African spaza shop owners would be allowed to trade during the coronavirus lockdown, but when police shut down some immigrant-owned shops, residents demanded they be reopened because they are the most accessible places to buy goods in the community (Sizani, 2020).
Amid this flurry of – sometimes contradictory – government, police, and community action, how do ordinary South Africans see immigration? Do new policies reflect or go beyond the apprehensions and preferences of South African society?

This dispatch analyzes Afrobarometer data collected in August-September 2018, before the latest immigration incidents and the COVID-19 outbreak, to provide a baseline reading on South Africans’ perceptions of immigrants and refugees. Findings suggest that fully half of the population would turn away political asylum seekers, bar foreigners from working in South Africa, and place refugees in camps rather than integrate them into communities.

Dominique Dryding

Dominique is the capacity building manager