News & Media

Afrophobia versus xenophobia in South Africa

Xenophobia is the wrong word to describe the antagonism directed towards non-South African blacks in the so-called xenophobic attacks that have erupted sporadically in South Africa since 2008, says Unisa theology professor Rothney Tshaka.

© Rajesh Jantilal, AFP | Source:

“Xenophobia is fear of the other; Afrophobia is fear of a specific other—the black other from north of the Limpopo River. If foreigners generally were the main target, those who are anti-foreigner would no doubt have sought out all foreigners and made it known that they are not welcome in this country,” says Tshaka, who is acting director of the School of Humanities at Unisa.

“The funny thing is that Greeks and Bulgarians and others come to South Africa and by virtue of their white skin are seen as contributing. The perception, wrong or right, is that they can be of some benefit, unlike the non-South African black foreigner. It is for this reason that I prefer to speak of Afrophobia instead of xenophobia.”

What lies behind Afrophobia?

Prof Rothney Tshaka (Chair of Department: Philosophy, Practical and Systematic Theology, Unisa)

The term Afrophobia became popular after the 2008 outbreaks of violence in South Africa against other Africans and Tshaka has been researching the phenomenon ever since in an effort to understand what lies behind it.

His conclusion is that hostility towards black African foreigners is triggered by a “nervous condition”—a term originally used by French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre in his preface to Frantz Fanon’s book, The wretched of the earth, to describe the effects of colonisation.

“The notion (of a nervous condition) refers to a situation created among hegemonies in which the oppressed become willing participants in their oppression,” Tshaka says.

This has its roots in slavery and particularly in how slave owners controlled their slaves—by exploiting the differences among slaves themselves and using these differences to sow fear, distrust and envy.

Exploiting artificial differences to sow distrust

Tshaka points to the notorious lecture that slave owner Willie Lynch gave in Virginia in the United States in 1772 on “the making of a slave”.

Lynch encouraged his slave-owning audience to list all the differences among their slaves—from age and height to gender, size, hair colour and status—and to capitalise on these.

To quote Lynch: “Now that you have a list of differences…I shall assure you that distrust is stronger than trust, and envy, stronger than adulation, respect or admiration. The black slaves after receiving this indoctrination shall carry on and become self-refuelling and self-generating for hundreds of years, maybe thousands.”

Not only did Lynch’s prediction prove true, says Tshaka, but his model has been emulated and perpetuated through colonialism and capitalism—and, in South Africa’s case, apartheid, which by definition categorised and inflated artificially manufactured, race-based differences.

“It is the very issues of envy and distrust that some blacks use to categorise—and therefore justify resentments towards—the black other.”

In present-day South Africa, Afrophobia is a manifestation of distrust and envy towards black foreigners, seen as a threat because they are able to “slip undetected into the black community and thus potentially steal the jobs and women of the indigenous black South African men,” says Tshaka. “For those locals who have been disappointed by the South African liberation project, this distrust seems to justify their antagonism towards other African nationals.”

One of the worrying elements of this kind of reasoning is that it fuels the attitude that whites are the benefactors—the potential employers—while blacks are invariably the beneficiaries. “The Bulgarian, Hungarian—or any other white foreigner—is seen as a potential employer by virtue of his or her skin colour and is therefore not subjected to the acrimony that is reserved for those who are seen as competing for the scarce resources.”

Unfulfilled dreams and difficult conversations

Disappointment in the liberation project is strongly implicated in the nervous condition among South Africans today. “It is primarily as a result of two factors,” Tshaka says. “One, a promise that democracy was going to provide all the privileges that blacks have always dreamt of; two, the depressing realisation that these promises remain unfulfilled for the majority.”

This disillusionment is exacerbated by the schism between political democracy and economic democracy in South Africa. Democracy and capitalism exist uneasily side by side, in contradiction to each other, with democracy encouraging joint interests and equality but capitalism promoting self-interest and economic inequality.

To address the crisis in South African society, Tshaka says, it is critical for blacks to engage in a serious conversation about blackness—just as whites need to engage in a serious conversation about whiteness. “Whiteness has been the norm and does not need to explain itself as black identity does. White and black folk need to be having the difficult conversations about race and racialism, and how our past history has created many South Africas in one South Africa.”

In the final analysis, though, the task of shedding the yoke of internalised slavery and oppression—among black Africans—in South Africa and the rest of Africa must be the work of Africans themselves. “The black church must regain its leadership position in black communities. This can happen only when we become critical of the half-truths of consumerism and materialism, which are masquerading as the truth.”

Also needed is a critical look at the artificial differences that have been manufactured by those who hold the real power in society. “Afrophobia was inevitable if we take into account our manufactured history, yet our writing of our history will judge us by how hard we work to break the spell of Willie Lynch.”






Publish date: 2016/11/15

Unisa Shop