How white people created the conditions for anti-immigrant riots in South Africa

British colonial holdings in southern Africa, 1885.
British colonial holdings in southern Africa, 1885.
Image: University of California, Irvine
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A recent spate of anti-immigrant violence in South African cities has been linked to comments made by Goodwill Zwelithini, king of the Zulu nation. At a rally in late Mar. 2015, the monarch reportedly told supporters, “We urge all foreigners to pack their bags and leave.”

“As I speak to you, you find there are unsightly goods hanging all over our shops,” a transcribed quote from Zwelithini published by South Africa’s Eyewitness News reads. “They dirty our streets. We cannot even recognise which shop is which. They are all blocked by foreigners.”

Five people have since died in this week’s violence against immigrants in Durban. Many foreign-born merchants have closed shop until the unrest eases. Some in Johannesburg reportedly received text messages warning: “Zulu people are coming to town starting from Market [street] their mission is to kill every foreigner on the road please pass this to all your contacts in case they come people should be on alert.”

Now, the king is walking back the controversial remarks, claiming mistranslation, perhaps in an effort to dodge recent hate-speech charges brought against him by South African human rights advocates. But regardless of what such comments were intended to accomplish, a palpable xenophobia has gained traction among Zulu figureheads. Edward Zuma, the son of South Africa’s president Jacob Zuma (both of Zulu heritage), has reportedly come out in support of the king’s comments.

“We need to be aware that as a country we are sitting on a ticking time bomb of them [foreigners] taking over the country,” Edward Zuma told News24.com, attributing a slew of national problems—the drug trade, gun violence, general criminality, overall moral decay—to South Africa’s five million-strong immigrant community; some legal, others undocumented. He even raised the specter of an political takeover led by armed refugees from elsewhere in Africa. “We can’t rule out the possibility of a coup in the future,” he warned. “The government needs to clean out everyone that is in the country illegally. They need to leave.”

High unemployment and other economic woes appear to be the driving force behind anti-immigrant violence and nativist rhetoric. Zulu nationalism—a longtime presence in South African politics—has likely also played a significant hand. But the muscular ethnocentrism behind Goodwill Zwelithini’s statements did not develop in a vacuum. Competition between Zulus and other native South Africans against non-native, non-white laborers has deep roots in colonial history, dating back to the very foundation of the South African state.

After many Zulus were forced off their lands by British settlers in the aftermath of the bloody Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, they began to congregate in shanty towns around major eastern cities—Durban and Pietermaritzburg in particular—where they competed for work with large numbers of Indian migrants recently freed from indentured servitude on South African sugar plantations.

In 1910, formal racial segregation increased with the establishment of the Union of South Africa: the 1911 Native Regulation Act hit Zulus based in Durban especially hard, forcing a quarter of the city’s black-male workforce into hostels for the duration of their labor contracts. The Groups Act of 1950 formalized a system of racial division that mandated the settlement of all urban South Africans into suburbs designated “white,” “bantu” or “African,” “colored” (mixed-race), and “Asian” (mainly Indian).

In 1953, the South African government introduced the concept of “bantustans” or ”black homelands,” intended to consolidate the black African population into manageable locales. In KwaZulu, which would be formally declared a “Zulu homeland” in 1970, Zulus were stripped of their South African citizenship. Apartheid leaders rationalized the disenfranchisement by giving KwaZulu nominal independence, establishing a government structure led by Zulu chieftain Mangosutho Buthelezi.

Buthelezi is credited with reviving a Zulu nationalist organization called the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), and weathered significant criticism from anti-apartheidists for a perceived prioritization of Zulu ethnic interests over black solidarity. The IFP is now the fourth-largest political organization in South Africa, and has had a history of conflict with the African National Congress (ANC), the party of sitting-president Jacob Zuma and the late Nelson Mandela. In 1995, Buthelezi led a walkout of Zulu delegates to the South African legislature in 1995, demanding greater recognition and autonomy for the Zulu nation.

Zulus compose 22% of the South African population, and in some ways, the post-apartheid South African political establishment now caters to Zulu identity. Writing on the 2007 election of Jacob Zuma, William Gumede of Custom Contested—a blog devoted to discussing tribal law and tradition in South Africa—claims, “Zuma explicitly mobilized voters in [KwaZulu-Natal] to support him on the basis of his Zuluness—rather than performance.”

After being dragged kicking and screaming into the South African state, forced to assimilate, then segregated, obsessively classified and reclassified, the contemporary emergence of a fiery and aggressive Zuluness is not unexpected. “The king, cultural weapons and the ancient name of KwaZulu still arouse militant loyalty in Zulus who live under traditional tribal authorities,” Charles Lane wrote in a 1994 edition of The New Republic. “Or among urban Zulus who see tradition as an antidote to the chaos of the townships.” Taking a historical perspective does not excuse Zulu violence against immigrants—but should serve as a reminder that this week’s unrest is the fruit of seeds no Zulu planted.

And it’s important to note that not all Zulus are fooled by irresponsible, ultranationalist rhetoric. Thousands of South Africans, including Zulus, marched through the streets of Durban to protest xenophobia, despite aggressive counter-demonstrators and police armed with tear gas and water cannons.