Climate, conflict and capitalism fuel xenophobia in South Africa and beyond

Climate, conflict and capitalism fuel xenophobia in South Africa and beyond


We need to understand how climate change impacts the current and future flow of refugees and displaced persons, and ask why the protection needs of climate refugees are not being met.


The truck carrying South Sudanese refugees in Uganda. Image credit F. Noy via UNHCR Flickr (CC).

It is often asked where xenophobia—experienced predominantly and violently by black foreign nationals in South Africa—comes from. It is a difficult question to answer, but the legacy of a racist and repressive state is a common starting point. The prevailing status quo—a society deeply divided along race and class lines—can be traced back to colonization and Apartheid. Xenophobic violence is generally linked to the socio-economic inequalities, systemic unemployment and conditions of poverty that the majority of black African people continue to suffer in the post-Apartheid dispensation.

This raises serious questions about the current democratic state, one in which institutionalized xenophobia further exacerbates the crisis. Negative experiences of foreign nationals, especially vulnerable indigent people, attempting to access the asylum system through the Department of Home Affairs are well-documented. Their vulnerability is compounded by policy shifts being promulgated by parliament—including removing the right to work of asylum seekers and detaining asylum seekers in so-called processing centres at the border.

South Africa has a very progressive constitution, thus such policy shifts go against the ethos and vision of the founding document, which frames a rallying call for transformation and redress of the wrongs of capitalist Apartheid. As former Constitutional Court Judge, Dikgang Moseneke, argued in 2014, “our constitutional design is emphatically transformative. It is meant to migrate us from a murky and brutish past to an inclusive future animated by values of human decency and solidarity. It contains a binding consensus on or a blueprint of what a fully transformed society should look like.”

Yet, the recent elections in South Africa saw both new and older political parties opportunistically blame black, indigent Africans from the rest of the continent for the state of crisis in the public health system. This is disingenuously extended to blaming foreign nationals for the economic crisis of chronic unemployment and crime, both consequences of rampant corruption and looting under the rule of the former president Jacob Zuma and his cronies in the ruling African National Congress. Such othering and scapegoating by both states and communities fuels xenophobic violence in the country and beyond.

Movement of people is a global phenomenon. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) statistics reveal people forcibly displaced worldwide increased from 65.3 million in 2015 to 68.5 million in 2018. Climate change is a critical factor in the phenomenon. According to the UNHCR: “one person every second is being displaced by climate factors, with an average of more than 26 million people displaced by climate and weather-related events annually since 2008.” In some parts of the world this increases the risk of conflicts and worsening conditions for refugees and displaced people.

We need to understand how climate change impacts the current and future flow of refugees and displaced persons, and ask why the protection needs of climate refugees are not being met. For example, the 2015-2016 El Niño phenomenon had a severe impact on vulnerable people in Somalia; it worsened an already widespread drought in Puntland and Somaliland with a devastating impact on communities and their livelihoods, increasing food insecurity, cash shortages and resulting in out-migration and death of livestock.

More recently, Cyclone Idai hit Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe with horrendous impact, proving (again) that vulnerable people in countries contributing least to adverse climate change, but with limited infrastructure and capacity to respond to such extreme events, are experiencing its most devastating consequences. In Mozambique alone, 1.85 million people are affected, nearly 200,000 displaced, 600 dead, and nearly 5000 confirmed cholera cases. Close to one million people in Malawi are affected, and nearly 100,000 displaced. Zimbabwe, a country already in severe socio-economic crisis, is now burdened with one quarter of a million people affected, 300 dead and 16,000 households displaced.

In December 2018, for the first time the UN Global Compact for Migration launched at a meeting in Marrakesh, Morocco recognizing that the climate crisis is a driver of migration. Yet States are under no obligation to recognize the protection needs of climate refugees. There is an urgent need to put in place mechanisms that ensure the protection of climate refugees and this must be enforced. An international emergency must be declared, along with a plan of action to mitigate and eventually put a stop to the man-made carnage destroying the planet and its people.

The vulnerability of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants is used opportunistically by politicians globally. In South Africa this has the direct consequence of fueling xenophobic violence which results in the displacement of hundreds of people, loss and damage to property and in many instances the loss of innocent lives. States cannot ignore the scientific evidence which speaks to the dire consequences of the climate crisis. These facts must inform our policy. The SADC region must adopt an accessible SADC visa to manage the movement of people. Xenophobia and its consequent violence will otherwise continue unabated.


This is an edited version of a chapter in the most recent volume in the series of Democratic Marxism entitled: Racisim after Apartheid  [2019], edited by Vishwas Satgar.

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