The Gap

Six essays for a better understanding of xenophobia

Six essays for a better understanding of xenophobia/Skabash

Of the over 400 words that begin with the letter ‘x’ as contained in the Oxford English Dictionary, xenophobia is arguably the most widely used. Most ‘x’ words in English are well rooted in Greek, like Xenos (stranger, foreigner), which gave us xenophobia.

Phobia is also a Greek word meaning ‘fear’ and joining the two words in unholy matrimony gives birth to xenophobia – fear of strangers. Most times, this fear is irrational. If you are xenophobic, you might distrust a neighbour you meet every day or the Pope you have never met. Xenophobia shares the same ‘parents’ with racism. However, instead of being afraid or distrusting someone because of the colour of his skin, you distrust or fear him because of his nationality or because he seems foreign to you. In this article, we shall sample six essays and reports which bring home the ills of xenophobia.

Six essays for a better understanding of xenophobia/Skabash

Ghana Must Go: The Ugly History of Africa’s Most Famous Bag 

This essay by Shola Lawal tells the story of a Ghanaian, Solomon Asiedu, who was earning a living in Lagos, Nigeria. His peaceful coexistence with Nigerians and his fellow countrymen was disrupted on January 17, 1983.

Asiedu had just listened to Shehu Shagari, Nigeria’s first elected civilian president, who announced the expulsion of about two million undocumented migrants, mostly Ghanaians, living in the country.

“If they don’t leave,” Shagari said.

“They should be arrested and tried and sent back to their homes. Illegal immigrants, under normal circumstances, should not be given any notice.”

Asiedu and others like him with no work or residence permits were told to leave within 14 days or risk jail because “if you break a law, then you have to pay for it” Shagari thundered.

“I was not ready to leave,” the now 67-year-old, said.

“I had just one bag with me.”

That bag had no name on it. It came cheap and was usually red and blue. It was sold in big and medium sizes. But it had one thing in common – checked. It is what we now call a ‘Ghana must go’ bag, named after the event.

Asiedu travelled across two countries – the Benin Republic and Togo – to return to Ghana, clucking his bag. The Ghanaian government sent ships to Cotonou, the capital of Benin, to reduce the number of people commuting by road. Some never saw their homeland as many fell off as they scrambled for a spot on the vessels.

Thirty-nine years after the exodus, this bag that is sold in major markets in Nigeria and indeed other parts of West Africa brings back a memory of despair most Ghanaians would have loved buried in the past.

Asiedu, who returned to farming, chose, however, to remember the incident with serenity.

“What will you do?” he asked rhetorically.

“The person who owns his thing is ready to take it from you, you have nothing to say, you just give him.”

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Belonging: Why South Africans Refuse to Let Africa In

In this report, which appears in the 2014 book titled Africa Is a Country, Sisonke Msimang examines the minds of an average black and white South African whose perception and understanding of Africa are not similar to the rest of the continent.

Msimang, a South African writer, activist, a political analyst, tells a personal story in this well-written essay. Born to South African parents outside the country, she lived in Zambia, Kenya, and Canada but came to her country in the 1990s. She recalls her ordeals in the early months of trying to adjust to life in South Africa. She was surprised by the odd way in which the term ‘Africa’ was deployed by the average black and white South Africans. The thoughts that she was relating with her fellow Africans were dispelled as she noticed “their hatred of other Africans coming from the rest of the continent”.

Her accent didn’t help her too as she spoke in fancy tones often associated with someone who schooled abroad. People never failed to ask her where she came from. She would start by explaining that she was born to South African parents but grew up outside the country. What she got in return were sympathetic nods from the listeners until they could comprehend what she was saying.

What followed was an intake of breath and a mocking look that always came with “so you grew up in Africa.” Africa was said as though it were a statement when a question. A scornful question. And they will tell her to her face… “Shame”.

She concludes that insularity will remain South Africa’s guiding spirit in its cultural, social, and political relationships with the rest of Africa.

Six essays for a better understanding of xenophobia/Skabash

Explaining South African Xenophobia

Christopher Claassen takes a broader route to describe xenophobia in South Africa. This academic paper explores the determinants of this hatred for foreigners and found out the issue is not a lack of explanations of the problem but a plethora of it. The author focuses on the social processes behind the violence of 2008 and 2015 to shed light on his project.

In the continent, South Africa is the ‘hostility headquarter’ where most regular and irregular migrants know no peace. In May 2008, there were widespread attacks aimed at foreigners, which took the lives of about 62 people. It made headlines worldwide, yet seven years later, a similar thing happened.

Although South African xenophobia is causing constraints for the country’s international relations, particularly within Africa, many commentaries, reflections, and research by different governments, scholars, and civil society still leave a poor understanding of the problem. Like the factors that influence and shape hostility toward immigrants from other parts of Africa.

This study concludes that xenophobia in South Africa, which has national and regional political consequences, takes the form of widespread intolerance and antipathy occurring at intervals by acts of violence, unlike in other places, which are usually caused by cases of rare attacks.

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Lesotho Media and the Growing Intimidation of Chinese Shop Owners

This essay, by Ts’eliso Monaheng, appears in the book Africa Is a Country. Lesotho, a landlocked country encircled in South Africa, has its problem with xenophobia, like its Big Brother neighbour. Monaheng analyses how the country’s media has aggravated the lingering crisis between Chinese-owned shops and the government, which inevitably led to the closure of the businesses of foreigners.

In December 2012, the government, through its Ministry of Trade and Industry, closed the shops belonging to Chinese owners in and around the country’s capital, Maseru. Before the closure, the government embarked on a raid. According to them, the Chinese-owned shops sold low-quality food to their customers for years, most of whom are less privileged so unable to afford goods sold in other groceries.

But Monaheng says it was a mere ploy by the local populace to get rid of the Chinese because they despised them. One was even heard saying, “we will speak about the Chinese’s rotten food until someone in authority takes note.” Hate speech? Definitely.

The media, especially radio stations, added fuel to the flame by employing a range of tools “from semi-traditionalist rhetoric to outright Christian fundamentalist utterances”.

Six essays for a better understanding of xenophobia/Skabash

Xenophobia: The View from Mozambique

In this essay, Justin Pearce examines the reactions of Mozambicans to South Africans in the wake of the 2015 violence in South Africa.

Most parts of the report are based on the reactions, commentaries that followed the open letters exchanged between a Mozambique writer, Mia Couto, and the then president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma.

The author picks holes in the average Mozambican view of South Africans and, conversely. He agrees Couto understood South Africa better than most South Africans understood Mozambique. However, he couldn’t help the thought that if he’d spent more time in the country of Bafana Bafana in recent times, he’d have known that the so-called “rainbow nation” idea carried little weight.

The Everyday Lives of African Immigrants in South Africa

This report by Leila Dee Dougan, a South African journalist and documentary filmmaker, also appears in Africa Is a Country.

Her report, which focuses on the exhibition of photographer Sydelle Willow Smith, offers alternative views on migration stories unlike those that portray violence, police brutality, deportation that are usually covered by the conventional media.

The visual exploration found in her story includes two girls watching a soap opera, a family on a shopping jaunt, an elderly man showing off the pool he maintains for a rich family in Camps Bay, Cape Town.

Her story could be seen as a disjointed view of the broader narrative surrounding a migrant experience in South Africa. But by shooting around the scars, the exhibition discusses the experience of being a stranger in South Africa.


There are other aspects of xenophobia these six essays didn’t cover, but that wasn’t our aim. We just wanted to broaden your mind by reading the firsthand experiences of people who eat, sleep, breathe xenophobia.

Kindly leave your feedback in the comment section below.

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