Issue 17 - Article 2

‘We Are Not Treated Like People’: The Roll Back Xenophobia Campaign in South Africa

June 5, 2003
Jennifer Parsley
7 min read

On a spring day in September 1998, three non-South Africans were killed on a train travelling from Pretoria to Johannesburg. These killings were allegedly the work of South Africans blaming foreigners for the country’s high levels of unemployment. Less than two years later, on 4 August 2000, Sudanese refugee James Diop was seriously injured in a similar assault. Diop was travelling on a train from Pretoria to Pretoria North when he was attacked by a group of armed men and thrown from the train. In another incident, Roy Ndeti, a Kenyan who came to South Africa in search of better job opportunities, was awoken one morning in early August to be confronted by armed attackers, who shot him and his room-mate before fleeing, taking nothing with them.

Xenophobia in South Africa manifests itself in a number of ways, ranging from derogatory name-calling to harassment and physical attacks. As these incidents show, African foreigners in particular are blamed for South Africa’s persistent social and economic problems: the high crime rate; the spread of HIV/AIDS; and the lack of jobs. Attackers make no distinction between legal and illegal migrants. For refugees fleeing social strife and warfare in their home country, xenophobic incidents are of particular concern.

The Roll Back Xenophobia campaign

Concerned about increasing levels of xenophobia, the National Consortium on Refugee Affairs (NCRA), the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other organisations spearheaded a series of workshops and consultations that led to the drafting in 1998 of two documents: the ‘Braamfontein Statement’, which condemns xenophobia as a violation of human rights; and the ‘Roll Back Xenophobia: National Plan of Action’.

The Plan of Action serves as the basis for the Roll Back Xenophobia (RBX) campaign, which is designed to ensure that the basic rights of non-South Africans are valued, protected and promoted as outlined in the South African Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the country’s international obligations. It identifies six focal areas:

  • the plight and rights of refugees and asylum seekers;
  • violence against foreign hawkers;
  • violations of the rights of migrant workers;
  • the role of education;
  • he conduct of police officers and civil servants; and
  • media coverage of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants.

Projects undertaken by the campaign

From the beginning of 1999, an active campaign has been conducted, including the production of literature and materials such as booklets, pamphlets, posters and a magazine. Radio series have been produced for commercial and community stations; seminars have been hosted on refugee rights, migration and xenophobia; inputs have been made into local television dramas and educational programmes; and the campaign has received widespread coverage in print, television and radio. One of the radio series produced by the campaign, entitled ‘Once We Were There’, documents the experiences of 10 former South African exiles, who lend their support to the RBX campaign. Participants included sports personalities, top government officials, business people and artists. The series will be broadcast on 15 community radio stations across the country, and will be a valuable resource for the campaign’s future activities.

The campaign has also used human-rights days to highlight xenophobia as a human-rights violation. Africa Refugee Day on 20 June 1999 provided impetus to the campaign, with a range of activities in all the country’s major centres. On 21 October, Africa Human Rights Day, the campaign organised a cultural event through 10 workshops for high-school students. This was followed by a concert exposing young people to musical styles from the continent. The campaign also participated in the celebrations for International Human Rights Day by hosting an exhibition at the Durban Art Gallery and a workshop/information session on xenophobia. This was followed by an exhibition for South Africa Human Rights Day. Africa Refugee Day 2000 resulted in a dynamic week of debate and dialogue coupled with art, music and cuisine.

Since presenting positive images of refugees is the cornerstone of the RBX campaign, it has also undertaken a national photography project, ‘Soutra: Images of Refuge’ (Soutra means peace and protection in Madeng, a language commonly spoken in West Africa). Refugees were trained in basic photography skills and provided with photographic equipment to document their lives and experiences. The photographs are of refugees, by refugees, so as to provide a unique insight into the lives and challenges they face in South Africa. Exhibitions have been held in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town and Durban.

The success of the photography project and the need to gain refugees access to the media resulted in an innovative and exciting radio project, undertaken in partnership with the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), entitled ‘Voices of Refuge’. Ten refugees were trained to produce radio documentaries that were broadcast on SABC radio channels. The project was expanded this year to include training of refugees in Cape Town.

With xenophobia often fuelled by misinformed media coverage, a series of workshops was conducted with journalists in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. The workshops were designed to sensitise the media to the issues facing refugees and migrants, and to promote more informed coverage of their issues, and of the African continent as a whole. Work has also begun with government departments to ensure that civil servants and the police are aware of the government’s responsibility to protect and promote the rights of refugees and migrants.

Partnerships with refugees

Post-apartheid xenophobia stems largely from the fact that South African communities lack knowledge of Africa’s history. It is this ignorance, coupled with competition for scarce basic resources, that leads to fear, mistrust and suspicion.

To address this ignorance, the campaign has fostered close partnerships with migrant communities, and the refugee community in particular. All of the activities mentioned above have been planned in partnership with refugee forums and refugee community organisations. This has ensured that South Africans have face-to-face contact with refugees, and get to know the person behind the statistics. In the process, refugees have also built organisational and individual capacity.


South Africa is in the midst of constructing a national identity out of a violent and fractured past. Multiple processes – nation-building, ‘Africa-building’ and globalisation – are at work simultaneously, but they are also producing tensions and contradictions at the grassroots level.

At a workshop with the media, a refugee from Somalia wrote of his vision for the African continent:

‘Once upon a time humanity used to roam the planet unhindered. There were no borders to prevent him from making contact with other cultures. The only obstacles were flooded rivers. Until colonialism and racism came, humanity did not have any fears in making contact with people of other cultures. Then borders were drawn and racism became the human quality. I expect civilisation where humanity will not see each other in terms of which country they come from.’

The Roll Back Xenophobia campaign, through its targeting of multiple audiences, strives to promote acceptance, understanding, appreciation and respect for diversity. In doing so, we hope that the experiences of James Diop, Roy Ndeti and countless others will serve as reminders of an intolerant past, rather than examples of the realities we face today.

Jennifer Parsley is National Coordinator, Roll Back Xenophobia Campaign, Johannesburg.

The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) can be found at The site also has information on the National Conference on Racism, held in Johannesburg on 30 August–2 September 2000.

For more information on the Roll Back Xenophobia Campaign, see the National Consortium on Refugee Affairs (NCRA) website <>


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