South Africa’s Scapegoat Problem


“Me against my brothers; my brothers and me against my cousins; my cousins, my brothers, and me against strangers.” – Bedouin proverb.

South Africa is presently in the grip of a spate of violent attacks. Xenophobia has claimed the lives of 10 people in recent weeks, two of whom are foreign nationals. Many more have had businesses, houses, and cars burned to the ground. 

This is not the South Africa those of us who were born there know. 

Nelson Mandela, in his inauguration address 25 years ago spoke of a “spiritual and physical oneness we all share with this common homeland”. For South Africans, each time one of us touches the soil of our land, we feel a sense of personal renewal. Could it be that others feel the exact opposite? Witnessing the scenes of violence makes it clear that this is so. How can we have let ourselves down so badly? 

South Africa is a land of great inequality 

six men sitting on bench in front barbed wire fence

From 1948 to the early 1990’s the white government that ruled South Africa did so through a system of radical oppression and segregation of non-white South Africans, known as apartheid. Much of the current inequality stems from the institutions of apartheid. But despite efforts such as black economic empowerment and affirmative action to correct the imbalance of opportunity, the outcomes are still not equal. Far from it. 

The vast majority of black South Africans live in poverty. The great promise of the new South Africa as a rainbow nation was of a society in which everyone would be happy and proud. But this is not the case. As a result, conflict is everywhere. People don’t know what to do. 

South Africa has a complicated relationship with Africa 

The attitude to the rest of Africa, born out of the insularity installed during apartheid, is one of looking down. As Sisonke Msimang writes in her excellent 2014 article on why South Africans refuse to let Africa in, other  African countries weren’t seen as “geographies with their own histories and cultures and complexities. They were dark landscapes, Conradian and densely forested. Zambia and Kenya and Ethiopia might as well have been Venus and Mars and Jupiter.

It’s part of South Africa’s identity. She goes on to describe “South African-ness” as relying heavily on portraying Africa as a place of “dysfunction, chaos, and violence” in order to define itself as the opposite. 


Throughout world history, whenever chaos arrived, instead of addressing the problem through engagement and dialogue, as the South African president called for this past week, people looked for scapegoats. The Salem witch trials. Genocides in Rwanda, Cambodia, and Kazakhstan (to name a few). The Holocaust. The crucifixion of Jesus. As Peter Thiel teaches in his Stanford CS class (drawing heavily on René Girard’s mimetic theory) , “depending on the culture, witches were burned or people had their hearts cut out. The details differed. But the dynamic—a crazed community rallying around the sacrificial scapegoat—was the same.

It’s an ancient cycle. Chaos, followed by uniting against a common scapegoat to perform a sacrifice, followed by peace. And so the cycle repeats. 

How did South Africa choose its scapegoat? 

In studying ancient cultures, the perfect scapegoat has always been someone who is both an extreme outsider and an extreme insider. An outsider, because otherwise those sacrificing become fearful that the scapegoat is like them (and could be them next time). An insider, because the scapegoat is, after all, responsible for the chaos the community is experiencing. 

South Africans are holding up foreigners as scapegoats for the poverty and poor circumstances they find themselves in. They’re outsiders because they weren’t born there; they’re seen as having arrived to take South African jobs and women. And yet they’re insiders, because they live there, carving out a living in the harsh economy along with everyone else. 

In the Us vs Them attitude South Africans have to fellow Africans, they have sufficient ammunition to dehumanize them enough to justify killing, looting and burning them and their possessions. It’s not only justified, it’s the right thing to do, to protect what is rightfully theirs.

Xenophobic violence peaked in 2008, when waves of attacks on refugees and migrants killed more than 60 people. After a period of relative peace, the army had to be deployed in 2015 to stem another outbreak of violence against foreign nationals. And so the cycle repeats. 

Xenophobia Stats South Africa

How can we break this scapegoat cycle? 

We (South Africans) need to celebrate what the rest of Africa brings to our society. We need to welcome them as both outsiders and insiders for their unique contributions to making our country better. 

The thing is, someone important needs to step up and acknowledge this first, for the rest of society to follow. As Girard’s mimetic theory shows, “man is the creature who does not know what to desire, and he turns to others in order to make up his mind. We desire what others desire because we imitate their desires.

Someone like the South African president needs to step up and do more than acknowledge the role Africans played in helping us “destroy apartheid and overcome the divisions it created”. 

He needs to acknowledge the role Africans play now, in making our society stronger. 

As Msimang puts it, “all great societies are melanges, a delicious brew of art and culture and intellect. They draw the best from near and far and make them their own. By denying the contribution of Africa to its DNA, South Africa forgoes the opportunity to be a richer, smarter, more cosmopolitan and interesting society than it currently is.

Malawians are among the friendliest people you will ever meet. Nigeria’s movie industry (Nollywood) is booming, churning out more than 2,500 films a year and attracting large foreign investment. Kenya and Ethiopia are sporting powerhouses, constantly producing the elitest of the elite in athletics. African architecture is bright and beautiful and colorful and crazy. African immigrants to the U.S. were found to have much higher education levels compared to the overall foreign- and native-born populations. Mozambican piri piri chicken, fragrant biryani from Zanzibar, Middle Eastern riffs from Egypt, Moroccan tagines; African food is bold, diverse, and delicious.  

African Architecture

There is so much to celebrate in the rest of Africa and welcome into our own society. There are so many human qualities to appreciate and shine a light on to make the mindless killing and looting unthinkable for a rational South African. 

Let me acknowledge that this doesn’t address the root cause of the inequality we talked about earlier. Tremendous work and coordination is required for this, but as influential South Africans speak up to embrace what other Africans have to offer the country, others will follow, and hopefully the cycle of scapegoating Africans can be broken. 

We will need to break it, for we will need all the help we can get to build South Africa into a country we can all be proud of. As Mandela said 25 years ago:

“We know it well that none of us acting alone can achieve success.

We must, therefore, act together as a united people, for national reconciliation, for nation-building, for the birth of a new world.”

The sun shall never set on so glorious a human achievement!”

Special thanks to Jill Barry, Rachel Bell, Will Mannon, Marat Stary, and Graham Thompson for their feedback and input on this post.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *