South Africa is a country with a history of nasty labels for people. If you take any cultural grouping in the country for the last 350 years, you are probably going to find derogatory names for them. In Apartheid, the most obvious was the terrible word “Kaffer” which was used to address dark-skinned people. This word is now taboo in South Africa, and occasionally someone makes the news for using it.
No less derogatory, and yet somehow more tolerated, is the word “makwerekwere”. This word refers to foreigners in South Africa, specifically dark-skinned foreigners from other African countries. But “kwerekwere” (the singular form of the word) doesn’t simply mean “foreigner”. It is a derogatory term that describes the foreigner as undesirable. It is actually derisive too, because it is based on the etymology that the foreign languages of such people sound like a meaningless “kwirikwiri” noise to people who are local to South Africa.
Describing someone’s language in that way is discriminatory, especially since many languages in Southern Africa are so closely related. For example, in Zimbabwe, the Ndebele language is spoken, which is very similar to Zulu and which therefore allows Ndebele speakers from Zimbabwe to integrate into South African society fairly easily. However, the same cannot be said of Shona speakers from Zimbabwe, because Shona is not indigenous to South Africa.
The negative attitude towards immigrants is expressed in various ways in South Africa, but tends to be concentrated in the poorer areas such as the townships, where immigrants are regarded as taking employment and business opportunities away from the South African residents. Many Somali-owned spaza shops have been attacked, although this could be for purely economic reasons, since the Somali business model is different to the South African one (it involves collective bulk buying of stock and therefore lower prices for customers). There have also been riots in some areas during which immigrants were attacked and killed. Perhaps the most famous is the photo of a man burning in the street in Johannesburg in 2008.
Reading an employment website or the job section of a newspaper, one may see many advertisements by private individuals who are seeking work. Many of these ads state that the person is of another African nationality, such as Malawian or Zimbabwean. This foreign nationality can be a selling point because some people in South Africa have the opinion that foreigners work harder than South African citizens. Also, refugees and immigrants are sometimes prepared to work for less money than locals, and they may also be highly educated or skilled. Since they do not qualify for social welfare in South Africa and they sometimes have no extended family here they may be prepared to work virtually any job, such as the extreme example of a chartered accountant with no work permit hawking fruit on a pavement.
The phenomenon of xenophobia is particularly sad in South Africa because it is based on the national borders established by colonial authorities. European governments divided Africa into artificial countries and did not always respect tribal territories. There has historically been much movement of people throughout sub-Saharan Africa. The despised Apartheid regime tried hard to keep other African nationals out of South Africa, and so perhaps their immigration should be welcomed nowadays. If they are paying tax and living responsibly, they can offer labour and/or skills to the economy. There is poverty in South Africa, but riots and attacks do not cause economic growth.