#XeNOphobiamustfall — a Biblical response to the xenophobia crisis in SA

Foreign nationals displaced by xenophobic violence shelter in a temporary camp in Chatsworth, south of Durban. (PHOTO: AFP via iafrica.com)

Xenophobia has again risen its ugly head in South Africa. This time the epicentre of the carnage and destruction is Durban, Kwazulu Natal. Newspapers report that at least 6 people (including a 14 year old boy) have lost their lives in xenophobic clashes.[1] Foreign owned shops and businesses have been looted and destroyed by a mob of people bent on attacking foreigners in their midst.[2] The only difference noted by the media compared to incidents in the past is that foreigners who live among them. Only this time, according to the media, foreigners are now prepared to take up arms to defend themselves.[3] The South African Police force have struggled for a while to restore law and order to the chaos that has erupted as a result of xenophobic attitudes- indicating that xenophobia is on the rise in South Africa. 

It is important to note that dealing with the crisis is only the starting point of dealing with the problem. If we don’t examine the deep-seated drivers of xenophobia we will be forced to deal with it in varying forms again and again, deepening the crisis. 

Christian believers in particular, need to arm themselves with a narrative that reflects God’s heart, His kingdom values and exhibit behaviour that produces reconciliation and peace among people with apparent differences. 

Some key questions to answer:- What is xenophobia, and the forms idoes it take? What are the possible attitudinal drivers of the problem? And finally what is God’s view of xenophobia, and what practical steps can believers take to respond correctly and decisively to the situation in our land.

What is xenophobia and how is it expressed?
Dictionary definitions of xenophobia include: “deep-rooted, irrational hatred towards foreigners” (Oxford English Dictionary; OED), and “unreasonable fear or hatred of the unfamiliar” (Webster’s).[5]The word comes from the Greek words ξένος (xenos), meaning “strange”, “foreigner”, and φόβος (phobos), meaning “fear”.[4] 

Like all things related to the word “phobia” the premise is irrational thought and behaviour as John L. McKenzie noted that Xenophobia is essentially an irrational response[5]. So the first conclusion we can draw is that the expression of xenophobia is completely irrational. Thus on a natural plane a need exists for active and involved leadership to counter the thinking of the people toward peace and calm. 

Furthermore, scholars have recognised two forms of expression of xenophobia. 

“The first is a population group present within a society that is not considered part of that society. Often they are recent immigrants, but xenophobia may be directed against a group which has been present for centuries, or became part of this society through conquest and territorial expansion. This form of xenophobia can elicit or facilitate hostile and violent reactions, such as mass expulsion of immigrants, pogroms or in other cases, genocide.”[6]

“The second form of xenophobia is primarily cultural, and the objects of the phobia are cultural elements which are considered alien. All cultures are subject to external influences, but cultural xenophobia is often narrowly directed, for instance, at foreign loan words in a national language. It rarely leads to aggression against individual persons, but can result in political campaigns for cultural or linguistic purification. In addition, entirely xenophobic societies tend not to be open to interactions from anything “outside” themselves, resulting in isolationism that can further increase xenophobia.”[7]

Prevailing attitudes in South Africa
The Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR), found that 87% of police officers in the Johannesburg area believed that most undocumented immigrants are involved in crime. Many refugees, particularly Zimbabweans, report being victimised, threatened, assaulted and robbed by South African officials.[1]

Blaming foreigners for unemployment
Human Rights Watch reports immigrants from Malawi, Zimbabwe and Mozambique have been targeted for physical assault under a campaign known as Buyelekhaya (“Go back home”), which blamed foreigners for unemployment[2]

Discriminatory generalised accusations against foreigners
In Olievenhoutbosch, Zimbabweans were attacked and killed and their belongings set alight amidst demands by the locals that police remove all immigrants from the area. “These foreigners disrespect our culture, they don’t speak our language, they take our women and they take our jobs!”[3]

Marked jealousy toward business success of foreigners
Over 47 Somali refugees were murdered in two months as part of a campaign to drive Somali traders out of townships in the Western Cape. “These foreign people come to South Africa with nothing, but tomorrow he has cash, third day he owns a shop and fourth day he has a car. Where do these foreign people get this money from?”[4]

On a national and regional scale government has inadvertently contributed toward the ill-feeling of South Africans toward foreigners:

 The impact of the ANC’s “Open border” policy
By-products of the ANC government’s “open border” policy has been a growth in intolerance towards foreigners. Violence against foreign citizens and refugees has become increasingly common. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees has expressed concerns over the safety of refugees in South Africa, especially after the graphic pictures of South Africans burning Zimbabwean refugees in brutal necklace murders made front-page news worldwide in 2008.[5]

Regional reputation in the SADC region
A study based on a citizen survey across the member states of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), found that South Africans expressed the harshest anti-foreigner sentiment out of all when compared to all other countries in the region. The rainbow nation now has a reputation for Xenophobia.[6]

In view of the above we can safely conclude 1) that both forms of xenophobia has found a foothold in South African society and 2) that a major driver among the populace involves a profound jealousy toward the apparent business success of foreigners. It would appear that South Africans feel that their own feelings of economic failure are a justification for ensuring that no one else succeeds because if this happens it is only at the expense of the local population — how else can it be explained. 

God’s view of xenophobia

In general terms, God reveals an opposition toward racial exclusiveness and xenophobia. Consider the following examples: 

  • Moses married a black Cushite woman and when his brother and sister criticised him about it God punished their xenophobia with leprosy (Numbers 12:1)
  • Among the ancestors of Jesus was a pagan woman who was also a prostitute called Rahab (Joshua 6:17 and Matthew 1:5)
  • In regards to Jonah’s xenophobia God taught him a lesson on love and universal compassion (Jonah 4)
  • Paul took on Peter in regard to his religious bias toward the gentiles (Gal 2:11)[1]

When dealing with Israel and their collective consciousness, God gives specific instruction regarding relating to foreigners. As early as Exodus, God instructed that the foreigner be treated as equals. The reality from these verses indicate that the concept of “brother” so integral part of the Hebrew vocabulary (Exod 12:49; 22:21; 23:9; Lev 17:8-9; Deut. 1:16-17) would have applied to them as well. Exodus 22:21 (God’s Word translation) is defining “Never mistreat or oppress foreigners, because you were foreigners living in Egypt”. God appeals to the Israelites to remember their state when they were foreigners and to draw on this remembrance in how to treat foreigners among them. 

In Lev 19:33-34 (GWT) the commandment is repeated and expanded upon “Never mistreat a foreigner living in your land. Foreigners living among you will be like your own people. Love them as you love yourself, because you were foreigners in the land of Egypt, I am the Lord your God” [emphasis my own]. In commentary on this passage of Scripture Kaminsky deduces that the “Resident aliens (foreigners living in your land) are a very specific group of people who, according to Priestly tridents consists of those Non-Israelites who dwelt in the land of Israel among the people of Israel” [2][bracket addition my own] 

Furthermore, relating to xenophobia Ateek’s commentary on this verse is also insightful: 

“The commandment transcends the natural propensity of humans and recognises the humanity of others, and reaches out in love to them. Undoubtedly, this commandment reflects a very progressive view when comprehended against its own historical and environmental context. One can only applaud its deeper and more enlightened religious insights. The understanding of “neighbour” has been broadened and the circle has been enlarged to include the resident alien.”[3] 

This is the beginning of an evolving idea that progresses to foreigners forming part of the collective nation building of Israel and in particular in the building of the Temple of God (1 Chron. 22:2) and culminating in Ps 133:1 which reveals the Davidic sentiments of “yahad” or together as unity “How good and how pleasant it is when God’s people live together (yahad) in unity” (NIV). This idea, further expressed in Job 38:7 and Ezra 4:3 promotes the concept of community in action or diversity in unity.[4] The implication for us as New Testament believers are clear. the idea of our oneness with those different from us resulting in an existing of unity and cooperative community has already been well established in those under the Old Covenant. We therefore no longer have the luxury of reacting in an irrational and Biblically ignorant manner.

How then should believers respond to xenophobia around them?
Building upon the above and looking at some practical guidelines from the New Testament we conclude with the following points:

Building upon the above and looking at some practical guidelines from the New Testament we conclude with the following points:

  • Pray and repent on a personal level as well as on behalf of the nation (substitutionary repentance) 

    At the risk of stating the obvious the author believes that it behoves the believer to start with prayer:

    1) Because God commands it for national prosperity “If my people who belong to me, humble themselves, pray, seek to please me, and repudiate their sinful practices, then I will respond from heaven, forgive their sin, and Heal their land” 2 Chron. 7:14 (NET) [emphasis my own]. We note a clear call to pray and seek God’s face. We are also called to repent in the case of xenophobia and in general from deeds of violence toward foreigners and specifically the latent jealousy in our hearts toward their apparent economic or life success.

    2) Because we are dealing with spiritual forces in the unseen realm that are bent on theft, stealing and destruction and only the Church of Christ carries the authority to deal with them

    Destructive forces are at work in the city; threats and lies never leave its streets” Ps 55:11 (NIV). “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven…” Matt. 16:19 (NET) “I can guarantee this truth: Whatever you imprison; God will imprison. And whatever you set free, God will set free” Matt. 18:18 (GWT). ‘How else can someone enter a strong man’s house and steal his property, unless he first ties up the strongman? Then he can thoroughly plunder his house” Matt. 12:29 (NET) [emphasis my own]

  •  Empathise with those that suffer because of xenophobia

    Scripture makes it clear that believers are foreigners on the earth and that we should count ourselves with the victims and those that are unjustly ill-treated. “Dear friends, I urge you as foreigners and exiles to keep away from fleshly desires that do battle against the soul” 1 Pet 2:11 (NET).  

    In Christ Jesus we have become one dwelling place for God in the Spirit “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ” Gal 3:27-28 (ESV). In Christ all the dividing walls of ethnicity (race), class and gender are removed and we are made on race in Christ (1 Pet 2:9).

  •  Defend and care for the victims of xenophobia 

    As far as possible and as it is in our power we must actively defend and care for the victims of xenophobia. “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbour” Lev 19:15 (ESV). “…which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbour to the man who fell among the robbers?. He said, the one who showed him mercy. And Jesus said to him, You go and do likewise” Luke 10:29-37(ESV). “…you shall love your neighbour as yourself” Mark 12:30-31 (ESV). “I tell you the truth, just as you did it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it for me” Matt. 25:40 (ESV).

  •  Be agents of reconciliation 

    As far as it is possible and as it is within our power we must actively work toward building bridges among those on opposite sides of the divide. “For He himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility…” Eph 2:14 (ESV). “…and gave us the ministry of reconciliation…therefore we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us” 2 Cor. 5:17-19 (ESV).

 In conclusion, may I challenge each one of us to start a revolution of reconciliation and peace in every place we find ourselves. At the very least, let us pray fervently and spread the message far and wide. #XeNOphobiamustfall


[1] “WATCH: Xenophobic unrest moves to Durban CBD | eNCA.” 2015. 15 Apr. 2015 <http://www.enca.com/south-africa/watch-xenophobic-unrest-moves-durban-cbd>

[2] “IN PICTURES: Xenophobic attacks in the Durban CBD | eNCA.” 2015. 15 Apr. 2015 <http://www.enca.com/south-africa/pictures-xenophobic-attacks-durban-cbd>

[3] “WATCH: Xenophobic unrest moves to Durban CBD | eNCA.” 2015. 15 Apr. 2015 <http://www.enca.com/south-africa/watch-xenophobic-unrest-moves-durban-cbd>

[4] “Xenophobia – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.” 2003. 15 Apr. 2015 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xenophobia>

[5] “Source: What the Bible Says About the Problems of …” 15 Apr. 2015 <https://books.google.com/books?id=zPFLAwAAQBAJ&pg=PA164&lpg=PA164&dq=Biblical+response+to+xenophobia&source=bl&ots=-qk0BifXMP&sig=3_908MeZcVSOjLBN0fKx2J5tE84>

[6] “Xenophobia – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.” 2003. 15 Apr. 2015 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xenophobia>

[7] “Xenophobia – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.” 2003. 15 Apr. 2015 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xenophobia>

[8] “Psalmody and Poetry in Old Testament Ethics.” 15 Apr. 2015 <https://books.google.com/books?id=6LioAwAAQBAJ&pg=PA156&lpg=PA156&dq=Biblical+response+to+xenophobia&source=bl&ots=OIjs0qNC5a&sig=arju3tzmJiLWE24DD3nOGLKGQ9w>

[9] “A Christian Response to Xenophobia – SlideShare.” 2012. 15 Apr. 2015 <http://www.slideshare.net/frontfel/a-christian-response-to-xenophobia-13854253>

[10] “A Christian Response to Xenophobia – Frontline Fellowship.” 2012. 15 Apr. 2015 <http://www.frontline.org.za/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1246:a-christian-response-to-xenophobia&catid=16:political-social-issues-cat&Itemid=201>

[11] “A Christian Response to Xenophobia – Frontline Fellowship.” 2012. 15 Apr. 2015 <http://www.frontline.org.za/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1246:a-christian-response-to-xenophobia&catid=16:political-social-issues-cat&Itemid=201>

[12] “A Christian Response to Xenophobia – Frontline Fellowship.” 2012. 15 Apr. 2015 <http://www.frontline.org.za/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1246:a-christian-response-to-xenophobia&catid=16:political-social-issues-cat&Itemid=201>

[13] “A Christian Response to Xenophobia – Frontline Fellowship.” 2012. 15 Apr. 2015 <http://www.frontline.org.za/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1246:a-christian-response-to-xenophobia&catid=16:political-social-issues-cat&Itemid=201>

[14] “A Christian Response to Xenophobia – Frontline Fellowship.” 2012. 15 Apr. 2015 <http://www.frontline.org.za/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1246:a-christian-response-to-xenophobia&catid=16:political-social-issues-cat&Itemid=201>

[15] “Crosscurrents in Indigenous Spirituality: Interface of …” 15 Apr. 2015 <https://books.google.com/books?id=ZLuV9Fng7dwC&pg=PA57&lpg=PA57&dq=Biblical+response+to+xenophobia&source=bl&ots=JihdVR19se&sig=VRgFhSfltjE_d45LMKL4LtxSdAY>

[16] “Psalmody and Poetry in Old Testament Ethics.” 15 Apr. 2015 <https://books.google.com/books?id=6LioAwAAQBAJ&pg=PA156&lpg=PA156&dq=Biblical+response+to+xenophobia&source=bl&ots=OIjs0qNC5a&sig=arju3tzmJiLWE24DD3nOGLKGQ9w>

[17] “Psalmody and Poetry in Old Testament Ethics.” 15 Apr. 2015 <https://books.google.com/books?id=6LioAwAAQBAJ&pg=PA156&lpg=PA156&dq=Biblical+response+to+xenophobia&source=bl&ots=OIjs0qNC5a&sig=arju3tzmJiLWE24DD3nOGLKGQ9w>

[18] “Psalmody and Poetry in Old Testament Ethics.” 15 Apr. 2015 <https://books.google.com/books?id=6LioAwAAQBAJ&pg=PA156&lpg=PA156&dq=Biblical+response+to+xenophobia&source=bl&ots=OIjs0qNC5a&sig=arju3tzmJiLWE24DD3nOGLKGQ9w>


  1. Phillip Hattingh

    I am ashamed by the actions and comments of my countrymen, inclusive of many who regard themselves as Christian. The actions are irrational, more so because they are aimed at a minority. I have to conclude that most of the actions are thus not based on an irrational fear but on people who have lost their moral compass – Biblically-based value system. The so-called reasons are essentially known, inclusive of the SA Government and civil servants. We blame our unwarranted actions on situations and other people instead of looking inward and recognising our greed, avarice, inherent tendency for violence, criminality, corrupt nature and ill discipline.

  2. Thank you.

  3. The sins of jealousy/envy, combined with greed, laziness and a culture of Entitlement must be examined as possible contributing factors. Having been a managing employer of labour (on a small scale) I experienced foreigners as harder workers with greater productivity. Locals tended to relax and lean on their labour-law rights to retain employment even though they were less productive. This was true across racial lines. One can readily see how these attitudes can generate envy and resentment of successful foreign entrepreneurs by those unwilling to apply themselves with the same vigour necessary to be a succcessful, productive worker.

    Looking at the Big Picture, one must ask why the Right to Work, proposed by TEASA at the Constitutional Assembly, was struck down, but the Right Not To Work (=Strike), proposed by the Trade Unions, was included in our Constitution. Much of the Xenophobia among the Poor is stimulated by these Big Picture dynamics. God’s Word is clear: He wants us to “work”! Work is a pre-Fall mandate, and Nothing but Nothing should be allowed to stop people from working. If everyone worked like many of the Zimbabweans or Pakistanis work, they would prosper too!

  4. I wish that the media (and just about everyone else) would stop using the term zenophobia for these attacks!!
    1) It is only foreign BUSINESSES that are attacked;The others are generally left alone in their homes.
    2) Most people in the townships are not happy with the situation as they say that they get better deals from the foreigners.
    3) The attacks are not spontaneous, but well orchestrated, with crowds of workless people and criminals being “bussed in” in taxis.
    Any donkey can surely see that is is simply a well planned campaign by greedy, jealous South African businessmen who are jealous of the fact that that the foreigners are taking their trade. Like all South African’s these businessmen are super greedy for huge profits so they loose out to the guys who are prepared to drop their prices to get more business.
    As long as the media shouts about “Zenophobia” these greedy people will get away with destroying the competition behind their smokescreen of blaming the “Zenos”!!!