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Understanding hostility towards so-called "barbarians" : a quantitative analysis of public attitudes towards foreign nationals in post-apartheid South Africa.

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South Africa is a regional hub for international immigration and the country currently hosts at least two million international migrants. Public opinion surveys in South Africa have shown clear evidence of the public’s animosity towards international immigrants and immigration. Non-quantitative researchers have highlighted the role of nationalism and racial alienation in shaping these attitudes. But the influence of these factors has not been tested using quantitative public opinion data. Existing quantitative attitudinal research on international migration in the country is instead mainly focused on discerning changes in public opinion. As a result, significant gaps in the scholarship have emerged that impair our understanding of how attitudes towards immigrants and immigration form in post-apartheid South Africa. The aim of this study is to investigate what micro-level sociological indicator factors are shaping attitudes. The study examines four different types of attitudes: (i) general evaluations; (ii) prejudice; (iii) perceived threat; and (iv) policy preferences. The thesis expands on previous public opinion research by using quantitative research methods to quantify different determinants of these attitudes. Nationally representative public opinion data from the South African Social Attitude Survey was used. The study examines how adult South African public’s attitudes towards international migrants are affected by three key clusters of micro-level sociological indicators: (i) socio-economic status; (ii) group identities; and (iii) intergroup contact. This thesis provides new insight into how we understand anti-immigrant sentiment in the country and sheds new light on areas that past academic literature has either neglected or overlooked. The study follows the 'papers model' and consists of five peer-reviewed research articles. Each paper uses quantitative research methods to discern what micro-level sociological indicators are influencing attitudes towards foreign nationals in post-apartheid South Africa. Two main conclusions can be drawn from the study. First, individual socio-economic status was not a central driver of attitudes towards international migrants and immigration. Second, intergroup contact and group identities (and the key factors related to group identity) tend to be better drivers of attitudes. The most influential group identity factors driving attitudes are: (i) social ties with neighbours; (ii) national identity; (iii) societal interest; and (iv) racial alienation. The results of this study suggest that anti-immigrant sentiment in South Africa can be confronted by changing patterns of intergroup contact and group identifications. This will require a war of ideas, a battle for ordinary South Africans’ hearts and minds.


Doctor of Philosophy in Environmental Sciences. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban 2017.


Theses - Environmental Science.