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Understanding Evaluations of Foreigners in Modern South Africa: The Relationship Between Subjective Wellbeing and Xenophobia

Abstract

Recent and recurrent violence against immigrants in South Africa highlight the prevalence of xenophobia in the country. Is there a relationship between attitudes towards immigrant sentiment and life satisfaction at the individual level in that nation? Life satisfaction could be a proxy for anxiety, social alienation or insecurity which may be driving xenophobic sentiment. Using data from the 2013 South African Social Attitudes Survey, this paper examines the relationship between attitudes towards immigrants and life satisfaction (measured using the Personal Wellbeing Index). The study focuses exclusively on the attitudes of the country’s Black African majority. Bivariate and multivariate analysis found that life satisfaction did not have a strong relationship with pro-immigrant sentiments. Objective measures of socio-economic status (such as educational attainment) did not have a significant relationship with attitudes towards immigrants. Although improving subjective wellbeing among Black Africans is a worthwhile policy goal in of itself, the findings of this study suggest that addressing xenophobia among this group will require focus on other areas. Intergroup contact, interracial attitudes and perceptions about the consequences of immigration were found to be stronger predictors of pro-immigrant sentiment than life satisfaction. There was some evidence of `outsider solidarity ‘in the study—isiTsonga speakers and members of the ethnolinguistic Black African minority were more pro-immigrant in sentiment than other groups. The implications of this finding on the study of pro-immigration attitudes are discussed in the conclusion.

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Notes

  1. Groups of migrants from India began arriving in the country in the mid-nineteenth century. Most were contract workers recruited for work on sugar plantations but many others were merchants who come to start new businesses (Klotz 2013). Indian immigration was restricted in the early twentieth century by the colonial government and the current country’s Indian minority (the largest outside India itself) is primarily comprised of the descendants of these early settlers.

  2. The food poverty line depicted here is the level of consumption below which an individual would be unable to purchase sufficient food to provide that individual with an adequate diet. The food poverty line used here is determined by Statistics South Africa.

  3. The Gini Coefficient is used to gauge income inequality in a national population, if the coefficient is one then incomes are distributed in a perfectly unequal manner, representing the highest discrepancy between high and low income earners in the population.

  4. A number of European and North American studies have included a single-item measure of life satisfaction in their investigations of anti-immigrant sentiment (e.g. Quillian 1995; McLaren 2003; Sides and Citrin 2007). In these studies, life satisfaction was used as a proxy for anxiety, social alienation or insecurity. Results tended to show a weak association which tends to suggest that other factors better explain anti-immigrant sentiments.

  5. Political affiliation was obtained from a question on which political party the respondent felt most close. There are numerous political parties in the country and the responses were combined into a categorical variable: African National Congress (ANC) (ruling party); Opposition, and refused/undeclared. The majority of the Black African sample (N = 1013 or 61% of the Black African sample) indicated support for the ruling ANC. A smaller share did not support a political party or refused to answer (N = 447 or 27% or the Black African sample). Only a small number (N = 187 or 11% of the Black African sample) indicated support for an opposition party. A small number (N = 25 or 1% of the Black African sample) of respondents did not answer this question.

  6. In some cases South Africans who do not speak (or do not speak well) one of the dominant languages (such as isiZulu, isiXhosa or Sotho) in the country have been mistaken for foreigners and subjected to harassment or even assault (also see Minnaar et al. 1996).

  7. Those Black Africans who spoke a language (such as Swazi, Ndebele or Venda) outside of the six already listed as their home language were coded as ‘minority’. Although there are numerous ethnolinguistic groups in South Africa outside the six listed here, the majority (88%) of Black African adults belong to one of the six. Of the linguistic groups located in this category, none had more than two million (about 3% of the country’s total Black African population) first language speakers.

  8. The Cronbach alpha, which expresses the average inter-item correlation, of the PWI was 0.79 and all the items in the PWI showed an item total correlation higher than 0.30. The eight PWI scales demonstrated predictive power for explaining satisfaction with ‘life as a whole’ scale in South Africa. The scale explain 54% of variance, which is consistent with the findings in other developing countries like Algeria (Adjusted R2 57%, see Tiliouine et al. 2006).

  9. In the early twentieth century, MacCrone (1947), using relatively small, non-probability sample of educated Black Africans, identified feelings of antagonism towards whites among this group. He characterised this antipathy as “Boer phobia”, a response to the political domination of Black Africans by the white minority. The trends identified by MacCrone were confirmed by the later studies in the 1960s and 1970s (for a review of these studies, see Durrheim and Tredoux 2011). Significantly less was known about Black Africans’ attitudes towards other racial minority groups (i.e. Coloureds and Indians) in the country.

  10. Reliability testing on these two items reveals a lower Cronbach’s alpha (0.62) than may be expected.

  11. Calculating the centred or uncentred variance inflation factors (VIFs) for the independent variables specified in a linear regression model, revealed that all the values for all three regressions were less than 10, implying no multicollinearity among the independent variables.

  12. It is interesting to note that work by Gibson and Gouws (2005) on political attitudes did not find a strong relationship between educational attainment and political intolerance (also see Mattes 2013). This suggests that the lack of a statistically significant correlation observed in this study is not an isolated occurrence restricted to studies of attitudes towards immigrants.

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Acknowledgements

Support for this study was provided by the South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS) a programme within Democracy Governance and Service Delivery research programme, Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC). For their support and encouragement, special thanks to Benjamin J. Roberts and Jarè Struwig Co-ordinators of SASAS.

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Gordon, S. Understanding Evaluations of Foreigners in Modern South Africa: The Relationship Between Subjective Wellbeing and Xenophobia. J Happiness Stud 19, 545–566 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-016-9838-6

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Keywords

  • Life satisfaction
  • Xenophobia
  • South Africa
  • Interracial relations
  • Subjective wellbeing