Is South Africa next front for IS?

Is South Africa next front for IS?

Engin OZER Engin OZER

 On 23. October 2018 seven Ethiopian migrants drowned after a boat carrying 13 people capsized off the coast of Tanzania while en route to South Africa. It was not unusual practice for Tanzanian police to intercept and detain Ethiopian migrants on their way to South Africa, the continent's largest and most developed economy, though migration was more common overland than by the sea. This unfortunate event prompted us to better grasp as to how the problem of immigrants trying to reach South Africa is complex and interrelated across the board and as such should be tackled more holistically as a trans African problem. In fact, citizens of neighboring countries who do have luxury of a visa-free access rather than illegal entrants to South Africa exacerbate the problem even further.

 Migration problem is not new and can be said to have been sparked by Nelson Mandela'span-africanist good dwell gesture. After the fall of the apartheid regime in 1994, Mandela granted visa-free entry to residents of neighboring countries. With this bold and generous initiative and a tremendously 'serious decision' Republic of South Africa became a preferred alternative destination for immigrants who failed to reach Europe as their primary choice. Therefore, ‘visa-free’ policy decision had a far-reaching consequences for South Africa, given the ensuing civil wars, embargo and poverty in the surrounding region, causing mass displacement of populations that is now spiraling completely out of control and seriously impacting stability and demography of South Africa. Three million Zimbabweans, 2.5 million Congolese, 1 million Mozambicans, half a million Somalis and 3 millions other nationalities, to name a few, are good case in point.

 According to some polls, the Republic of South Africa ranks first in terms of negative attitudes towards immigrants in the world. Xenophobia does not only extend to foreigners who are investing in the country and decreasing tourism revenues. In countries where number of foreigners increased xenophobia, migrants themselves often turn to violence because they themselves feel threatened as a minority group. So far, SAR has been dismally unsuccessful in the fight against criminal networks set up by foreign migrants in the last decade. 

Can a 'Rainbow nation' idea restrain extremism?

A Rainbow nation, a metaphor for South African unity is uniquely (although not deliberately) represented by the South African flag, which sports 6 different colours. President Nelson Mandela himself elaborated the idea in his first month of office, when he proclaimed: "Each of us is as intimately attached to the soil of this beautiful country as are the famous Jacaranda trees of Pretoria and the Mimosa trees of the bushveld – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.."[1] 

 In fact, conception of the 'rainbow nation', which form the basis of the national idea of the South African Republic, provided the opportunity for all South Africans to live their dreams freely and express their beliefs in the past.  

 Unfortunately, the world is not as safe as it used to be in the 90's, and the new-age terrorist organizations that have proliferated since are adept at using completely postmodernist methods. As it has been evidenced recently across Africa, it should also be expected that proliferation of religious terrorism might well affect the 'rainbow nation' in not so distance future, unless proper measures are not put in place to counter this menace.

 In all likelihood the major terrorist threat that has South African Republic in its sight would most likely come from the terrorist organizations such as İslamic State (IS). There are a number of reasons that might increase the treat of IS terrorism in SAR as it may seek opportunity to stage a sensational act of terror. It is the important part of the IS strategy to attract attention and cause strong reaction among peoples in the region where the Sunni-Muslim religious beliefs are in the minority. Islam in South Africa is a minority religion, practiced by less than 1.5% of the total population, according to available estimates. Recent figures demonstrate the number of Muslims to be between 75,000 and 100,000. Added to this is a considerable number of Muslims from India and Pakistan who have arrived as economic migrants. Although, the majority of South African Muslims profess the Sunni school of thought, there are also, albeit in a small number,  other sects such as Ahmadi, particularly in Cape Town.[2]

 Christianity is the dominant religion in South Africa, with almost 80% of the population in 2001 professing to be Christian. According to the 1996 South African Census, the Zion Christian Church numbered 3.87 million members. On the other hand, South Africa's Jewish community differs from its counterparts in other African countries in that the majority have remained on the continent rather than emigrating to Israel (62% of the maximum 120,000 still remain). The large part of South African Jewish community lives in Cape Town, along with Muslims.

 Abu Mus’ab al Zarqawi, the founder and doctrinaire ideologue of IS, in the aftermath of the US occupation of Iraq, implemented this strategy by organizing terrorist attacks against the Shiite congregation in Iraq. As a result of this strategy IS was able to gather serious supporters and has created hatred between the sects."Be very wary of allying with the Jews and Christians, and whoever has slipped by a word, then let him fear Allah, renew his faith, and repent from his deed. […] Even if he supported them just by a single word. He who aligns with them by a single word falls into apostasy– extreme apostasy.” [3]

 The Jewish and Christian communities are therefore the primary target, as mentioned in the IS's propaganda magazine Dabiq. It is therefore quite plausible that the İS will likely organize a terrorist attack primarily in those areas where Christian and Jewish populations dwell in large numbers, in major cities such as Cape Town, for example. As we can recall, in past two years some IS members were caught in Durban and Cape Town. On the other hand, according to some estimates, at least 50 İndian, İndonesian and Pakistani origin South African citizens are presumed to be fighting for IS in Syria. It should be kept in mind that most of the IS militants are immigrant children who are not of Arab origin and who do not have traditional Islamic education. They can easily pass porous borders illegally, especially where the coastal security controls are weak and where borders cannot be completely controlled. It is therefore imperative that the security and intelligence community of the South African Republic pay more attention and undertake more extensive and serious work in meeting this challenge. Otherwise a horrendous terrorist attack with dire consequences may not be thwarted in the future.

Engin Ozer  09-02-2018


[1] Ngoasheng, Asanda. "South Africa's 'Rainbow Nation' is a myth that students need to unlearn". The Conversation. Retrieved 2017-09-18.

[2] Abdulkader Tayob. Islamic Resurgence in South Africa: The Muslim Youth Movement. p. 104. Retrieved May 31, 2014.

[3] İssue # 4 of ISIS's "Dabiq” magazine, October 2014

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