Makwerekwere (pronounced: /mɑːkwɛrɛkwɛrɛ/ or MAH-query-query) is a slang term used in South Africa since the 2000s to refer to foreigners, especially those from other African countries. The word is considered xenophobic, afrophobic,[1] offensive and derogatory.[2] It has been used in posts that incited the anti-immigrant violence in South Africa in May 2008. The use of the term has been condemned by politicians and humanitarian groups.


While there is no consensus on the origin of the word, the term is believed to have originated from Xhosa, one of South Africa's official languages, and have been derived from the plural prefix ama- and kwerekwere;[3] the latter is an imitative sound that South Africans use to represent the speech of people from other African countries.[4] Foreigners were referred to as "barbarians" by the Greeks because they allegedly shouted "bar, bar" incomprehensibly; South Africans assert that when immigrants open their lips, they utter "kwere, kwere".[5][6]

According to another theory, the term makwerekwere originated from the French phrase "macaque qui travaille", meaning "monkey who works", which was used to describe African labourers brought to the French colonies in the 18th and 19th centuries. This derogatory phrase was later shortened to "macaque", which became a common racial slur used by French settlers against the African workers. The term "Makwerekwere" could have been a South African modification of this phrase.[7]

Another theory suggests that the word has its origins in the Congolese language Lingala, where the word "werekere" means to wander around aimlessly. It is believed that South Africans later adopted the word to describe immigrants who are perceived to be aimlessly wandering around the country.[8]

The pronunciation of "makwerekwere" is not "ma queer queer" but rather MAH-query-query (/mɑːkwɛrɛkwɛrɛ/), and the possibility of a Tswana origin is suggested due to its abundance of "r" sounds.[9]


The term makwerekwere has been in use in South Africa since the early 2000s and has become a common derogatory slur used against foreigners, particularly those from other African countries,[10] including immigrants from Zimbabwe,[11] Nigeria,[12] and Somalia.[13] It is used to create a sense of "otherness" and to justify discriminatory and xenophobic behavior towards foreign nationals.[4][14] Matsinhe argued that the term Makwerekwere is used to dehumanise black Africans and make them seem less human than South Africans.[15][16] The term has become so pervasive that it has been included in dictionaries as “an offensive and derogatory slur used in South Africa to describe foreigners from other African countries.”[17]

The usage of the term makwerekwere has been linked to xenophobic attacks in South Africa.[18][19] In May 2008, a wave of xenophobic attacks swept across the country, resulting in the deaths of over 60 people and the displacement of thousands,[20] during which the slur has been used in online posts.[21] Foreign nationals, particularly those from other African countries, were targeted in the attacks, with the attackers using the term "Makwerekwere" to refer to their victims. The attacks, including police brutality,[22] were fueled by a combination of economic factors and deep-seated prejudices against foreign nationals.[7][8] These victims are often scapegoated for various issues, including crime, disease, and unemployment,[23] and are used as a physical reminder of difference.[24][25] Similar distrust of foreigners has been observed in South Africa's history, dating back to the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR) and the Second Anglo-Boer War.[9]

Julius Malema (pictured) called for South Africans to stop using the slur.

The usage of the term makwerekwere has been condemned by various groups, including the South African Human Rights Commission. In a 2008 statement, the commission called on South Africans to refrain from using the term as it promotes hatred and intolerance towards foreign nationals. The commission urged South Africans to respect the dignity and rights of all people, regardless of their nationality.[26] Julius Malema, leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters,[27] called for South Africans to stop using the slur, and said

“We are one family. Borders were imposed on us. You must not buy into the story of the existence of Botswana or of Lesotho because all these borders are an imagination. You are saying #BlackLivesMatter, yet you support the borders. You say you don’t like imperialism and colonialism, but you support the borders. The border was created by colonisers.”

— Julius Malema, addressing protesters near the US embassy, Pretoria[28]

In popular cultureEdit

In popular culture, particularly in South African films, the term makwerekwere has been used to frame certain individuals and groups as outsiders. For example, the 2005 South African slapstick comedy film Mama Jack uses the term to refer to certain characters in the film. Tagwirei noted how "Mama Jack" frames certain individuals and groups as makwerekwere, and uses humour and caricature to dehumanise foreigners and perpetuate harmful stereotypes.[29]

In South African author Phaswane Mpe's 2001 novel Welcome to Our Hillbrow, the protagonist Refentse moves to Hillbrow, a place devoid of a history and shared values or beliefs, and encounters the makwerekwere treatment firsthand.[30] The novel shows how the makwerekwere are seen as outsiders and often blamed for various social ills such as crime and disease.[31] The characters in the novel are linked through a trope of infection, and the association between the outsider and disease is explored.[32]

Flatfoot Dance Company's trilogy Homeland, and Girl Ruggedeyes’ Bhenga dance were used to protest against xenophobic attacks and the use of the slur, as well as exploring the concept of Ubuntu.[33] In 2004, Boom Shaka released the kwaito classic "Makwerekwere"[34] which discouraged xenophobia.[35]

See alsoEdit

  • Ajam
  • Barbarian – which came to refer to people who spoke neither Greek nor other "civilized" languages (such as Latin), and derived from a root meaning "speaking incomprehensibly" or "babbling"
  • Chichimeca
  • Mleccha
  • Nemets – the name given to Germany or the German people in many Slavic languages, with a similar derivation to Ajam
  • Skræling


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  11. ^ McGregor, JoAnn; Primorac, Ranka (1 June 2010). Zimbabwe's New Diaspora: Displacement and the Cultural Politics of Survival. Berghahn Books. ISBN 978-1-84545-841-6.
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  15. ^ MATSINHE, DAVID MARIO (2011). "Africa's Fear of Itself: the ideology of "Makwerekwere" in South Africa". Third World Quarterly. 32 (2): 295–313. doi:10.1080/01436597.2011.560470. ISSN 0143-6597. JSTOR 41300231. S2CID 219627530. Archived from the original on 2 May 2023. Retrieved 25 April 2023.
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  22. ^ Maclean, Ruth. "Police swoop on African refugees hiding in church". The Times. ISSN 0140-0460. Retrieved 7 May 2023.
  23. ^ Adida, Claire (3 June 2014). "Scapegoating Africa's immigrants". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on 18 September 2022. Retrieved 7 May 2023.
  24. ^ Mathers, Kathryn; Landau, Loren (2007). "Natives, tourists, and makwerekwere: ethical concerns with 'Proudly South African' tourism". Development Southern Africa. 24 (3): 523. doi:10.1080/03768350701445632. ISSN 0376-835X. S2CID 146511492.
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  26. ^ B (6 June 2019). "Makwerekwere". Somali Christian Ministries. Archived from the original on 30 November 2022. Retrieved 7 May 2023.
  27. ^ Keppler, Virginia (25 May 2018). "Malema says Khoi-San are the 'original' South Africans". The Citizen. Archived from the original on 15 September 2022. Retrieved 7 May 2023.
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  29. ^ Tagwirei, Cuthbeth (1 December 2017). "Mama Jack and the Spectre of makwerekwere". Journal of African Cinemas. 9 (2–3): 231–242. doi:10.1386/jac.9.2-3.231_1. ISSN 1754-9221.
  30. ^ Mpe, Phaswane (24 February 2011). Welcome to Our Hillbrow: A Novel of Postapartheid South Africa. Ohio University Press. ISBN 978-0-8214-4371-2.
  31. ^ Nyamnjoh, Francis B. (4 July 2013). Insiders and Outsiders: Citizenship and Xenophobia in Contemporary Southern Africa. Zed Books Ltd. ISBN 978-1-84813-707-3.
  32. ^ DAVIS, EMILY S. (2013). "Contagion, Cosmopolitanism, and Human Rights in Phaswane Mpe's "Welcome to Our Hillbrow"". College Literature. 40 (3): 99–112. ISSN 0093-3139. JSTOR 24543224.
  33. ^ Castelyn, Sarahleigh (2019). We All are Makwerekwere: Xenophobia, Nationality, Dance and South Africa (PDF). pp. 38–41.
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  35. ^ "Kelly Khumalo Will Play Lebo Mathosa in an Upcoming Mini-Series About the Kwaito Star's Life - OkayAfrica". Archived from the original on 31 January 2023. Retrieved 7 May 2023.

Further readingEdit