Xenophobic Attacks in South Africa spark riots and disharmony across the continent

Doireann de Courcy Mac Donnell reports on the recent outbreak of xenophobic attacks spreading across the African continent

It has been reported that in the last few days racial tensions in South Africa, which have been building over the past ten years, have resulted in widespread xenophobic attacks. Over one thousand businesses have been targeted in widespread attacks across Johannesburg, Cape Town and Pretoria, with twelve people reportedly killed. Videos showing vandalised shops and streets alight have been circulated online. The nationalities of the fatalities have not yet been announced but local media have reported Nigerian, Ethiopian, Congolese and Zimbabwean citizens attacked.

On September 8, an improvised militia, armed with spears and shields fashioned out of wood, looted and burned central Johannesburg chanting “foreigners must go back to where they came from” in Zulu. The ‘foreigners taking our jobs’ narrative, which is now familiar around the world, has reared its ugly head in the most developed country on the African continent. However, in this instance, it involves Africans against fellow Africans.

The xenophobia has been traced to the high unemployment rate which exists in the country, over 30%. Several prominent figures within South Africa have blamed this number on the multitude of migrants entering the state, many economic refugees. Recently a truckers’ strike was held, protesting the number of non-South African nationals employed as truck drivers. Although it is difficult to understand what exactly sparked the xenophobic attacks in this instance, the high unemployment rates and limited economic opportunities available seem to be the root cause.

Several African countries have become increasingly worried about their citizens within South Africa. It was reported on September 12 by Al Jazeera that a Nigerian Airline was repatriating Nigerian nationals over the following days as it was ‘no longer safe here’. Samson Aliyu, a clothes shop owner, told AFP news agency; “I ran for my life… they burnt my shop… They would have killed me.” The private Nigerian Airline Air Peace proposed flying 600 Nigerians to Lagos, the largest city in Nigeria, for free. 

Although the violent attacks began in South Africa, they have quickly spread throughout the continent. Reprisal attacks have resulted in South Africa closing its embassies in the Nigerian cities of Lagos and Abuja over threats to its ambassadors. Lunga Ngqengelele, the South African Foreign Ministry Spokesman, told ASP news agency “After receiving reports and threats from some of the Nigerians, we decided to temporarily close while we are assessing the situation”. Reuters has reported that two major South African companies, MTN and Shoprite, have also closed their doors in Nigeria after their facilities were attacked in retaliation.

The xenophobic riots have not only had an effect on the political situation in South Africa, but are also having wider ramifications on relations across the continent. Nigerian singer Tiwa Savage announced online that she would no longer play her scheduled concert in South Africa, calling the riots; “the barbaric butchering of my people”. The Zambian national football team has pulled out of a scheduled friendly against South Africa.

South Africa is no stranger to xenophobia. Even after generations of colonialism and apartheid ending in 1994, celebrating Nelson Mandela’s election as president, racial violence is a regular occurrence in the major cities. Between 2000 and 2008, 67 deaths were reported as being of a xenophobic nature. In 2006 an academic study conducted between Cape Town University, SA and Queen’s University in Canada found that South Africa was responsible for levels xenophobia greater than anywhere else in the world. 

Having been persecuted for so long, why have the black population of South African’s become the persecutors? The UNHCR’s, or the United Nations Refugee Agency as it’s more commonly known, Global Appeal 2011 cited competition over jobs, business opportunities, public services and housing as the main reasons for racist attitudes. The tensions among ‘refugees, asylum seekers, migrants and host communities’ gave rise to xenophobic violence. In 2011, the UNHCR put strategic plans in place to help the 494,800 asylum seekers. This involved providing basic services, emergency shelter and security from exploitation and violence. However, once the migrants were granted asylum, there has been minimal external support to integrate them both socially and economically into the host country, South Africa. This means that the economic burden falls predominantly on South Africa’s resources, leading to the more than 10 million people unemployed we see today, a shocking 38.5% of the entire population. Although the official unemployment figure released by the South African government is closer to 30%, the larger percentage is a closer reflection of the economic and social burden unemployment is causing, as, whether or not the individual is in the position to seek work, they require the same financial support.

Over two hundred arrests have been made as a result of the racial attacks. President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, has declared that he is ‘committed to quelling attacks on foreign nationals’. In a video released through his twitter account, Ramaphosa condemned the attacks “in the strongest terms”. “These attacks are.. something we cannot allow in South Africa.. [it] is something completely against the ethos we espouse as South Africans”.

The President’s public address was welcomed as the riots had temporarily been denied and ignored by his administration. This wave of unrest is ill-timed for Ramaphosa’s government as the World Economic Forum was held in South Africa from September 4 until September 6. A main objective of the Forum was to boost trade between African countries. The Nigerian Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo, cancelled his planned trip to the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Cape Town. The governments of Rwanda, Malawi and Congo followed suit. 

Participants who attended the forum took the opportunity to condemn the violence, not only in South Africa, but across the continent. Oby Ezekwesili, a former Nigerian politician, said “We cannot have a continental free trade agreement and have a situation where there is black-on-black violence in South Africa.” A founding member of Transparency International, an anti-corruption group, Ezekwesili argued that the steady pan-African economic and trade development was powerless unless governments confronted the ‘systematic’ societal failings within their nations. As part of the forum a huge emphasis on the “tremendous opportunity represented by Africa’s burgeoning young population” however this sentiment means little if governments and private companies cannot provide adequate employment; “we have a lot of bad politics on the continent” Ezekwesili said, “the young people who are out there are extremely angry”.