The beginning of this week saw a spate of violence across South Africa’s commercial capital of Johannesburg. On Monday and Tuesday, crowds of people looted, destroyed shops and set fire to buildings mostly owned by foreigners in several parts of the city. Around two dozen shops were vandalised and by the end of Tuesday, approximately 189 people were arrested by the police.

The unrest began one day after South African truck drivers began a nationwide strike in protest of hiring foreign workers. In the suburbs of Jeppestown, disorder began after a building burnt down and killed three people. Many took advantage of the chaos and began looting shops in the area, this then spread to two eastern suburbs and to the administrative capital Pretoria. The same followed in Marabastad, an area largely populated by economic migrants, where foreign-owned shops were set on fire.

After the wave of violence, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa spoke out against the crimes condemning those responsible. In a video posted to Twitter, the President said: “There can be no justification for any South African to attack people from other countries.” 

However, unfortunately anti-immigrant sentiment isn’t unheard of in South Africa. The worst case of xenophobic violence was in 2008 when more than 60 people lost their lives. Amongst other countries, citizens hailing from Nigeria, Somalia, Mozambique, Malawi, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe have been subject to bigotry for a number of years now. In Durban this year, criminals forced people from their homes and looted their businesses in April. A month earlier, three people lost their lives in the same city after 100 people participated in attacking foreign-owned stores.

Where Does the Hate Stem From?

Recently, a pamphlet expressing xenophobic beliefs has been seen circulating on social media, attributed by a group named the Sisonke People’s Forum. The leaflet, seen by The Associated Press, asserted that foreigners living in South Africa were responsible for selling drugs and stealing jobs – a sentiment that is frequently referred to in these kinds of attacks. In 2018, a Pew Research poll discovered that around 62% of South Africans viewed immigrants as a burden on society due to them taking jobs and social benefits.

With unemployment at nearly 28% – the highest since 2008 – and half of young people jobless, frustrations seemed to be misdirected towards foreign workers who are just trying to make ends meet. With one of the largest economies in Africa, many immigrate to South Africa for better opportunities or to escape political or social instability. Instead, they are being attacked by their new neighbours and some of the time, driven back to the homeland they escaped.

Regional and International Response

Since the outbreak of violence, many leaders across Africa have expressed their outrage and concern.  The Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has announced that he will be sending a delegation to meet with Cyril Ramaphosa.  While the Zambian High Commissioner advised Zambian truck drivers to avoid working in the country. The African Union, which comprises of 55 member states, has also spoken out against the violence and asked the South African authorities to administer justice effectively.

Many have gone as far as to call a boycott of South Africa including many Nigerian artists and Zambia’s football team. The Presidents of Rwanda, Congo and Malawi have all pulled out of the World Economic Forum on Africa, which is to be hosted in South Africa.

The international organisation Human Rights Watch have also called on the South African government to take “urgent measures to protect foreign national truck drivers from violence, intimidation, and harassment in the country’s cycle of xenophobia violence.” According to the organisation, 200 people have been killed in the country since March 2018 based on research provided by the Road Freight Association.

Every few months, as unemployment reaches sinister levels, more violence plagues the country. Despite the apartheid era being in the past, it seems like the wealthy elite still hold a lot of the nation’s wealth. A report from the World Bank revealed that the top 1% of South Africans own approximately 70% of the country’s wealth. Maybe, the anger and frustrations should be redirected there.

Photograph from Bloomberg

Edward Cowley