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What’s behind South Africa’s xenophobic violence in 2019?

Violence against immigrants has sparked a diplomatic crisis

- September 9, 2019

In Pretoria and Johannesburg, there’s been xenophobic violence and looting over the past week. The violence in September 2019, targeting foreign-owned businesses and foreign residents in these two South African cities, has led to at least 10 deaths, including two foreigners, and more than 400 arrests. National and provincial governments have dispatched police in riot gear with tear gas and rubber bullets.

Protesters and looters destroyed thousands of dollars of private property, leaving businesses and homes burned and city streets littered with burning tires. Looters have targeted shopping centers.

Xenophobic violence has been a persistent problem in South Africa, but the recent clashes prompted an international diplomatic fight between two of Africa’s regional powers: South Africa and Nigeria. South Africa temporarily closed its diplomatic missions in Abuja and Lagos, while Nigeria announced plans to boycott a major economic summit in Cape Town on intra-African trade.

Protesters in Nigeria also retaliated with violence against South African-owned businesses. How did things deteriorate so quickly? Here’s what you need to know.

The recent attacks are part of a larger pattern

Although it remains unclear what kicked off the latest round of attacks on foreign nationals in South Africa, anti-migrant riots targeting Africans from elsewhere on the continent have been a feature of South African life for decades. Mass attacks in 2008 and 2015, killing dozens and displacing hundreds, made international headlines.

Analysis of xenophobic violence during the past 25 years in South Africa, led by Alexandra Hiropolous and the African Center for Migration and Society, shows these types of attacks appear over a wide geographic area, with hot spots in all of South Africa’s major urban areas.

While the targets of violence and looting in South Africa came from many parts of Africa, participants and victims of this week’s violence reported that looters specifically targeted Nigerians for alleged criminal activity. Officials say none of those killed in the violence were Nigerian nationals, though news reports note widespread anti-Nigerian rhetoric. Similar targeting of Nigerians took place in an outbreak of xenophobic violence in 2017.

South Africa has taken little action on xenophobic violence

There are about 3.6 million migrants living in South Africa, a country of more than 50 million. Most of these migrants are from Zimbabwe, Mozambique or Lesotho. Statistics South Africa estimates from 2016 put the Nigerian population at just over 30,000, or about 2 percent of foreign-born residents.

But South Africans disproportionately blame foreign-born residents for social ills, from economic stagnation and disease outbreaks, to crime and drugs. The inflammatory language isn’t just coming from the leaders of xenophobic violence. Democratic and traditional leaders alike have engaged in anti-foreign rhetoric over the past five years in South Africa. The lack of governmental action on xenophobia more generally has led to international criticism.

Though foreign-born residents are such a small proportion of the population, many South Africans routinely scapegoat them, especially for “taking jobs.” In the context of South Africa’s persistently high unemployment rate, 29 percent overall in the first quarter of 2019, with unemployment for 15- to 24-year-olds estimated at more than 55 percent, these accusations are toxic.

Interviews from South African news sources note participants in the violence cite hunger, poverty and economic desperation as reasons for anti-foreign sentiment. Unemployment in South Africa is a complex problem, and the misdirected anger at foreign-national residents in South Africa is both a driver and a consequence of economic troubles in the country.

What is the official response?

The leaders of South Africa and Nigeria have spoken out against the attacks and the violence. Diplomatic relations between the two countries are interrupted, and President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria announced he will send a special envoy to South Africa to investigate the situation. The African Union officially condemned the violence in the “strongest terms.” The Nigerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has offered Nigerian nationals in South Africa a free flight home if they fear becoming targets of xenophobic violence.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has condemned the violence, though other ministers in his government have been less decisive. The South African Police Service denies the violence is targeting foreigners. Police Minister Bheki Cele instead blames “criminal elements that are taking advantage of a volatile situation.”

This equivocation, and the mixed messages from South African officials over persistent problems of xenophobia in the past decade, have led to wider diplomatic tensions between South Africa and other neighbors. Air Tanzania suspended flights to Johannesburg. There have been violent demonstrations at South African diplomatic missions and businesses in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

On social media, images from past episodes of violence in South Africa — and entirely unrelated images of mob violence — have circulated widely, inflaming tensions. Nigerian celebrities and the Zambian and Madagascan national soccer teams have withdrawn from scheduled appearances to protest the violence.

So, what’s next?

International human rights organizations have urged the South African government to prosecute perpetrators of violence as part of a larger anti-xenophobia campaign. A UNHCR report from 2015 also counseled more government-led programs with nongovernmental organizations, to address the threat of xenophobia in South Africa. People are using hashtags and social media campaigns, like #SayNoToXenophobia, to call for unity and an end to the violence.

A strong response to xenophobia, including from officials who engage in anti-foreigner rhetoric in South Africa, did not emerge in the wake of previous mass violence. However, the 2018 inauguration of Ramaphosa as president led some to hope for a more robust official response. A government plan, released in March, detailed the Ramaphosa administration’s proposal to combat xenophobia and discrimination. Ramaphosa has repeatedly condemned the violence and called for prosecution of leaders and participants alike, in contrast to some of his predecessors’ less decisive responses.

Violence abated over the weekend, but a xenophobic march on Sunday in Johannesburg raised fears that clashes could continue. What seems clear, however, is that the fallout from the recent clashes will probably play out in South African-Nigerian relations for much longer.

Carolyn Holmes is an assistant professor of political science and public administration at Mississippi State University. She has conducted fieldwork in South Africa, funded by the Fulbright organization and the Mellon Foundation.