The Economic Roots of Xenophobic Attacks in South Africa

Following attacks on several foreign-owned shops in Durban and Johannesburg, South Africa that left seven people dead, several other African states have called for evacuation of their citizens and issued warnings of retaliatory action on South African businesses unless South Africa does something to curtail the rising xenophobic sentiments in the country. Although it is not the first time such xenophobia has erupted in South Africa in recent years, the reaction this time may be a necessary turning point for the ruling ANC and highlights the desperate need for South Africa to undertake social and economic reform.

The violence started on April 12 when several foreign-owned shops in the townships around the coastal city of Durban were attacked by mobs with machetes and petrol bombs. By April 17, the violence had spread to the townships of Johannesburg where police clashed with anti-immigrant protesters while many migrant families fled. Over 1,500 people have been displaced around the country, some housed in temporary refugee camps when they have nowhere else to go. Despite calls for calm, the violence has continued and African migrants continue to face death threats and violence at the hands of mobs calling for them to leave the country.

This is not the first time South Africa has experienced a violent wave of attacks fueled by xenophobia. In May 2008, in the wake of the turbulent elections in Zimbabwe that sent a new wave of migrants over the border, riots broke out in Alexandra township north of Johannesburg. Despite police reinforcements, the violence soon spread to other provinces around the country. More than 1000 people were arrested but by 2009, only 137 were convicted in relation to the violence that left 67 people dead. The incident brought about a lot of soul searching throughout South Africa as people tried to understand how such violence could happen in the “rainbow nation.”

Then, as now, there were multiple elements contributing to the violence. The immediate cause of the most recent violence seems to be comments made by Goodwill Zwelithini, the traditional king of the Zulu nation, to South African media on the need for immigrants to leave the country. While the comments may not seem that inflammatory on their face, it struck a nerve with many and essentially added fuel to already simmering tensions. As recently as January, crowds looted dozens of foreign-owned shops in Soweto township in Johannesburg. The police eventually arrested over 100 people connected to the attacks but the government has still done little to address the root causes of the violence.

What those roots are is debatable but the attacks usually occur in low income areas where many South African blacks, still waiting for the dividends of majority rule, compete more directly with African immigrants who come to the country looking for economic opportunity. Recent controversies such as #RhodesMustFall (which was a campus movement to fell a statue of Cecil Rhodes) show how South Africa continues to struggle with the legacy of Apartheid. Meanwhile, high youth unemployment and persistent poverty shows how the ruling ANC has failed to translate the economic promise of democracy to all.

Signs of frustration with the status quo are also seen with the service delivery protests that have touched every part of the country and the recent rise of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a new political party that favors stronger land reform policies not supported by the ANC and the nationalization of key economic sectors. Many of these policies go against what Nelson Mandela proposed after the fall of Apartheid, but after two decades of looking for progress, it’s clear that many of the poor in South Africa are looking for a more radical approach.

However the most notable development in all this is the reaction of other African states. Crowds gathered outside the South African embassy in Abuja, Nigeria to call for an end to the violence while the Nigerian government warned that South African businesses operating in the country – the largest economy on the continent – may be shut down unless South Africa does more to stop the attacks. Kenya, Malawi and Mozambique have called for the evacuation of all their citizens, while Zimbabwe has already sent buses across the border to start the process. Calls for boycotting South Africans goods and businesses have resonated across the continent and on social media, a development that could serve a major blow to South Africa which is already experiencing economic malaise.

However not all South Africans support the xenophobic crowds. Over the weekend thousands marched through the streets of Durban protesting the recent violence. South Africans have also taken to social media, using the hashtag #SayNoToXenophobia to voice solidarity with migrants and urge their countrymen to choose peace and acceptance over violence and hate. President Jacob Zuma has also called for calm, condemning the attacks, but his words have done little to dispel the view that the government is not doing enough to address the issue.

It remains to be seen what will happen in South Africa. After the riots in 2008, numerous investigations and reports were made, trying to explain and address the violence. Yet seven years later, the country is facing the exact same violence. The ruling ANC has typically been slow to respond to domestic calls for reform and change but the added calls by numerous African states that are both economically and politically important for South Africa may shift this balance. Regardless, any solution will have to address the needs of the most vulnerable – both the migrants under attack now and the South African poor who struggle to survive everyday – if the country is to avoid a repeat of this xenophobic violence.