South Africa is caught in the midst of another wave of xenophobic violence, as tensions between citizens and foreigners escalate dangerously.
In a country with almost 40% unemployment, and a recent history of pervasive enmity between South Africans and the country’s many immigrant communities, it does not take much for violence to be sparked.
Most people agree that the latest wave was caused by inflammatory statements from some influential leaders.
On 25th March the Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini said ‘We request those who come from outside to please go back to their countries.’* Similar sentiments were expressed by President Jacob Zuma’s son, Edward, who was this week quoted as saying that South Africa is ‘unnecessarily accommodating illegal immigrants in this country.’
In late March, mobs attacked over 250 Congolese immigrants in Isipingo, a town 25km south of Durban. Violent attacks continued, and by early April approximately 400 refugees were sheltering in tents near the town. Following the deaths of two Mozambicans, attacks spread to other areas closer to Durban’s city centre.
Angered by the rising tide of violence against them, foreigners twice attempted to stage peaceful protests in Durban but were denied permission and forcefully dispersed by police who shot at them with rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannon.
As foreign-owned shops were looted and petrol bombed, violence spread to other areas, including the Durban city centre. By this stage, over 1,000 people had been driven from their homes.
In an attempt to get the situation under control, President Jacob Zuma and his government intervened, creating a high level ministerial team and increasing police deployment in affected areas. A large peace march was organised in Durban yesterday, although it was disrupted by groups of South Africans who objected to this public deplay of anti-xenophobia sentiment.
Tensions hasve also now spread to several areas of Gauteng province, South Africa’s economic hub and home to its largest concentration of foreigners.
Johannesburg has recently experienced its own spate of xenophobic violence. In January, widespread unrest, looting and violence resulted in the mass exodus of foreign business owners from Soweto and other parts of the city. This week, foreign-owned shops were shuttered in Jeppestown and Primrose as angry residents threatened to remove all non-South Africans.
The violence has been condemned on all fronts. In addition to the government’s own statements, NGOs like the Nelson Mandela foundation have called the violence ‘a terrible failure of memory by South Africans’, in reference to the support provided to the anti-apartheid struggle by many of South Africa’s neighbouring countries. The Zimbabwean information minister Jonathan Moyo has slammed King Zwelithini, claiming that the current spate of xenophobia could ‘easily mutate’ into genocide.
In an apparent attempt to avoid comparisons with the widespread violence of 2008, when over sixty foreigners died, the South African government insists that the current unrest stems from criminality and not xenophobia, preferring to call it ‘violence directed at foreign nationals’. Semantics aside, the attacks of this past week, coupled with days of violence and destruction targeted at foreigners in parts of Johannesburg in January, and Cape Town in February, point to a worrying trend.
Economic disparities and a lack of jobs are undoubtedly driving factors behind the current violence. Many of the poorest people in South Africa live side by side with Zimbabweans, Nigerians, Malawians, Congolese, Mozambicans and others who have left their countries to find a better life. Driven by the need to survive, many immigrants find work in the informal economy. Many of them are self-employed or ‘micro-entrepreneurs’, doing whatever they can to survive. Some have proper documentation, some do not.
A study by the African Centre for Migration and Society at Wits University on the 2008 xenophobic attacks suggests that although poverty was a driving force, it was not the only explanatory factor behind the violence. The research revealed that perpetrators of the violence were young and old, male and female, employed and unemployed. A large proportion of the attackers were not the poorest of the poor – that is those without jobs – but instead they were South Africans who already had some economic stake in the community that they wanted to protect.
Whether similar forces are at play this time around is unclear. There are worrying suggestions that the violence is not as sporadic as it appears on the surface and that mobs are sometimes seen to spring into action after answering calls on their mobile phones. There are even whispers of a hidden political hand in the violence, as South Africa approaches closely contested local elections in 2016.
What is clear, however, is that immigration remains a fact of life in South Africa. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that, in 2011, South Africa received one in ten of the world’s asylum applications, dealing with 107,000 cases. The United States of America, by contrast received 71,000 applications. This puts huge strain on a government that is already struggling to cope with reversing the imbalances and exclusion caused by decades of Apartheid policies.
This large influx of immigrants means that the government has no choice but to find a solution to the current violence. Yesterday afternoon, Jacob Zuma addressed parliament on the violence. He said all of the right things although seemed to lack conviction in what he said. He will need to show strong leadership in the months ahead and everyone – foreigner and African alike – will be watching closely to see if the president can unite the nation and prevent future unrest.
*Translation from a speech made in Zulu.