‘They caught him in his car and burned him alive.’ The community activist was telling the BBC about a Zimbabwean man lynched in Katlehong township, outside Johannesburg, after a wave of violence against migrants in September left 12 people dead in scenes described as being ‘like a war zone’ in TimesLive.
The Springboks’ recent Rugby World Cup win (led by the team’s first black captain, Siya Kolisi) might have cheered South Africans but the xenophobic mobs of the ‘rainbow nation’ tell a different story – and seem a betrayal of other African states’ support for the anti-apartheid struggle. The violence began a day after a taxi driver was allegedly shot dead by a Nigerian drug dealer. Hundreds of Nigerians were repatriated after mobs targeting them took to the streets and a diplomatic row erupted, with protests in Nigeria, Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Even weeks later, three Nigerians were reported injured and shops looted and burnt in Witbank/Emalahleni, while hundreds of refugees demanded help to leave the country from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Though Nigerians were particularly targeted, no migrants were safe from the mob: ‘We are living in fear,’ Amir Sheikh, a Somali community leader, told the Guardian. ‘No one wants to protect us,’ complained Salahuddin Abdulhilim, a Bangladeshi whose shop was one of many looted.
As with similar lynchings of ‘outsiders’ in India (Commonwealth Update, July 2018), incendiary messages circulated on social media before violence erupted. The Daily Maverick said police were warned about threats allegedly spread by three organisations, including hauliers opposed to foreign drivers. Other messages claimed immigrant shopkeepers cheated locals, defrauded the state and took local jobs.
Xenowatch, part of Wits University’s African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS), recorded 28 incidents in September of assaults, homes burned, shops looted and more than 800 people displaced, mostly in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Durban. Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets as they arrested 400 rioters. Xenowatch, while warning that the figures were an under-representation, also lists another 40 incidents – in which six people died, 650 foreigners were displaced and 100 shops looted – earlier in 2019. But it is not a new phenomenon: Xenowatch’s data show attacks on foreigners reached double figures every year since 2008, when there were more than 100. They spiked in 2008 and 2017, with Nigerians especially targeted then.
‘The causes are poverty and has its roots in apartheid,’ Sharon Ekambaram, of Lawyers for Human Rights, told the BBC. There are some 3.6 million migrants among South Africa’s 50 million people, with 70% of them from neighbouring Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Lesotho. Migration from across southern African to the gold and diamond mines fuelled South Africa’s economy from the 19th century but with unemployment reaching 29% – and 40% among 15-34-year-olds – jobs are a touchpaper in cities made combustible by the perceived lack of progress since apartheid. The World Bank concluded last year that the world’s worst inequality was in South Africa, where half of the population live below the poverty line.
‘South Africans disproportionately blame foreign-born residents for social ills, from economic stagnation and disease outbreaks, to crime and drugs,’ the Washington Post concluded, adding: ‘Inflammatory language isn’t just coming from the leaders of xenophobic violence.’ After 2017’s attacks, Jacob Zuma, then president, condemned ‘irresponsible statements’ about migrants but also acknowledged ‘concerns … that most of the crimes, such as drug dealing, prostitution and human trafficking, are allegedly perpetuated by foreign nationals.’ After 2015’s violence, the Zulu king, Goodwill Zwelithini, criticised attacks on foreigners weeks after using language reminiscent of Rwanda’s gemocidists, telling a crowd in Pongola to: ‘Pop our head lice. We must remove ticks … We ask foreign nationals to pack their belongings and be sent back.’ Mondli Makhanya, City Press editor, told NPR: ‘In Zulu, the king can never be wrong. And a lot of people who were running around doing the destruction … were saying exactly that: “[He] has told us to go and do this — he cannot be defied.”’
The violence ‘shines a particularly harsh light on the rabble-rousing of South African politicians’, the Economist said, noting how Aaron Motsoaledi had, as health minister, blamed overcrowded hospitals and infectious diseases on foreigners, while Herman Mashaba, the opposition Democratic Alliance’s mayor of Johannesburg, ‘regularly scapegoats foreigners for crime’. Julius Malema, leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party, blamed the ‘barbaric’ attacks on the white elite: ‘It’s white people who prefer foreign nationals … and they instil in us that it is foreign nationals that are taking jobs when it is them giving them jobs.’
Ulrich Thum and Bastian Schulz, in International Politics and Society, see ‘Afrophobic attacks [as] directly related to the socioeconomic challenges affecting millions’. The government excarbated the violence because it had ‘condoned xenophobic populism, failed to contain the riots … and never prosecuted alleged perpetrators’. Human Rights Watch also criticised the ‘lack of effective policing’, adding: ‘Merely condemning xenophobic violence is not enough to stop it – the police should thoroughly investigate, arrest and bring to justice the attackers.’
While South Africa’s poorest attack their migrant neighbours, investigations continue into the alleged web of corruption and ‘state capture’ involving Zuma and officials of the ruling African National Congress (Commonwealth Update, September 2016). Zuma will stand trial on corruption charges over a $2.5bn arms deal, a high court ruled in October, while Bongani Bongo, the ANC security minister under Zuma, has been charged with offering an ‘open cheque’ to stall a parliamentary inquiry into corruption at the state power utility Eskom. Both men deny the charges.
‘If I were mayor of a city in Africa today, I would be scared,’ said Prof Loren Landau, of ACMS. ‘Cities – whether it’s Lagos or Nairobi or Accra or Johannesburg – will continue to grow … and the states and governments are not ready.’