Over the past week, South Africa has been grappling with a wave of xenophobic attacks against migrants from other African countries, leading to a souring of Pretoria’s diplomatic relations with many in the continent, particularly Nigeria.
Twelve people have died so far in riots in the major cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria, and up to 1,000 businesses run by foreign nationals have been targeted. Over 600 people have been arrested by the local police.
What is going on in South Africa?
South Africa is one of the most advanced economies in Africa, and draws migrants from across the continent. Foreign workers in South Africa compete for the same jobs that are vied by large numbers of impoverished South Africans, who for the first time obtained major political freedoms in 1994 at the end of the Apartheid regime.
This has led to strife between foreign labour and native-born South Africans, with major incidents of xenophobic violence directed towards the former occurring in 2008 and 2015.
The current spate of violence comes against the backdrop of serious economic troubles such as high rates of unemployment and poverty. South Africa’s largest city and financial capital Johannesburg has been among the worst affected areas in the past week.
Rumours on social media have added to the confusion. Videos unrelated to the local violence are being circulated on WhatsApp, and are being passed off as footage of the current carnage. One of the most forwarded videos is actually from India: of the May 2019 fire at a Surat coaching academy, in which hapless victims are seen jumping off the building.
Reaction from other African countries
Several countries from Africa have protested the violent attacks. Migrants of various nationalities are known to have been affected in the violence, including those from Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Malawi.
The strongest diplomatic reaction came from Nigeria, which has organised flights to repatriate its nationals who have been targeted. Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari in a Tweet on Tuesday urged South Africa “to take concrete and visible measures to stop violence,” while lamenting “the recurring issue of xenophobia”. Last week, Nigeria skipped an important meeting of the World Economic Forum on Africa scheduled in Cape Town. Fearing violence, South Africa temporarily closed its embassy in Nigeria.
Other nations also expressed their strong disapproval. Al Jazeera reported that Mozambique and Zimbabwe too, were considering flying back their nationals to safety. Madagascar and Zambia have cancelled sending their football teams to play in South Africa. The South African establishment has been strongly rebuked even on the cultural front, with pop stars such as Tiwa Savage dropping their concerts planned here.
This deterioration in relations between South Africa and the rest of the continent is a marked changed from previous decades, when a host of African countries harboured and aided activists from Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress during the nation’s struggle against apartheid.