What's behind the anti-immigrant attacks in South Africa?

Recent xenophobic attacks in South Africa bring to mind the terrible riots that left dozens of migrants dead in 2008.

Themba Hadebe/AP
Local residents run away as police fired rubber bullets and teargas to disperse a crowd of anti-immigrant protesters outside a hostel in Actonville, east Johannesburg, South Africa, on Thursday. Fears of anti-immigrant attacks have escalated sending foreigners seeking refuge in camps and a police station.

This week, at least four immigrants were killed in riots in Durban, South Africa, amid growing fears that violence could spill over to Johannesburg and other major cities.

For South Africa, as it continues to come to grips with its racially-charged past, working towards achieving justice for all is still in the trial-and-error stages. And although strides have been made, the events which transpired in the last few days are a reminder that there is still far to go. 

The South African news service News 24 has reported on immigrants' concern about the spreading violence. This week, an Ethiopian street vendor in Johannesburg received WhatsApp and SMS messages that warned of possible attacks against him and his fellow countrymen. Foreign-owned shops opened their doors on Wednesday morning, but closed soon after groups of people began running up and down the streets. 

"Wednesday, Zulu people are coming to town starting from Market [Street] their mission is to kill every foreigner on the road please pass this to all your contacts in case they come people should be on alert [sic],” the chain message read in part. 

On Tuesday, there were isolated crowds of people in Durban trying to attack foreign owned shops, the International Business Times reported. Some attribute the outburst in violence to Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini's comments to South African media and said immigrants "should take their bags and go," when asked about crime and poverty, according to a separate story from News 24. 

In response, Human Rights Watch issued a statement condemning the King's comments, which read, "Reckless and inflammatory public statements, such as those made by Zwelithini prior to the Durban violence, should be unambiguously condemned. And those who cross the line into direct incitement to violence against migrants should be prosecuted." 

South Africans are now calling on the government to quell the violence and restore calm to the situation. 

"The president isn't saying anything," a Nigerian street vendor told News 24. "This xenophobia thing is coming back again because the government did not do what it was supposed to do in 2008. There is no security here. If anything were to happen, what will they do?" 

Signs were visible of the unrest back in January when, according to Al Jazeera, 111 people were arrested for looting foreign-owned businesses in Johannesburg's Soweto township. For now, the country waits, reminded of the deadly 2008 xenophobic riots that left at least 62 people dead, the Christian Science Monitor reported.

Few predicted the anti-immigrant attacks, the warning signs have been present for years. Attacks against Somali shopkeepers alone have led to hundreds of deaths in sporadic violence since 1994, say Somali groups. The government doesn't track attacks based on national origin.

Anger about the government's inability to create jobs or to deliver electricity or drinking water to burgeoning townships has spilled over into open protests, complete with roadblocks, burning tires, and residents wielding clubs. Now, angry citizens have taken their frustrations out those who arrived in South Africa to make a little money, and succeeded.

"We're talking about the poorest of the [South African] poor, and there was no pressure valve, and so when the pressure grew, and you lit a match, the whole thing blew," says Adrian Hadland, director of democracy and governance programs at the Human Sciences Research Council. Dr. Hadland recently conducted focus groups in townships for a report for the government on the causes of and solutions for xenophobic attacks.

South Africa is a travel destination for many wealthy people from other African nations because of its developed infrastructure and top-flight amenities. Many elites from various other countries own property in South Africa, according to the Monitor.

The Forced Migration Study Program at the University of Witwatersrand estimated that the overall foreign population in South Africa ranges from 1.6 to 2 million, which is 3 to 4 percent of the total population. As the violence continues, President Jacob Zuma has denounced the attacks on foreign nationals, adding the government was taking steps to limits illegal migration – arresting foreigners engaging in criminal activity, and shutting down unlicensed businesses.

According to Statistics South Africa, national unemployment was hovering at more than 24 percent at the end of 2014, which is up from an unemployment figure of 15 percent in 1995. Mkululi White, spokesman for the African Disapora Forum, which represents foreigners in South Africa, is  identifying unemployment as a root cause of the unrest. 

“We think the perpetrators of this violence are some businesspeople from our own country who don’t like to compete with businesses run by people from other countries,” he said in a press conference. “Our research has also shown that unemployment plays a big role, because the majority of the people who are attacking foreign businesses are unemployed.”

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