A wave of xenophobic attacks in South Africa has left migrants living in fear of their lives and soured the government’s relationship with its regional counterparts.
The violence erupted last week after a South African taxi driver was allegedly shot dead by a suspected Nigerian drug dealer in the capital, Pretoria, and saw scores of foreign-owned shops being looted and torched. The attacks spread to Johannesburg, the economic hub, this week and more than 50 shops and several vehicles were destroyed.
“My fear is dying from being beaten,” Kadiye Mohamed, 28, a Somalian store owner who’s lived in South Africa for nine years, said in an interview in Johannesburg. “That is no way to die, especially at the hands of your fellow Africans. I ask myself what we have done to make them so angry.”
South Africa is Africa’s most-industrialised economy and is a magnet for many residents of poorer nations on the continent who relocate in search of a better life. But their increased prevalence in several poor areas has sparked resentment among locals, who see them as competitors for jobs, business opportunities and affordable housing.
The country has seen sporadic attacks on migrants, the worst of which occurred in 2008, when about 60 people were killed and more than 50 000 forced from their homes. Another seven people died in an outbreak of xenophobic violence in 2015.
“I have nine stitches on my head because they hit me over the head with a metal rod and I became unconscious. I woke up in hospital,” Nigerian tailor Chibundu Kalu, 38, who’s lived in South Africa for 13 years, said. “I hope the police can protect us and our businesses better.”
President Cyril Ramaphosa condemned the violence “in the strongest terms” and said he was convening a meeting of his security ministers to make sure it was halted.
“Whatever concerns or grievances we may have, we need to handle them in a democratic way,” Ramaphosa said on Twitter. “There can be no justification for any South African to attack people from other countries.”
Moussa Faki Mahamat, the chairman of the African Union, and officials from Nigeria and Zambia expressed outrage at the attacks, which erupted days before the African edition of the World Economic Forum in Cape Town. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari will send a “special envoy” to South Africa for talks with Ramaphosa.
Lungelo Dlamini, the police spokesman, said 76 people had been arrested in Johannesburg on Monday and faced charges of public violence and looting.
Somalian trader Gabeyre Hasan, 53, who moved to South Africa 26 years ago, isn’t convinced that the authorities can or will tackle the xenophobia scourge.
“When this evil happened in 2015, we decided as a family that we would be working towards making a home elsewhere outside of South Africa because our friends and neighbours want to kill us every five years,” he said. “That is no way to live. I’m taking my family somewhere else.”
Nigerian Bunkechukwu Okafor, 36, who has lived in South Africa for 15 years and runs a business repairing mobile phones in Johannesburg that employs several locals, said he’ll have to decide on his future plans once the violence ends.
“Over the past few days, we saw our own customers, some who we have fixed their devices on credit because they needed it to find work, breaking my store and stealing my stock and equipment,” he said. “I have known some of these people for more than five years and all of a sudden they want me to go back to my country.”
© 2019 Bloomberg L.P.