South African President Cyril Ramaphosa told officials and business leaders on Wednesday that he was committed to quelling attacks on foreigners that have threatened to cast a cloud over an economic forum aimed at boosting intra-African trade.
Police have arrested dozens of people and confirmed several deaths after riots in Johannesburg and the capital Pretoria in recent days, when roving groups attacked shops mainly owned by migrants from the rest of Africa.
It is unclear what ignited the latest round of violence, but analysts say contributing factors include high unemployment and frustration with limited economic opportunities.
The wave of unrest has kindled memories of previous deadly attacks on foreigners and strained diplomatic relations with Africa’s other economic powerhouse Nigeria.
South African businesses MTN and Shoprite closed stores in Nigeria on Wednesday after their facilities in the country came under attack.
Other African countries from Ghana to Ethiopia and regional bloc the African Union have called on Ramaphosa to take decisive action. Artists and ordinary citizens from across the continent have taken to social media to voice their anger, with some threatening retaliation.
“Taking action against people from other nations is not justified and should never be allowed in our beautiful country. … We need to quell those incidents of unrest,” Ramaphosa told an event on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Africa three-day summit starting on Wednesday.
“South Africa must be a country where everyone feels safe, including women and foreign nationals,” Ramaphosa said, also condemning recent incidents where women had been killed.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Malawi’s Peter Mutharika pulled out of the conference at the last minute, prompting speculation in South African media that the no-shows were linked to the attacks on foreigners.
But WEF spokesman Oliver Cann said Kagame and Mutharika had informed conference organisers that they could not attend by Saturday, before the attacks had started.
Zimbabwe’s foreign minister, part of a large Zimbabwean government contingent including president Emmerson Mnangagwa, said the recent attacks were “unfortunate”.
“It is unfortunate that African brothers go against each other neck on neck in that kind of scenario, in an environment where we are looking forward to regional integration and co-operation and where Africa as a whole has embraced the continental free trade agreement as a bedrock of integration,” Sibusiso Moyo told Reuters.
“We just implore our brothers in the region to note that peaceful co-existence is one of the key fundamentals,” he said.
There are a significant number of Zimbabweans living in South Africa and they have formerly borne the brunt of attacks on foreigners, along with Somalians and Nigerians.
Hundreds of University of Zambia students dressed mostly in black and chanting “No Violence” protested outside the South African high commission against the attacks on foreigners on Wednesday.
On Tuesday, the Football Association of Zambia (FAZ) called off the country’s friendly soccer international against South Africa in Lusaka on Saturday, citing “prevailing security concerns in South Africa”.
Hundreds of mainly female students protesting about violence against women tried to storm the conference centre in Cape Town where the WEF conference was being held, but they were restrained by a heavy police presence.
The protesters shouted slogans like “We want justice” and sang songs from the struggle against apartheid while conference delegates peered through the glass to watch the spectacle.