Fatima Bello and her husband travelled from Nigeria to Johannesburg five years ago to start a new family and find work. On 15th April, six armed men entered their home in the middle of the night.
“They said; ‘Go. We don’t want you here any more.’ We woke the children and quickly gathered a few bags together and left in the dark,” Bello recalls tearfully. The family sought refuge in one of several transit camps established at a church in Johannesburg.
The recent wave of xenophobic violence in South Africa has triggered widespread anger across the continent. At least eight people have been killed and thousands of foreigners forced to desert their homes and businesses since violence broke out at the beginning of April.
Images of armed South African gangs beating and stabbing immigrants in broad daylight are being viewed around the world, making a mockery of Nelson Mandela’s dream of a racially united ‘Rainbow Nation’.
Violence first erupted in the coastal city of Durban in KwaZulu-Natal province before spreading to Johannesburg. King Goodwill Zwelithini, chief of the Zulu ethnic group, has been accused of inciting the attacks after he was reported in March saying “foreigners must pack their bags and go home”. The tribal leader has since claimed that his speech, delivered in IsiZulu, had been misinterpreted.
In keeping with its populist approach to politics, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party has keenly deflected attention from the king, citing labour issues as the trigger of the attacks.
“In South Africa, the constituencies that have allegiances to traditional leaders react very negatively when you attack their traditional leader,” says Jessie Duarte, ANC deputy secretary general. “We have to be somewhat smarter in our approach to how we manage traditional leaders and leadership in this country.”
Traditional rulers in South Africa are recognised by the constitution and King Zwelithini wields huge power. The king later stated, “If I had given orders for violence and war, like it has been alleged, this country would be ashes.”
As the largest ethnic group, Zulus represent roughly 11m out of 52m South Africans. The king also heads and controls the Ingonyama Trust that holds titles to about 2.8m hectares, or 32% of land in KwaZulu-Natal. As a Zulu, President Jacob Zuma’s desire to preserve his power base and his ties with the influential Zulu ruler may have compromised his reaction to the attacks.
“The reaction was a bit delayed. The police force didn’t react immediately when a few attacks happened, it took some time,” says Bene M’Poko, DRC Ambassador to South Africa and dean of the Diplomatic Corp.
After three weeks of violence, South Africa deployed its army to volatile areas in KwaZulu-Natal and the impoverished Alexandra Township in Johannesburg, where poorer South Africans have taken out their frustration on those they perceive to be depriving them of jobs. Immigrants with jobs might well be resented while unemployment continues to hover around 25%.
Estimates on the number of foreign nationals living in South Africa vary between 2m to 5m, many of whom run informal shops, work in mining and hospitality or as domestic workers. Most affected by the violence are refugees and asylum seekers, according to the UN high commissioner for refugees.
Recent attacks are part of a continuing trend. In January, five people died during a week of looting of foreign-owned shops in Johannesburg. Somali-owned shops were raided during a four-day spree in September 2013 and more than 60 people died during xenophobic violence in 2008.
“The South African government has been reactionary, dealing with the problem as it comes instead of offering practical long-term solutions,” says Blessing Vava, a human rights activist.
South Africa is now facing the ramifications and the threat of reprisal attacks from the rest of the continent. Speaking to press after a cabinet meeting, minister in the presidency, Jeff Radebe, said, “South African companies who are running successful businesses on the continent who help to contribute to our revenue and sustaining our economy may suffer the same fate.”
Telecom giant MTN derives most of its revenues from the rest of Africa. In Nigeria, there are twice as many subscribers as there are in South Africa, contributing 37% to the group’s revenues. South African-owned Shoprite has 115 supermarkets on the continent, outside of South Africa. Naspers owns Multichoice, which offers satellite pay-television though its DStv outlet to most of the continent.
Fearing reprisals, some 340 South Africans contracted to work for Sasol’s Mozambique operations have been temporarily sent home. Irish company, Kenmare Resources repatriated 62 South Africans working at its titanium mine in Mozambique.
“My recommendation would be to send envoys to the countries whose citizens have been affected. What I would like to avoid is African leaders boycotting the AU summit in Johannesburg in June. That can be avoided through dialogue,” says M’Poko.
Having fled Durban to Johannesburg, tailor John Bakare from Malawi says: “I left Malawi hungry, there was nothing for us. I came to my neighbour for a better life. But now – smashed glass, two sewing machines destroyed – everything destroyed including my living. I can’t wait to leave this place.”