The upturn in the violence that has characterized the past few weeks in major South African cities, namely Johannesburg and the capital Pretoria is, according to observers, extremely worrying as it harkens back to similar (if not more violent) xenophobic incidents of previous years. Police were forced to use tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons to disperse demonstrators (some of whom were involved in looting). The burning and looting of foreign-owned stores comes amidst growing tensions between native South Africans and African migrants, who are seen as not only a driving force behind the unemployment statistics of recent years but, are also accused of partaking in criminal activities, such as prostitution and drug peddling. This view of foreigners is largely reminiscent of the anti-migrant rumblings currently being witnessed in parts of Europe and the United States, despite these being considerably less violent in nature.
The abovementioned incidents took place after organizers had initially promised that an anti-immigration march, which preceded the violence, would be peaceful. As noted by local experts, “few anti-foreigner gatherings here ever are.” The fact that groups, such as Mamelodi Concerned Residents have played such a prominent role at the heart of these events only serves to exacerbate matters, especially by distributing flyers that read out: “Zimbabweans, Nigerians, Pakistanis etc. bring nothing but destruction; hijack our buildings, sell drugs, inject young South African ladies with drugs and sell them as prostitutes. How is that helping us? They have destroyed beloved Johannesburg and now they are destroying Pretoria.”
Making matters worse is the fact that political figures, such as the mayor of Johannesburg, Herman Mashaba, have come out with toxic statements aimed at scapegoating foreigners and blaming them for the issues plaguing South African society. Speaking to news outlets, he claimed that the foreigners are “holding our country to ransom and I’m going to be the last South African to allow it.” He later denied having made this statement after human rights groups called for his resignation.
Adding to the tense atmosphere is the fact that the local authorities are seen as not being tough enough in their dealings with the violent protesters, who have, in several instances targeted specific neighborhoods and immigrant communities. Two notable groups, which have been singled out for targeted attacks are both the Nigerian and Somali community. While the Nigerian expat community can count on the support of its government (in recent weeks it has called on the African Union to intervene and bring the violence to an end), the Somali migrants have been forced to rely on joint efforts with the Ethiopian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi communities in order to fend off their attackers.
As an example of the scale of the problem at hand, former South African President Thabo Mbeki has gone further than the incumbent President Jacob Zuma, who pleaded for the end to the violence, by pointing to the fact that the very same African migrants who are being used as scapegoats come from parts of Africa, which played a significant role in the struggle against apartheid decades ago. Meanwhile, critics have been quick to point to the fact that Zuma, in a recent statement on the violence, called on everyone to combat the high crime rate, which only served to incite violence and promote street justice.