From 4-6 September, leaders from governments, businesses, and civil society met in Cape Town, South Africa for the 28th World Economic Forum. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa concluded the Forum on an uplifting note by remarking that “this is Africa’s century” and that “the future is great”. However, underlying the Forum was the undeniable absence of Nigerian delegates to represent the continent’s largest economy. A series of violent attacks on African immigrants in Johannesburg and Pretoria only days before the conference resulted in at least 10 deaths and over 420 arrests. In response, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari recalled his ambassador and withdrew his country’s attendance to the Forum. With the persistently high unemployment rate in South Africa now at 28%, many citizens have blamed foreigners for “taking their jobs”. Many protesters were seen burning cars, buildings and shops owned by immigrants. Participants also expressed their economic frustration by marching in the streets, carrying weapons, and singing “foreigners must go back to where they came from”.
African leaders were quick to condemn the riots as xenophobic. In a Twitter post, President Buhari observed that “the recurring issue of xenophobia and attacks on African nationals remains very worrying”. Retaliatory protests have spread throughout the continent. Citizens in Nigeria and Zambia have responded by boycotting and even looting South African businesses, including the Shoprite chain of supermarkets. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, demonstrators gathered outside the South African Embassy and held posters that read “No xenophobia”.
The riots and retaliation could not have come at a more inopportune time. This most recent furore impeded the conference and the goal of regional economic growth and cooperation. Leaders met to discuss the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, an agreement that would bind together 54 countries to create the world’s largest free trade area. In addition to the absence of Nigeria, both Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Malawian President Peter Mutharika also decided not to attend. While no official reason was given, the non-appearance of three African countries must have dampened the agenda of the Forum.
While tensions over intra-African immigration are not unique to South Africa, the attacks are distinctive due to their violent nature. According to a recent report by the African Centre for Migration and Society, from 1994 to 2018, there have been a recorded 529 xenophobic violence incidents, which have resulted in 309 deaths. Unfortunately, this figure has risen and has only strengthened the Centre’s claim that “xenophobic violence has become a perennial feature in post-Apartheid South Africa”. With the election of President Ramaphosa in 2018, many were hopeful for a stronger stance on xenophobic violence. Indeed, President Ramaphosa has described xenophobia as “something that is completely against the ethos that we as South Africans espouse”. Additionally, the Ramaphosa government has launched its National Action Plan to combat xenophobia and discrimination. Nonetheless, while the initiative is a welcome development, many have criticized that the Action Plan fails to hold citizens accountable for their xenophobic crimes. Without properly addressing the underlying xenophobic sentiment, it is difficult to grasp how regional integration and cooperation, let alone the Trade Agreement, can be fostered and sustained.
The latest wave of violence in South Africa represents a larger trend of instability. The inevitable issue of xenophobia hinders the goal of a more economically successful and more integrated Africa. It remains unclear whether this incident and the continent’s retaliatory response have irrevocably damaged diplomatic relations between African leaders.