To Boycott Or Not To Boycott?  Rwanda, DRC And Malawi Withdraw From WEF in South Africa

Much speculation has arisen surrounding the recent withdrawal of Rwanda, DRC and Malawi from the World Economic Forum on Africa (WEF), which was launched on 4 September at the Cape Town International Convention Centre. Reports have suggested that the decision to withdraw was in response to xenophobic attacks which have occurred in South Africa, in the week prior. The wave of violence was sparked after the death of a taxi driver in Pretoria by foreign nationals, prompting looting of foreign-owned shops and the death of five individuals.

The attacks have caused significant condemnation from multiple African nations and governments across the world. In particular, Nigerian President Muhabi has expressed “deep concern” over the attacks and has promised to take “definitive measure” to protect Nigerian citizens. The attacks were also condemned by the African Union and Zambia who boycotted a football match against South Africa in response to the violence. The action of these states has sparked rumours that the DRC, Rwanda and Malawi who withdrew from the WEF a few days after the attacks commenced, acted with similar motivations.

In response, the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) have released an official statement confirming that Rwanda’s withdrawal was not linked to the xenophobic outbursts. They also reported that they have received no official communication from DRC and Malawi.

Despite, the lack of clarity on the nature of the withdrawals, the situation raises questions about the appropriate response of both the South African and foreign governments to the violence. Is boycotting the WEF the answer?

On the one hand, a boycott is a definitive act of condemnation, pressuring the South African government to take more drastic measures to stem the violence. However, given the nature of the WEF, as an opportunity for African countries to come together to address some of the continent’s most pressing political and economic challenges, a boycott could potentially do more harm than good. Beyond investigating the key economic themes of ‘smart institutions, investment, integration, industry and innovation’, the WEF also seeks to tackle important issues of unemployment, gender-based violence, health and promote increased intercontinental cooperation. All of which pertain to security and stability within the broader region.

Backlash in the form of looting and boycotting of major South African owned stores such as MTN has also occurred in Nigeria in response to the attacks.  However, Nigerian economist Nonso Obikili says “Boycott calls are totally counterproductive…South African companies that are based here employ Nigerians, offer their services here, so boycotting them would be as damaging to us as it would to them.”

Such attacks against foreign nationals are not new to South Africa, but part of a long trajectory of anti-immigrant violence. Reports of similar attacks occurred in 2008 with 62 people killed, and seven more in 2015. The outbreak of criminality has been linked to the country’s poor economic performance, with 27% unemployment and growing concerns over migrants ‘stealing’ local jobs. The South African government have publicly condemned such attacks, and approximately 300 people have been arrested in connection to the violence. However, some have criticised the government for failing to take a more hard-line approach to such attacks and refusal to recognise their xenophobic nature. UN Spokesperson for Secretary-General Stephane Dujarric called for greater action from the South African government asking for “strengthened accountability of those who perpetrated the violence.”

Given the ongoing nature of tensions and outbreaks of violence between South African and foreign-born citizens, it is unlikely that a quick-fix solution such as a ‘boycott’ will be effective alone in stemming threats of future attacks. A targeted long-term approach to tackle some of the root causes of the violence, namely unemployment and crime, is necessary if we are going to see any real changes to inter-cultural harmony and security in the country and broader region.