The South African government has called for calm following a wave of xenophobic violence in the country, claiming the unrest is against criminal activity. President Jacob Zuma remarked that many migrants living in South Africa were law abiding and had contributed in a positive way to the economy. He also acknowledged that complaints about companies using illegal immigrants had been received and would be investigated as such actions caused difficulties between locals and immigrants. Zuma then called upon citizens and migrants to work together to combat the high crime rate in South Africa.
Mamelodi Concerned Residents had, on February 24th, staged a protest calling for the deportation of migrants who had committed crimes, as well as enhanced border control to prevent undocumented migrants from entering South Africa. Many prominent groups both globally and within South Africa opposed this march and one of them, the Nelson Mandela Foundation, criticized South African authorities by calling it “a march of hatred.” Amnesty International accused the South African authorities of failing to address “the toxic populist rhetoric that blames and scapegoats refugees and migrants.” Such views have cast a shadow on South Africa’s tolerant image which it has worked hard to cultivate over the last twenty-five years.
The South African Police Service indicated that violence erupted when a group from the Pretoria West area blocked the roads, burnt tires, and hurled stones at migrant shopkeepers, whom they believed were taking their jobs. The Police Commissioner, Khomotso Phahlane, reported that 136 people were arrested in 24 hours.
Nigerian, Somali, and Bangladeshi immigrants who own shops and houses Pretoria West were the main victims of looting and torching. One shopkeeper explained to a reporter from Al Jazeera that his business had been targeted three times and he had lost everything. The Nigerian authorities are worried about the violence towards immigrants and have summoned the South African ambassador to formally register their concerns. They have also called on the African Union to intervene in stopping the attacks.
Xenophobic intolerance is not new in South Africa. In 2015, anti-immigration riots around Durban killed people, while similar violent events in 2008 resulted in 62 deaths. Official government figures released in 2016 show the number of immigrants entering South Africa has declined. In 2011, 2.2 million foreign-born people lived in South Africa, while in 2016 the number had been reduced to 1.8 million. Some people in political parties who are unhappy with the current economic situation in South Africa show their disapproval in violent ways under the guise of xenophobic intolerance. Many old council homes in Pretoria West have been auctioned and legally purchased by migrants who are eager to better their quality of life. Unfortunately, some South African nationals have failed to accept this development and choose to believe that they have been hijacked and used for illicit activities. People from all parts of the African continent are attracted to South Africa because it is perceived as a land of opportunity. Some South Africans resent this and appear to have developed xenophobic attitudes towards migrants, as they believe they are taking their jobs. The Mayor of Johannesburg, Herman Mashaba, gained high support from the public when he announced illegal immigrants would be removed from the city.
South Africans have no right to be violent towards foreign nationals because they perceive them to be different, and such behaviour is immoral and reflects negatively on the country. As a leader on the continent, South Africa has a responsibility to display inclusive behaviour in both word and deed. It must stop allowing its people to blame others for current challenges. Immigration issues must be addressed urgently by the government to stop further internal conflict and violence. High numbers of migrants strain limited resources, and this necessitates allocation be made according to need and priority. Many South Africans who want them may miss out and often feel resentful. Grievances need to be aired in a non-judgemental forum where people are willing to listen to other viewpoints and find common ground. A resolution of immigration issues will only be achieved when violent behaviour is replaced by peaceful dialogue and a genuine desire to resolve ingrained attitudes. All parties working cooperatively will form a sound foundation for future cohesion. With that said, the South African government needs to lead by example.