Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1244, (30 April - 6 May 2015)
Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Issue 1244, (30 April - 6 May 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Anti-immigrant riots shake South Africa

The recent anti-immigrant riots in South Africa have damaged the country’s image as a success story on the African continent, writes Haytham Nuri

Al-Ahram Weekly

South Africa is often depicted as a success story, a country that successfully managed the political transition from Apartheid, electing a former freedom fighter as president and becoming one of the 20 largest economies in the world.

But the clashes that erupted recently in the coastal town of Durban and soon spread to Johannesburg have shaken this image, rattling the confidence of South Africans in their ability to protect immigrants from the ire of dissatisfied youths in poorer areas.

 A country of 50 million people, South Africa has up to five million immigrants, many of them legal and others not. These immigrants have been the target of hate attacks before, with 60 killed in similar riots in 2008.

Analysts blame the riots on poverty, social inequality, an unemployment rate of over 25 per cent and ethnic mistrust.

The recent wave of violence comes 15 months after the death of former president Nelson Mandela in December 2013. During his lifetime, Mandela used his charisma to calm anti-immigrant sentiments. His absence has left many wondering if the current Pretoria government is capable of tackling the crisis.

During the 2008 crisis, over 12,000 immigrants fled the country. Hundreds have already done the same as a result of the current violence, and several African nations have promised to evacuate their nationals if the present events continue.

The violence cast a shadow over the country’s Freedom Day celebrations, marking the first democratic elections on 27 April that brought Mandela to power in 1994.

The South African government declared a state of emergency in response to the violence, deploying the army in areas where the worst riots took place. The country’s parliament suspended its sessions to give legislators a chance to go back to their constituencies and plead for calm.

South African President Jacob Zuma cancelled a trip to Indonesia to tackle the situation at home. Speaking to a crowd in the Chatsworth area of KwaZulu-Natal, the president said that the government would enforce law and order.

The attacks went “against everything we believe in,” he said, adding that the majority of South Africans were committed to “peace and good relations with their brothers and sisters on the continent.”

Last week, Zuma met with the leaders of 50 organisations representing immigrants in South Africa to discuss the crisis.

The eruption of violence followed statements attributed a month ago to Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini, in which he said that foreigners should leave South Africa. He later denied having made the remarks and urged an end to the violence.

However, Zwelithini did not improve the situation when he said that had he ordered the violence, South Africa would have turned to “ashes,” a remark his critics considered to be irresponsible.

According to a local publication monitoring the retail trade, there are about 100,000 small shops in poorer districts of South Africa, about half of them owned by foreigners. During the recent riots, many of these were looted.

Experts say that the largest immigrant communities in South Africa are from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Egypt and Ethiopia.

An Ethiopian grocer whose shop was looted told journalists that he could not forgive those who had robbed him and threatened his family, but he understood the frustration of young people who may have no jobs and no hope for the future.

African governments, as well as China, which is a major trading partner of South Africa, have protested the lack of security in the country, urging the government to take stricter security measures to ensure the safety of foreign nationals.

In some African countries, outrage at the news of the riots was palpable. The Mozambique Youth Federation urged the discontinuation of oil exports to South Africa until it issues an official apology.

 In Malawi, consumer groups called for a boycott of South African products. In Zambia, a major radio station banned South African music in protest.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, the current African Union chairman, urged action to defuse the crisis. “If there is any issue arising from the influx of Africans into any country, surely it can be discussed and measures can be taken amicably to deal with the situation,” he said.

Helmi Sharawi, an Egyptian expert on African affairs, said that the violence had not surprised him. “Observers have expected something like this to happen for years because of the economic and social inequality in the country. There is a clear absence of social justice and massive unemployment [in South Africa],” Sharawi said.

“I fear that the experience of Zimbabwe will be repeated in South Africa,” Sharawi added, referring to another African country plagued by inequality and racial mistrust.

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