Specter of Xenophobic Violence Resurfaces in South Africa

Updated on
  • Immigrant groups fear attacks at planned anti-crime protest
  • Police say no evidence of increase in attacks on foreigners

Groups representing immigrant communities in South Africa said they fear a recent upsurge in anti-foreigner sentiment could spark a recurrence of xenophobic attacks that rocked the country in 2008 and 2015.

Radio stations have been inundated over recent weeks by callers complaining that foreigners are selling drugs and forcing South African girls into prostitution, a sentiment also widely expressed on social media. Over the weekend, residents of the southern Johannesburg suburb of Rosettenville set fire to at least a dozen houses that they said were used as drug dens or as brothels and were mostly occupied by foreigners.

“Foreigners are being portrayed as criminals,” Marc Gbaffou, chairman of the African Diaspora Forum, said by phone on Wednesday. “This is a very disturbing situation. Our members are really concerned” that more attacks are imminent.

Several millions African migrants live and work in South Africa, the continent’s most industrialized economy, and compete for jobs, business opportunities and scarce housing in a country where more than one in four people who are looking for jobs can’t find any. Anti-immigrant attacks in 2008 claimed about 60 lives and forced about 50,000 to flee their homes. Violence flared against in 2015 and seven people died at the hands of mobs wielding machetes and sticks before the army and police managed to restore calm.

Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba in November accused the national government of opening South Africa’s borders to “criminality.”

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While reports of a possible resurgence of xenophobic violence have been circulating for several weeks, police have been unable to substantiate them, spokesman Vishnu Naidoo said.

“People are raising concerns about certain issues, like service delivery and criminality,” he said by phone. “There is no indication that there is this anti-foreigner sentiment.”

A group of residents of the Mamelodi suburb of Pretoria, the capital, have applied to stage a demonstration on Feb. 24 to protest against the presence of Nigerians, Pakistanis and Zimbabweans, who took local jobs and were allegedly responsible for rising crime levels in the area, the Pretoria News reported Wednesday, citing Makgoka Lekganyane, one of the organizers.

The march is almost certain to result in violence and migrants shops being vandalized, and could spark attacks in other communities, said Blessing Nyakudzi, the director of the Coordinating Body of Refugee and Migrant Communities.

Naidoo said the police are aware of the planned march and would ensure it was peaceful.

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