South Africa Faces Continent's Wrath as Xenophobia Erupts

  • Ghanaian lawmaker calls on African Union to help halt attacks
  • President Jacob Zuma denounces violence, calls for calm

A resurgence of anti-immigrant violence in South Africa has sparked outrage in other African countries and spurred calls for more to be done to stamp out xenophobia.

Residents of the Pretoria suburbs of Mamelodi and Atteridgeville took to the streets of the capital last week to protest against the presence of undocumented Nigerians, Pakistanis and Zimbabweans, who they accuse of perpetuating crime and taking jobs away from locals. Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds, who stoned cars and used rocks to block off streets. At least 136 people were arrested.

Protesters in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, vandalized the offices of South African telecommunications company MTN Group Ltd. in protest over xenophobic attacks in South Africa. The Nigerian government summoned South Africa’s high commissioner to register its concerns about the threat to its nationals, Agence France-Presse reported, citing Junior Foreign Minister Bukar Ibrahim. On Monday, Ghanaian lawmaker Okudzeto Ablakwa called on the African Union to take action.

“The government has to do more,” Ablakwa, who sits on the foreign affairs committee in Ghana’s parliament, told Accra-based Class FM. “Sometimes you don’t get very clear signals from authorities. Their comments sometimes exacerbate the situation and that really is worrying.”

Burning Houses

Herman Mashaba, the major of Johannesburg, has labeled some undocumented migrants criminals. Residents of the city’s southern Rosettenville suburb this month set fire to at least a dozen houses that they said were used as drug dens or brothels and were mostly occupied by foreigners. 

Anti-immigrant violence also claimed seven lives in 2015 before the army and police restored calm, and in 2008 about 60 people died and 50,000 were forced to flee their homes. Attacks have mostly taken place in poor townships, where some residents see migrants as competitors for jobs, business opportunities and scarce housing.

South African President Jacob Zuma has appealed for calm and condemned the violence.

“We are not a xenophobic country,” Zuma said in a Feb. 24 statement. “At the same time, we cannot close our eyes to the concerns of the communities that most of the crimes such as drug dealing, prostitution and human trafficking are allegedly perpetuated by foreign nationals.”

Ablakwa said the South African government’s failure to create sufficient jobs and economic opportunities for its citizens has sparked a backlash against foreigners. 

“We saw these xenophobic attacks in 2008, we saw it in 2015 and this latest one, it is becoming one too many,” he said. “If you are not careful, citizens who are in their home countries feel that citizens living elsewhere are not given the needed protection. What that will lead to is reprisal attacks.”

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