THE last week has been a bad time to be a foreigner in some parts of Africa. Clashes between Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) police and political protestors that left some 40 people dead last week also revealed the level of hostility towards the Chinese in the capital Kinshasa.
“Congolese, please” implored a sign in one store window, hoping it would be spared by the marauding protesters who attacked and looted around 50 Chinese-owned stores in the gritty, teaming Kinshasa neighbourhoods of Ngaba and Kalamu.
Other stores displayed the message “Ya bino moko”—“it belongs to you, too” in the local Lingala language—in a bid to discourage the rioting demonstrators who shattered windows, broke down doors and picked shelves clean in nearby shops owned by Chinese nationals.
In South Africa, anti-foreign mobs went on a looting rampage mid-week in the sprawling and highly political township of Soweto before spreading to other nearby centres.
The outbreak of pillaging, which targeted dozens of stores owned by Indians, Somalis and other foreigners, began in Soweto after a foreign shopkeeper shot dead a teenager who allegedly tried to rob him on Monday night.
It spread quickly to other townships west of Johannesburg, including Kagiso, where mini grocery shops mainly run by Pakistanis, Somalis and Bangladeshis have cropped up in many South African townships, with the owners frequently accused of squeezing out small local businesses with cut-rate prices.
Poverty and unemployment spark
By Friday afternoon, 162 people - mostly young people - had been arrested and some appeared in court on charges of possession of stolen goods and public violence. President Jacob Zuma condemned the violence, urging the police to restore order.
With poverty and unemployment widespread in South, frustration in Johannesburg’s run-down neighbourhoods not only fuels high levels of crime, but often often boils over into anti-immigrant violence.
The latest targeting of foreign-owned shops conjured up images of 2008 when South Africa was hit by a wave of xenophobic violence that left 62 people dead. It was one of the most internationally embarrassing episodes for post-apartheid genocide.
The attacks on Chinese stores in Kinshasa, on the face of it, had a more political hue. They came during widespread protests against a change to electoral law that would allow Kabila to remain in office beyond 2016—sidestepping a constitutional prohibition of running for office again, but clearly the rioters’ targets appeared to have been influenced by the government’s decision to boost economic ties with China.
Gigantic contracts between Kinshasa and Beijing signed in 2007 and 2008 gave Chinese companies the right to operate many of mineral-rich DR Congo mines in exchange for developing the country’s road system and other infrastructure—deals Western nations denounced as unfair.
As a result, some observers say, when the protests opposing Kabila’s effort to retain power in the impoverished country turned to rioting, the focus fell on Chinese businesses.
Thousands of Chinese workers have come to DR Congo to provide labour for the projects covered by those contracts, many in Katanga in the country’s south-eastern mining centre.
China’s embassy says between 4,000 and 5,000 Chinese nationals now live in DR Congo, though the actual number is believed to be far higher.
Many of those Chinese citizens work in and around Kinshasa on infrastructure construction projects, running businesses serving their compatriots and living together in packed housing in the capital’s poorer neighbourhoods.
‘The Congolese are jealous’
Local business owners also begrudge the shops opened by Chinese nationals to serve the needs of their compatriots, whose low prices also draw in Kinshasans as well.
Today, signs written both in letters and Chinese characters are a common sight, hanging from storefronts and other businesses in Kinshasa’s working-class neighbourhoods.
But such signs also made the outlets easily identifiable targets when the political demonstrations transformed into rioting in the capital.
“They sell everything, (and) we’re no longer doing any business because of them,” complained one Kinshasa telephone card vendor, who said he hoped the spate of looting would serve as a “lesson” to his Chinese rivals.
“The Chinese slash prices,” echoed a 24-year-old resident who called the competition from Chinese businesses “too much”.
But not everyone agrees. “The Congolese are simply jealous,” said a woman selling bread from beneath an umbrella, shaking her head in dismay. “It’s a pity.”
A Chinese diplomat, who requested anonymity, told AFP the apparent targeting of Chinese businesses by rioters were isolated instances as part of wider unrest, and of no long-term significance.
Beyond the Chinese
He is wrong in assuming they have no long-term significance, but correct in the sense that these xenophobic attacks should not be seen as exclusively aimed at the Chinese, because they are part of a wider anti-foreigner sentiment on the continent.
However China will be concerned that from Lesotho, Sudan, Kenya, and elsewhere, as its business dealings grow and more of its nationals move to work in Africa – in the last decade alone one million documented one,s and probably more below the radar – they are creating resentment.
Even in Zambia, which together with Tanzania have one of the longest histories of business and diplomatic links with Beijing in Africa, several assaults on Chinese companies have been reported in recent years.
In early 2014 two Chinese companies were attacked by robbers in a suburb of Zambia’s capital Lusaka, leaving a Chinese worker dead and six injured.
There are over 100,000 Chinese living or working in Zambia, with more than 500 Chinese companies involved in fields such as road building, construction, and mining.
Matters are not helped by the fact that Chinese criminal syndicates have also come into Africa along with the legitimate businesses and contractors, and have been implicated in poaching in Kenya, and a range of other illegal activities in Lesotho and Angola.
Anger over inequality
The looting in South Africa and the protests in DRC however, all spring from the same source. The recent prosperity in most African countries has left most people behind, and created shocking inequality. Thus South Africa today is more unequal than during apartheid.
A part of this growth has been a result of internal business reforms, and policies to attract foreign investors, like tax holidays. It is mostly the bigger foreign companies that get these tax holidays and other incentives, but local people lump all foreign businesses – small and big – together.
Ironically, then, the fact that foreign companies are doing well, is actually an indicator that these pro-business policies have worked – just that the outcomes haven’t been fairly distributed.
Africans not highly networked
Many small local businesses are also being beaten by Chinese, Pakistani, Indian, and Somali traders because Africa was until recently not highly globalised. These foreign traders tap into world-wide Asian and Somali supply chains and commerce credit, enabling them to import goods at rates much lower than most African traders can.
In Kenya’s case, with a large Kenyan Somali population itself, matters were further complicated by the fact that many locals felt that, especially in the real estate market, they were being muscled out by Somalis from Somalia or their associates who were investing money from piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, a claim that was never proved.
Then when the Somali terror group Al Shabaab started attacking targets inside Kenya, it stoked further prejudice and anger. Parliament called for Somalia Somalis who were in the country illegally to be sent back, and subsequently the government started sending hundreds of them back to Somalia.
The Kinshasa residents also resent what they see as the Chinese preference for sticking together in segregated communities, retaining the customs, habits, and language in their native land. The same sentiments are played out in other African countries not just with the Chinese, but Indians, Somalis, and Lebanese.
They hardly intermarry much with the local communities, don’t take to local foods, and like many immigrants everywhere in the world, stick together.
Yet, it is too early to despair. As the continent opens up more and the “Africa Rising” story continues to attract more foreigners, the present inequalities will probably even grow wider, and these tensions will reach crisis levels.
It is only then governments and and community leaders from all sides will get together and work out a new settlement. It’s only existential threats that force these negotiations in Africa.