SOUTH African President Jacob Zuma on Thursday appealed for calm and the end of attacks on immigrants after a wave of violence that has left at least six people dead.
“No amount of frustration or anger can ever justify the attacks on foreign nationals and the looting of their shops,” Zuma told parliament. “We appeal for calm and an end to the violence.”
Africa’s second-biggest economy is facing the worst violence against immigrants since 2008. But there is a growing sense that the South African government, and president Zuma, are too late and South Africa’s reputation is already badly damaged.
The latest wave of attacks started in January against mainly Somali, Ethiopian and Pakistani shop-owners in townships around Johannesburg left at least six people dead. Over three months, little was done to nip it in the bud.
Reveal trade secrets or…
Instead, in late January the country’s Small Business Minister Lindiwe Zulu said foreign shop owners must share their trade secrets with people in townships where they operate to curb violence and looting.
There was no pushback against Zulu, and her statement seemed to signal how sections of South African leadership remain ignorant about the rest of Africa. The foreigners who have been killed in this round of xenophobic rage are almost all Somalis and Ethiopians.
However, Somalia is still a broken country without much schooling, let alone ones where business secrets are taught. And Ethiopia remains one of the most state-controlled economies on the continent, with little room for teaching freewheeling enterprise.
Critics say that in promoting the view that immigrants have some trade secrets, officials are encouraging the harmful idea that there is a conspiracy by outsiders to take over local businesses, and disempowering South Africans by not making the point that foreigners learn trade skills through a desperate struggle to survive away from their homelands.
Fresh comments by some government ministers and public officials criticising the influx of foreign-owned shops may also be inflaming the situation, according to human rights groups.
On March 23, the Durban-based Mercury newspaper cited Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini as saying foreigners were depriving South Africans of economic opportunities and should return home. The king’s office said his speech was misinterpreted.
Even one of president Zuma’s sons has seemed to back the attack on foreigners. On Tuesday , just days after his father had spoken out for the first time against the attack, Edward Zuma, returned to the subject for the second time in days, saying: “I am not going to stop telling the truth. The government must stop running away from addressing this issue…” he said, according to News24.
“People think that I am being xenophobic but I am not, I am just trying to make a point that we have a problem…. I am sticking to what I said and I will die with it.”
He said the attacks were evidence that the country was sitting on a ticking time bomb, and called for those in the country illegally to either leave or present themselves for documentation.
Without publicly disowning his son’s views, few foreigners are likely to take Zuma seriously.
Not surprisingly, the attacks spread. Foreign-owned shops in the Jeppestown area of Johannesburg were attacked overnight, the police said as they called for calm over fears that the attacks could trigger widespread unrest fuelled by the country’s economic troubles.
The strongest South African rejection of xenophobia, has come from outside the state. Fed up with the situation, thousands of people marched through Durban on Thursday to protest against anti-immigrant violence.
About 4,000 people marched through Durban, chanting “Down with xenophobia!” and “A United Africa” at an event attended by residents, students and local religious and political leaders.
More than 1,400 foreigners have fled their homes in Durban and nearby townships and are being housed in camps set up by the government. At least 74 people have been arrested, according to the police.
Police vowed to quell the wave of violence, which claimed its latest victim on Monday when a 14-year-old boy was killed in KwaMashu, a township north of Durban.
“There are tensions in various parts of the country between some locals and foreign nationals (but) lawlessness will not be tolerated,” National Police Commissioner General Riah Phiyega said in a statement.
“Overnight, there was a flare-up of violent attacks and looting in Jeppestown, Johannesburg,” she added.
Police, who also reported tensions in Pietermaritzburg city, called for community leaders to help reduce tensions and added that false rumours of attacks were increasing fear.
Earlier this year, xenophobic violence erupted in Soweto, near Johannesburg, as frustration deepens over lack of opportunities for many young blacks born since the end of apartheid in 1994.
South Africa’s economic growth was just 1.5% last year and unemployment is at around 25% —soaring to over 50% among the young.
Violence against immigrants in South Africa is common, with unemployed locals accusing foreigners of taking their jobs.
In 2008, 62 people were killed in similar violence in Johannesburg townships.
With failure to quickly end the attacks, this week strong reaction started to come from the rest of the continent, leaving South Africa with a lot of burnt bridges to repair.
In Zimbabwe, which has nearly million nationals living in South Africa according to some estimates, ministers took to social media to express their anger, calling the latest attacks “worse than apartheid”.
Environment Minister Saviour Kasukuwere said on his Twitter page that the xenophobic attacks in South Africa were sad and a shame on Africans.
He said Africans are treating each other worse than they were treated during apartheid.
Information Minister Jonathan Moyo too made his views known on Twitter, “Xenophobia today can easily mutate into Genocide tomorrow. Stop It!”
Photographs of African immigrants cut with machetes, and children badly injured, have also been doing the rounds on social media and drawing strong condemnation.
A woman cooks on an open fire at a refugee camp set up on a sports field in Isipingo Township in Durban, South Africa. Hundreds of people fled their homes after violent attacks on foreign nationals broke out in the area over a week ago. (Photo Jackie Clausen/The Times/Gallo Images/Getty).
Nerves have been seriously rattled, and it will a long while before immigrants cease to be fearful.
“Anytime (it) can happen now,” said Ali Abdi, a Somalian who runs a clothes shop but is now sleeping in a camp in Durban. “There is not just one reason. Some of it is foreigner hatred, especially against African foreigners. The other reason would be jealousy.”
Another Somali, Aydelin Sonkari, 36, who runs a kiosk in Pietermaritzburg, 77 kilometers from Durban, said many in his community are fearful of the violence.
“We are scared, yes, very scared,” Sonkari said Wednesday in an interview from his shop, located on the converted porch of a Victorian-era home. “Last night, when I closed up, they shouted at me,” using a derogatory slang word for foreigners, he said.
Many shops in the centre of Johannesburg were shut on Wednesday and Thursday after threats spread via social networks and phone text messages.
A group of immigrants sought refuge overnight at the Primrose police station near Germiston, about 24 kilometers (15 miles) east of Johannesburg, according to the Gauteng provincial police spokesman, Lungelo Dlamini.
The tension comes against the backdrop of a weakening economy and a 24% jobless rate, and could do further damage to the nation’s economy.
Investors’ perception of risk in South Africa is worsening, with credit default swaps to protect against non-payment over the next five years rising 16 basis points this week to 217. The rand gained 0.1% to 12.0485 per dollar by 9:45 a.m. in Johannesburg, taking the decline against the dollar this year to 4%.
The streets of Durban’s city centre became a battleground between locals and immigrants on April 14, with police using water cannons and rubber bullets to disperse crowds.
One of the marchers in Durban, Eric Machi, 34, said he rented rooms to Zimbabweans and Malawians until they fled from attackers in recent weeks.
“We are trying to make peace with those people who came here from Africa, but now they are gone,” he said. “It started late at night. The attackers were shouting and throwing stones, and breaking some houses.”
-With Bloomberg & AFP