Rwandan-owned shops in Zambia looted after six perish in ritual killings; but there's a bigger story

Residents say foreigners have “taken over all the business opportunities in the area,” and allegedly using ritual magic to further their enterprises!

FOREIGN-owned shops in the west of Zambia’s capital, Lusaka, have been looted over suspicions of links to recent ritual murders in the area, police said.

At least six people have been found dead in the area since last month with body parts, including hearts, genitals and ears, removed. Police arrested four people over the killings during the weekend, President Edgar Lungu said Sunday.

“People are looting shops belonging to foreigners,” police spokeswoman Charity Munganga-Chanda said by phone on Monday. “They are suspecting that these foreigners are the ones behind the ritual murders.”

Residents in the Zingalume area burned down a community police station last month in protest over the murders.

The foreigners targeted are apparently Rwandan shopkeepers, who residents say have “taken over all the business opportunities in the area,” according to this report in Lusaka Times, and are allegedly using ritual magic to further their businesses.

It would not be the first time immigrant communities are targeted for their apparent prosperity on the continent, with locals accusing them of using of “supernatural” powers or, “hoarding business secrets”. The attacks are usually exacerbated by hard economic times.

Last year, Zambia’s kwacha was the world’s worst performing currency. The slump was sparked by a severe power crisis, falling copper prices and a ballooning budget deficit. Since reaching a seven-year low in mid-January, copper prices are up 11% and expectations are rising that Zambia will reach an aid deal with the International Monetary Fund after general elections scheduled for August.

The kwacha has, partly as a result, gone from the world’s third-worst performer in 2015 to the best this year. 

READ: Zambia’s kwacha ‘died’ in 2015, but has now resurrected as world’s best performer

It has advanced 19.9% against the dollar in 2016, benefitting  from an increase in metal prices, news of increased mining investment and proposed changes to mineral royalties seen to be more investor friendly. 

However, with electricity shortages and drought still biting, the conditions remain difficult for the ordinary Zambian.

“Ya bino moko”

Last January, political protesters in the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo looted around 50 Chinese-owned stores in the gritty, teeming Kinshasa neighbourhoods of Ngaba and Kalamu.

Some stores displayed signs reading “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.

And in April, South Africa was rocked by xenophobic attacks in several townships against foreign nationals, mainly of African origin.

The debate around the “immigrant problem” is mainly framed in terms of foreigners taking up scarce jobs, amenities and business opportunities – as in the most recent attacks in Zambia; the subsequent looting is perhaps a crude attempt at redistribution.

But this underlying sentiment is flawed, says researcher Joshua Hovsha from the Helen Suzman Foundation, highlighting what economists call the “lump of labour fallacy”. This is the belief that there is only so much work and pay available in an economy. Therefore, “any benefit gained by a foreigner is seen to be directly taken from the resources available to local citizens.”

Speaking in the context of the South African attacks last year, Hovsha said that foreigners create new economic opportunities by bringing in capital and entrepreneurial energy.

There is also the belief that foreigners hoard trade skills and isolate themselves.

Share secrets

South Africa’s Minister of Small Business Development, Lindiwe Zulu, while defending the weak government response towards the xenophobic attacks in Johannesburg early in the year said it was incumbent on foreign shopkeepers “to share their trade secrets”.

“Foreigners need to understand that they are here as a courtesy and our priority is to the people of this country first and foremost. A platform is needed for business owners to communicate and share ideas. They cannot barricade themselves in and not share their practices with local business owners,” she said, later adding in a context of historical exclusion of blacks from the economy.

Last year Mail & Guardian Africa  highlighted the fallacy driving this argument —that foreign nationals have more skills by choice, rather than borne of an entrepreneurial drive to succeed informed by the desperate struggle to surmount the odds away from their homelands.

Essentially, migrants allover the world are inherently enterprising—if they were not they would not seek to move. They — or at least those targeted by xenophobia — typically arrive without capital, locally recognised skills or access to local sources of income, employment and finance, and yet find a way to make a living.

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