The violence has spilled over into Nigeria, where people have responded by attacking South African-owned shops.
South Africa on Wednesday took the unusual step of closing diplomatic missions in the Nigerian cities of Abuja and Lagos.
“After receiving reports and threats from some of the Nigerians, we decided to temporarily close while we are assessing the situation,” said South African Foreign Ministry spokesman Lunga Ngqengelele, according to Agence France-Presse.
Nigerian Vice President Yemi Osinbajo also canceled his participation in the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting on Africa, which is taking place in Cape Town this week and was meant to be a showcase for South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and his administration. It now risks becoming an embarrassment.
Governmental delegations from Rwanda, Malawi and Congo reportedly also pulled out of attending the forum because of the xenophobic attacks, though South African officials denied that was the reason for their absence.
The riots in South Africa are the latest in a recent spate of violence directed at African migrants in the country this year.
What sparked the escalation?
The diplomatic row was preceded by the deaths of at least five people in xenophobic riots in recent days. According to Nigerian officials, the riots targeted “Nigerian shops and premises” in South Africa.
“Africa has similar issues as all over the world,” said Hans-Paul Bürkner, chairman of the Boston Consulting Group. “When the economy stagnates, you always have scapegoats.”
At the World Economic Forum meeting in Cape Town, South Africans were at pains to repudiate the unrest.
“We are not the people you see being reported on our television screens. We are not a nation of xenophobes,” said Lerato Mbele, a BBC anchor who chaired the opening plenary. “We have a young, disenchanted population looking for jobs … but in the main, South Africans relish you coming to our country."
Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa, whose citizens make up the biggest migrant population in South Africa, urged regional leaders to promote “tolerance” and “preach unity and love.”
What has the government done to get the violence under control?
Ramaphosa has condemned the violence.
“South Africa must be a country where everyone feels safe,” he said Wednesday.
The country’s finance minister, Tito Mboweni, later echoed those comments, saying: “We welcome all Africans who live in South Africa. … We are all Africans.”
But human rights groups have criticized South African authorities for not doing enough to quell the violence.
Dewa Mavhinga, the Southern Africa director for Human Rights Watch, blamed and “ineffective/absent policing which breeds impunity.”
In a statement Tuesday, the chairman of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, said that he was “encouraged by arrests already made by the South African authorities.”
But Mahamat called for “further immediate steps to protect the lives of people and their property, ensure that all perpetrators are brought to account for their acts, and that justice be done to those who suffered economic and other losses.”
Criticism of South African authorities over their handling of xenophobic attacks this week coincided with other reasons for disquiet in Cape Town. After the gruesome rape and murder of a female university student and other recent murder cases, protesters took to the streets this week to condemn gender-based violence in South Africa.
Ramaphosa subsequently cut short his participation in the World Economic Forum meeting Thursday and met the protesters, before answering questions in Parliament about his government’s plan to deal with gender-based violence.
Why do xenophobic riots keep happening in South Africa?
Though xenophobia has been a problem in South Africa for decades, the first major outbreak of the recent riots targeting outsiders in the country occurred in 2008, when 62 were killed and more than 600 wounded, according to data by the International Organization for Migration. The violence was brought under control only after the government deployed the military.
A study commissioned by IOM later blamed the “legacy of institutional discrimination and generalized mistrust among citizens, police, and the elected leaders” for the outbreak of violence, which was “organized and led by local groups and individuals in an effort to claim or consolidate the authority and power needed to further their political and economic interests.”
The researchers also focused attention on “practices that exclude foreigners from political participation and justice” and a “culture of impunity with regard to public violence in general and xenophobic violence in particular,” among other factors.
More than 100,000 people were estimated to have been displaced by the riots, but subsequent government action fell short of promised improvements.
After the 2008 riots, “many left South Africa,” said Amanda Gouws, a political science professor at Stellenbosch University.
“Since then,” she said, the situation “actually deteriorated,” citing a cutting-back of government services provided for foreign nationals.
The government, said Gouws, has “not done enough by far.”
At the World Economic Forum meeting in Cape Town this week, participants similarly emphasized that more action was necessary but did not limit their criticism to South Africa.
“We cannot have a continental free trade agreement and have a situation where there is black-on-black violence in South Africa,” said Oby Ezekwesili, a former Nigerian politician who co-founded anti-corruption group Transparency International.
She argued that the steady progress of a pan-African trade pact — which experts have dubbed a potential “game changer” for the continent’s economies — meant little if political leaders didn’t confront the systemic problems within their societies.
This week’s forum focused on the tremendous opportunity represented by Africa’s burgeoning young population — and the worrisome risks if governments and private companies are not able to provide jobs for them, a factor that has been cited as one contributing to the recurrence of violence.
“The young people who are out there are extremely angry,” Ezekwesili said. “We have a problem of bad politics on the continent.”
Noack reported from Berlin.