The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What’s driving anti-immigrant violence in South Africa? It’s not just economic anxiety.

A heavily damaged shop in Johannesburg’s Malvern suburb after South Africa's financial capital was hit by a new wave of night violence. (Michele Spatari/AFP/Getty Images)
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JOHANNESBURG — For four days last week, South Africa’s economic capital was the site of running battles as looters raided shops owned by foreigners. Ten people were killed in mob violence. Police made hundreds of arrests.

By the end of the week, calm had returned as store owners unlocked security gates, swept up uncollected trash and arranged window displays. But it did not last. Violence erupted again Sunday, leaving two more dead and 700 under arrest.

The mobs were largely made up of South African migrants from rural areas, attracted to this city of 4 million by the prospect of work. The target of their ire: businesses owned by black migrants from other African countries who they think have taken jobs from South Africans.

Their animosity is in part driven by fierce competition for work in Johannesburg, a mining town turned metropolis that attracts anyone trying to make a living. South Africa’s economy has struggled with recession and corruption. The national unemployment rate sits at 29 percent, and for those younger than 35, it is a staggering 55.2 percent, according to Statistics South Africa, a government agency.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa condemned the weekend’s violence.

“The majority of foreign nationals in our country . . . are law-abiding and have the right to conduct their lives and businesses in peace,” he said in a statement Monday.

Police say they have traced the perpetrators of the attacks to “hostels” — an apartheid-era system of accommodation in which single men from rural provinces live in overcrowded, often squalid quarters. In the 1990s, hostel dwellers of different ethnicities fought each other in battles so fierce that South Africa teetered on the brink of civil war.

In recent years, violence has been motivated by a view that foreign-owned businesses are a threat to South African establishments, a sentiment that has surfaced in political rhetoric.

In the run-up to this year’s election, which brought Ramaphosa to power, the opposition Democratic Alliance party linked high unemployment to what it said was the government’s poor border policies in its election manifesto. And Ramaphosa, at a rally in April, put the spotlight on foreign shop owners.

“Everybody just arrives in our townships and rural areas and set[s] up businesses without licenses and permits. We are going to bring this to an end,” he said.

Days later, Malawians living among South Africans in a shantytown in the coastal city of Durban were attacked and displaced. Ramaphosa later walked those comments back by reminding South Africans of the solidarity shown to them by other African nations during apartheid.

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“If we’re going to look at the violence and the darker forces behind it, then we need to look at the utterances of politicians, and their utterances have been utterly xenophobic and run the risk of inciting violence,” said Tanya Zack, an urban planner and researcher at the University of the Witwatersrand.

In Johannesburg, Mayor Herman Mashaba has come under fire for his comments on foreigners in the inner city, describing in a radio interview last year the number of undocumented immigrants as a “crisis” linked to dozens of illegally occupied buildings.

“What we saw this week was pure criminality,” said Mashaba spokesman Olebogeng Molatlhwa. “There may be attempts to use what the mayor said about home affairs and use it as a justification, but looting shops is not what the mayor has said about adherence to the law.”

Experts say such political speech inflames anti-migrant sentiment.

“The recent xenophobic attacks on non-South Africans can be directly linked to calls by politicians to ‘defend the sovereignty of the state’ and confirms a dangerous emerging trend of xenophobic populism, which leads to attacks on foreign nationals,” Right2Know, a prominent South African human rights advocacy group, said in a statement on Sept. 2.

Traders in Johannesburg’s city center say they think Mashaba and other politicians’ comments have made them more vulnerable.

“We decided to open our shops because we don’t have an alternative,” said 34-year-old Tadesse Yemane, an Ethiopian migrant who sells Chinese-made shoes and clothes from a rented alcove in what used to be a medical building. His shop is unremarkable in a maze of stalls that spill out onto the sidewalks, all selling a version of the same sneakers, flowing dresses, stretch denim and costume jewelry.

Ethiopian traders moved into a part of the city that was “incredibly run-down” in the 1980s and helped revive the area, Zack said. The several blocks that make up the northeast quadrant of Johannesburg’s center are now known as the Ethiopian Quarter, or Little Addis, a popular shopping district that draws customers from around the country.

This particular shopping hub posts an estimated annual profit of close to 7 billion rand, or nearly $473 million. This growth is seen as a threat as locally owned businesses struggle.

On Aug. 1, police officers carrying out a raid on sellers of counterfeit goods were pelted with stones as vendors fought back against what they described as intimidation. Amateur footage of police vans retreating from shopkeepers giving chase prompted an outcry on social media, with some politicians condemning what they called lawless behavior.

Residents turned to vigilantism, and sporadic looting followed in the townships of Soweto in the south of Johannesburg, Alexandra in the north and Katlehong in the east, as well as in the capital, Pretoria, as locals tried to drive out immigrant shop owners.

Then, when a shop caught fire in downtown Johannesburg last week, it seemed to ignite a concentrated wave of violence.

The looting last week struck at the heart of the shopping district. Fast-fashion stores, many of which are owned by Ethiopian immigrants, were ransacked. Rioters torched cars owned by a Beninese car dealer, and pockets of violence erupted in an area known as Little Mogadishu, west of the city center.

“We don’t have proper policies, then we pit the poor against each other,” Zack said, “foreigners against South Africans.”

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