South Africa Simmers in the Wake of Violence

By Darren Taylor, Special to The Epoch Times
September 11, 2019 Updated: September 11, 2019

JOHANNESBURG—A middle-aged man, his face a swollen map of blood spatters, cowered against a dirty wall in an alleyway in the Johannesburg city center.

Above his head, spray-painted in dripping ebony, were the capitalized words, “LIFE IS [expletive].”

“We can hear you are makwerekwere; don’t lie to us, dog!” a youth shouted as he kicked the man on the side of his head.

“Makwerekwere” is a derogatory slang word commonly used in South Africa to insult black migrants from the rest of the continent.

Across the city in the township of Alexandra, violence, much of it aimed at foreigners, also flared last week, as it did in several of the country’s urban areas, with an undermanned police force battling to contain the turmoil.

A man in a yellow bandana, carrying a crate of beer looted from a liquor store he said was owned by makwerekwere, told The Epoch Times: “We hate them; all of them, Ghana, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Congo, these brown ones [Bangladeshis], they must all [leave]. They come here as refugees, they marry our women, they take our jobs, they sell our kids drugs. … They make us refugees in our own country!”

The man’s tirade is a basic summary of the justification used to wreak violence on migrants in South Africa: Migrants are “criminals” and “abuse” scarce resources that should belong to citizens.

On Sept. 5, almost five days after the violence began to intensify, President Cyril Ramaphosa appeared on national television to appeal for calm.

“There can be no excuse for the attacks on the homes and businesses of foreign nationals, just as there can be no excuse for xenophobia or any other form of intolerance,” he said.

On Sept. 10, Ramaphosa’s Minister of International Relations Naledi Pandor also used television to appeal for an end to the chaos.

She acknowledged that perhaps the state hadn’t done enough to improve relations between foreign migrants and South Africans since the first major wave of xenophobic strife hit the country in 2008, during which more than 60 foreigners were killed.

South African looters run through tear gas smoke during a riot in the Johannesburg suburb of Turffontein on Sept. 2, 2019 as angry protesters loot alleged foreign-owned shops in a new wave of violence targeting foreign nationals. (Guillem Sartotrio/AFP/Getty Images)

She said that she would meet with ambassadors to plot a positive way forward.

But the agitators weren’t watching television, and the violence continued, with ethnic Zulus armed with weapons including wooden clubs and knives ignoring their leaders and marching through Johannesburg to demand the exit of all makwerekwere, whom they accused of drug dealing and “turning our girls into prostitutes.” Another person was killed in the ensuing clashes, but the police didn’t confirm the victim’s nationality.

This casualty raised the death toll to 11, with police saying that at least two victims were “African foreigners.” Almost 500 people have been arrested on a variety of criminal charges connected to the violence.

One man, his clothing wet with gasoline used to torch a vehicle, shouted: “The president and his friends want us to talk, but why? They only listen to fire and rocks.”

The Fallout

Some African states believe it took too long for Ramaphosa to speak out.

Nigeria, whose citizens were prominent victims, recalled its ambassador to Pretoria and didn’t send a delegation to the World Economic Forum on Africa held from Sept. 4 to 6 in Cape Town. The leaders of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, and Rwanda also declined to participate.

The government of Madagascar instructed its national soccer team not to travel to South Africa to play a scheduled match.

South Africa
South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa at the WEF meeting in Cape Town, South Africa, on Sept. 5, 2019. (Rodger BoschAFP/Getty Images)

Retaliatory attacks on South African companies happened in several African nations, most notably Nigeria. This week, Nigeria announced it would repatriate 600 of its citizens in the wake of the violence.

Jean-Pierre Misago, who researches xenophobia for the African Center for Migration and Society in Johannesburg, said Ramaphosa’s condemnation of the attacks and the subsequent arrests meant “little” if the perpetrators weren’t held accountable.

“Violence against foreign migrants has been happening for a long time now in South Africa. What happened in 2008, for example, is still not forgotten. But then, as now, people get arrested for xenophobic crimes, and get released on bail or on warning,” Misago said.

“In any case, you won’t achieve much if you just prosecute the foot-soldiers. There are known groups and individuals organizing this violence for their own socioeconomic and political interests, and those are the ones who should be targeted.”

‘Xenophobic Populism’

One of South Africa’s biggest civil society groups, Right2Know, linked the violence directly to calls by politicians to “defend the sovereignty of the state.”

Senior public figures, including Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini and Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba, have been accused of making xenophobic remarks. The minister of health and Ramaphosa himself have complained that the migrants are “straining” South Africa’s resources.

“Indeed, there is a dangerous emerging trend of xenophobic populism that leads to attacks on foreign nationals,” Right2Know wrote in a statement.

Stephen Friedman, director of South Africa’s Institute for the Study of Democracy, said it was “maybe no coincidence” that most of the xenophobic attacks happened in Gauteng Province, where both Johannesburg and Pretoria are situated. Both the provincial premier and Mashaba have blamed “illegal immigrants” for the region’s ills.

Human rights organizations said widespread dissatisfaction with dire socioeconomic conditions in South Africa made foreigners easy targets for people’s anger and frustration.

Migrants in search of better lives in a country regarded as Africa’s most prosperous—even though it’s second to Nigeria in terms of economic scale—have been streaming into South Africa since it became democratic in 1994.

Yet the nation remains one of the most unequal in the world, with 10 million people unemployed and half the nation of almost 60 million living below the national poverty line.

South Africa’s 2011 census reported 5 million immigrants living legally in South Africa.

Misago said: “We don’t know exactly how many foreign migrants, legal and illegal, are in the country. But I’m confident that it isn’t enough to justify holding them responsible for depleting resources. From a research point of view, we see this violence as being about not having proper governance.”

South Africans are hurting. Inflation is spiking, unemployment is rising. The ranks of the poor are swelling.

As police helicopters hovered over the city, a Nigerian victim of looting bellowed: “South Africa’s the richest country in Africa, but it cannot share its wealth. It cannot stop poverty, because that would mean less money for the rich. It cannot govern properly.”

“Yeah, just like Nigeria,” cackled his friend, unable to resist the comment even as the bullets flew and the flames grew around him.

But the first man’s tirade continued: “South Africa is going to explode. If you don’t get your act together soon, your country will destroy itself.”

His words may be worthy of serious consideration; financial experts have been warning for a long time that the state doesn’t seem to have a comprehensive, sensible plan to rescue the economy, and that without this, socioeconomic chaos, including anti-foreigner attacks, will intensify.