Last week’s African edition of the World Economic Forum held great promise under the tagline “shaping inclusive growth and shared futures in the Fourth Industrial Revolution”. In the build-up to the three-day event in Cape Town, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa had been noticeably animated, seeing the event as a perfect showcase for the country. Despite some economic issues – not least a sluggish economy and high unemployment – Mr Ramaphosa had hoped to use WEF to announce that South Africa was open for business and investment. But his plans were overshadowed by a fresh bout of the violence that has plagued South African society for decades.
In the days before the conference began, an outbreak of xenophobic violence against nationals of other African countries swept major cities in the country. In Johannesburg and Pretoria, scores of people were injured, at least 10 were killed and hundreds of foreign-owned shops looted. While immigrants number just four million in a country with a total population of more than 50 million, a widespread misconception has taken hold that foreigners are taking South African jobs. Despite a temporary abatement in the violence, xenophobic attacks resumed last Sunday, claiming another two lives and leading to a total of about 700 arrests.
With an unemployment rate so far this year sitting at 29 per cent – rising to more than 55 per cent for the under-35s and getting worse – many South Africans are fuming over the state of the economy and their individual job prospects. Xenophobic violence is not a recent phenomenon; it has been a recurring theme over the past two decades. As in so many countries worldwide, immigrants are easy culprits to point the finger at to blame for so many of South Africa’s challenges and problems. Indeed, the images of burning stores last week were strongly reminiscent of the horrific 2008 attacks on foreigners that left more than 60 people dead.
With the violence spiralling out of control, many African countries threatened stronger action and boycotts to protect their nationals. Nigeria, the continent's largest economy that vies for regional influence with South Africa, boycotted the WEF conference and mooted the prospect of diplomatic action while hundreds of Nigerians protested at the South African embassy in Lagos and looted South African-owned stores. After offering to fly home their overseas workers for free, 320 returnees were due to land back home in Nigeria later today, with another 300 expecting to be repatriated in the coming days.
The violence underscores the dramatic shift in South Africa’s soft-power image across the continent since the halcyon days of Nelson Mandela’s time in office. Mr Mandela’s embrace of human rights struggles across Africa transformed post-apartheid South Africa into one of the continent's most beloved nations. But xenophobic riots against other Africans and the aggressive tactics of South African companies regionally have changed things. Former president Jacob Zuma’s efforts to strongarm the African Union into making his ex-wife the head of the regional body were emblematic of South Africa’s changed behaviour.
The dire state of the South African economy and the current leadership’s inability to create jobs at home have led, once again, to violence against migrants who cannot be blamed for the country’s self-perpetuated problems.
Violence is indeed the thread that ran through the terrible recent events. As foreign-owned shops burned in Johannesburg, thousands gathered in front of parliament in Cape Town to protest against gender-based violence. Communities have been left shocked by the rape and murder last month of a 19-year-old University of Cape Town student by a post office employee, after she had gone to the post office to collect a parcel, an assault that has brought the gravity of South Africa’s gender-based violence into sharp focus.
The statistics are shocking. A woman is killed by a man every three hours in South Africa, according to a 2018 report on crimes against women from Statistics South Africa. According to researchers at the University of Stellenbosch, the level of gender-related violence is higher than many war zones. South Africa is ranked 125th out of 163 countries on the Global Peace Index when it comes to safety, peacefulness and violence, particularly against women, which puts it on a par with Chad and the Democratic Republic of Congo. There are between 40,000 and 50,000 rapes reported every year while an untold number of sexual crimes go unreported.
The attacks are universal. Women across all sectors of society in South Africa have spoken of their collective fear of walking the streets of their cities, and their profound anger that such a situation has been allowed to spiral out of control. The protests that filled the streets of major cities were a clear sign of the desperation and growing clamour for change.
It is uncertain how soon that change will come. Mr Ramaphosa, who cancelled several meetings at WEF so he could address the protests, condemned the violence this week, reminding citizens that the majority of foreign workers were “law-abiding and have the right to conduct their lives and businesses in peace”. Meanwhile police minister Bheki Cele tried to play down xenophobia as a factor in investigations. But the situation is certainly not improving, even as the government has promised an improvement in safety. The reality South Africans are grappling with is that they are suffering from a legacy of violence, much of which can be blamed on a society broken apart by apartheid’s cruel and demeaning social experiment, with little concrete action taken by successive democratic governments to address it.
It is a bitter irony that the violent manifestation of that deep-rooted inequality spilled onto the streets during WEF's annual meeting. As Africa's most industrialised nation, South Africa should be leading the charge across the continent but it is struggling to grapple with the violence fostered by deep-rooted disunity. Without strong leadership, the prospects of a promised "African century", as WEF devotees like to describe it, will be substantially more challenging to achieve.
With an economy that shows few signs of improvement and warning signs that things could get worse, events unfolding in South Africa are a worrying portent of the situation getting worse. Economic instability and inequality will certainly fuel more violence. With the South African military already patrolling the townships of Cape Town and those with means looking to flee the country, plans for an African century will need new stewardship.
It was not lost on South Africans that recent events coincided with the death of the former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe, a one-time revolutionary leader who freed his people from the shackles of colonial oppression to become a despotic leader who led his country into economic collapse. While South Africa does not have its own Mugabe, the country is under threat of economic collapse. Nearly three decades after Mandela's African National Congress freed the country from the horrors of apartheid, South Africa is slowly imploding under its own inability to address the violence permeating society.
Joseph Dana is the editor of emerge85, a project exploring change in the emerging world and its global impact