South Africa moves to stop unrest after xenophobic attacks

Riots in Johannesburg and Pretoria, in which mobs attacked shops owned by migrants, have left five dead

EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / Residents of Johannesburg's Alexandra township stand behind a police cordon as they gather at the scene where a body of a burned person was found inside a looted shop on September 04, 2019 after South Africa's financial capital was hit by a new wave of anti-foreigner violence.  South African police said they found two charred bodies in a shop in the Johannesburg township of Alexandra, bringing the death toll from xenophobic attacks to seven. / AFP / Michele Spatari
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A recent spate of xenophobic attacks in South Africa have left five dead and nearly 300 arrested, police said on Wednesday, as anti-immigrant violence brought condemnation from several African countries whose citizens have been injured.

The unrest began in a Johannesburg suburb on Sunday when a protest march against drug-dealers blamed on foreigners devolved into violence, local media reported.

By Monday, rioters looted foreign-owned shops and set fire to cars and buildings in South Africa’s commercial capital and largest city.

Photos and videos showed protesters carting away food items, with a particularly striking image depicting two people making off with an entire vending machine.

The violence then spread to Pretoria, the country’s seat of power, where immigrant shopkeepers and traders were attacked and their shops looted.

Police fired rubber bullets on Tuesday to disperse the rioters gathered in Alexandria, an impoverished township in north-eastern Johannesburg where further looting of foreign-owned shops was reported overnight.

Some government officials in South Africa tried to downplay the attacks as law and order issue rather than xenophobic. Police minister Bheki Cele said that criminals were using intolerance as an excuse.

But President Cyril Ramaphosa was unequivocal on the cause of the attacks. In a recorded statement on Tuesday, the South African leader said the attacks must "stop immediately".

“The people of our country want to live in harmony; whatever concerns or grievances we may have, we need to handle them in a democratic way. There can be no justification for any South African to attack people from other countries,” Mr Ramaphosa said.

He added that he was convening ministers responsible for security “to make sure that we keep a close eye on these acts of wanton violence and find ways of stopping them”.

Flashes of violence against immigrants remain a recurring problem in South Africa.

In the wake of this week’s clashes, an activist group called Right2Know assailed the country’s politicians for fanning the flames of anti-immigrant sentiment with their divisive rhetoric of blaming foreign nationals for the country’s societal ills.

"Senior political leaders find an easy target in the vulnerable Africans seeking to make a new home in South Africa," the group said, naming Ramaphosa, Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba and Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini.

recent report by the African Centre for Migration and Society, which has monitored attacks on foreigners in South Africa since 1994, called xenophobic violence a "longstanding feature in post-Apartheid South Africa."

Foreigners are often blamed for taking jobs from South Africans in a country where unemployment is as high as 28 per cent, drug-dealing and many other ills facing the nation.

The scenes of violence have led several African countries to denounce attacks on their citizens and to call for South African authorities to ensure the safety of their people.

In a statement, Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned “the heinous act of violence perpetrated against foreigners including our citizens in South Africa”. It also warned its citizens to “distance themselves from any confrontation and conflict”, close their shops if possible and avoid going out wearing expensive jewellery.

Zambia, a close ally of South Africa, warned its lorry drivers to “avoid travelling to South Africa until the security situation improves” following the reported looting and torching of trucks and intimidation of foreign truck drivers. On Tuesday, the Football Association of Zambia cancelled a friendly scheduled for this weekend against the South African men’s team in response to the attacks.

The strongest response has come from Nigeria, whose citizens have most often been on the receiving end of attacks. Nigeria recalled its ambassador to South Africa Wednesday and pulled out of the World Economic Forum Africa Summit in Cape Town. It is a sign of deteriorating diplomatic and economic ties between Africa’s largest economies.

Its foreign minister Geoffrey Onyeama had earlier called the violence "sickening and depressing" and wasdispatched as the lead of the Nigerian delegation to Pretoria to convey Nigeria's concerns to Mr Ramaphosa.

Social media was awash with messages against the violence using the hashtag #SayNoToXenophobia.

The messages did little to halt tit-for-tat violence in the real world; by Tuesday evening South African-owned businesses in Nigeria were vandalised and looted in Lagos. Branches of the supermarket Shoprite and offices of the telecom giant MTN were attacked. On Wednesday, both businesses announced in separate statements they were closing shops out of concerns for the safety of their customers and staff. Nigerian music stars Burna Boy and Tiwa Savage have also called for a boycott of concerts in South Africa.

The riots come ahead of proposed October talks between Nigeria President Muhammadu Buhari and his South African counterpart to discuss rising tensions between the two nations, particularly violence against foreigners.