Mobs rampage in major cities. The country is criticized by other African states. There is talk of boycotting its businesses abroad.
Are we talking about the white-governed apartheid South Africa of three decades ago? No, it’s today’s democratic nation, ruled since the 1994 election that ended minority rule and brought to power the African National Congress.
So what has happened? The current attacks on foreign-owned shops in the country began after South African truck drivers started a nationwide strike to protest against the employment of foreign drivers on Sept. 1.
They blocked roads and torched foreign-driven vehicles, mainly in the coastal KwaZulu-Natal province. Drivers were subject to xenophobic attacks and harassment.
It left at least 10 people dead, with dozens more arrested for the widespread looting and arson of foreign-owned shops and businesses.
This comes at a time of high unemployment, and some South Africans blame foreigners for taking their jobs. The unemployment rate in South Africa is nearly 28 per cent.
The government minister responsible for small business development, Lindiwe Zulu, said the rioters “feel there are other Africans coming into the country and they feel these Africans are taking our jobs.”
But the country's police minister, Bheki Cele, said “criminality rather than xenophobia” was to blame.
South Africa is a major destination for migrants in search of work from the southern Africa region and beyond. There are some four million migrants in South Africa, a nation of more than 50 million.
While many have moved from neighbouring Lesotho, Mozambique, and especially Zimbabwe, whose citizens make up the biggest migrant population in South Africa, others come from as far as Somalia, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Approved refugees enjoy most of the same fundamental rights as South African citizens, thanks to the nation’s liberal constitution.
That may change. Xenophobia has long been a problem in South Africa, though the first major outbreak of riots targeting outsiders in the country occurred in 2008, when 62 people were killed. The violence was brought under control only after the government deployed the military.
There were subsequent incidents, particularly in 2015, when unrest in the cities of Johannesburg and Durban claimed seven lives and led to large-scale looting.
This time, there was anger across Africa. The African Union Commission condemned the violence. Its chairman, Moussa Faki Mahamat, called on South Africa to restore law and order.
Officials in Zambia reacted with outrage after that country’s truck drivers were attacked. Information and Broadcasting Services Permanent Secretary Chanda Kasolo called it “barbaric.”
Zambia’s soccer association cancelled an international game against South Africa scheduled to take place in the Zambian capital, Lusaka.
In the Congo, demonstrators outside of the South African Embassy in Kinshasa held signs that read “Don’t kill our brothers” and “No xenophobia.”
Zimbabwe government spokesperson Nick Mangwana stated that he expected the South African government to protect its immigrants. Tanzania suspended flights to Johannesburg.
Governmental delegations from Nigeria, Rwanda, Malawi and Congo pulled out of the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting on Africa, which took place in Cape Town in early September.
Meant to be a showcase for South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, it instead became an embarrassment.