A group calling itself “The Mamelodi Concerned Residents” marched in Pretoria to protest against African immigrants in South Africa. The march was opposed by foreign nationals, and triggered a wave of looting of shops owned by foreign nationals and clashes between the two groups. If unchecked, these xenophobic attacks could soon engulf Pretoria and spread to other parts of South Africa, as they have in the past.
The organizers of today’s anti-immigrants march are not the only ones blaming foreign nationals for crime and stealing jobs. In December, Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba made some reckless public statements blaming illegal immigrants for crime and calling on them to leave the city.
South African president Jacob Zuma condemned today’s violence and called on citizens and non-nationals to exercise restraint, and unite against crime. But President Zuma’s condemnation of violence alone will do little to address the root causes of recurring xenophobia in South Africa. No one has been convicted over past outbreaks of xenophobic violence, including the Durban violence of April 2015 that displaced thousands of foreign nationals, and the 2008 attacks, which resulted in the deaths of more than 60 people across the country.
To combat xenophobia, police and the government need to publicly acknowledge that ongoing attacks on foreign nationals and their property are xenophobic and then take decisive action. This should include ensuring proper police investigations of xenophobic crimes and holding those responsible to account.
Inflammatory public statements, such as those made by the Johannesburg mayor last Decembershould also be condemned. Those who cross the line and directly incite violence against migrants should be prosecuted.
For a country that bills itself as an African human rights champion, the litmus test will be how the South African government stems this dangerous tide of xenophobia.