AS the coronavirus outbreak has slammed the South African economy and pushed unemployment to a 17-year high, it’s awakened a recurrent social demon: xenophobia.
Anti-immigrant groups have staged demonstrations in recent months in Johannesburg, the biggest city, and in Pretoria, the capital, demanding the mass deportation of foreigners. The provincial government of Gauteng, the nation’s economic hub, wants to pass a law next year to limit ownership of businesses in low-income areas, known as townships, to South African citizens and foreigners who are fully legalised.
That threatens to upend an industry of convenience stores numbering over 100 000 nationwide with annual revenue of R100 billion, according to GG Alcock, a consultant on township marketing and an author of books on the informal economy.
“Every foreign national that came to our country since 1994 must be deported,” said Victoria Mamogobo, the 34-year-old chairwoman of the South Africa First party, as she demonstrated on November 27 with a group waving national flags and banners in downtown Johannesburg. “You’ve got people all the way from Nigeria who are here to sell tomatoes on our streets. How is that helping us grow our economy?”
Since the apartheid system of racial discrimination ended in 1994, Africa’s most developed economy has been a magnet for migrants from the continent and as far afield as Bangladesh. That’s sparked bouts of violence every few years, with mobs attacking and looting shops and killing foreigners — the most extreme instance in 2008 left 60 people dead and another 50,000 displaced. Today, social media helps whip up the hatred.
Barrage of criticism
A barrage of criticism following clashes between locals and immigrants in 2019 prompted President Cyril Ramaphosa to dispatch envoys to other African countries to calm tensions.
Many of the migrants are refugees, legally in the country and allowed to work. Some are economic migrants — many undocumented — and others, including hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans, have been given work permits. While it’s unclear how many migrants are in South Africa, estimates of the number of Zimbabweans alone exceed 2 million.
Still, with South Africa’s economy set to contract by the most in nine decades this year, unemployment at 31% and local elections scheduled for 2021, some politicians have found blaming foreigners for everything from joblessness to poor public services is a vote winner.
Finance Minister Tito Mboweni in April said locals should be prioritised in post-pandemic recovery efforts. The government of Gauteng has denied its township development bill unfairly targets foreigners.
“Which part is xenophobic? Because what that bill is saying is that you must be a South African, you must be in South Africa legally,” said Vuyo Mhaga, spokesman for Gauteng Premier David Makhura. “The bias will obviously be for South Africans.”
Xenowatch, which gathers information on xenophobic attacks, says that between January 2019 and November 2020, 1,376 shops were looted and 37 people were killed.
Immigrants, many from Somalia and Ethiopia, dominate the ownership of township convenience stores because they are better equipped than South Africans to compete against formal supermarket chains, according to Alcock.
While South African store owners tend to operate by themselves, Somalians and Ethiopians band together and buy in bulk, allowing them to offer similar prices to supermarket chains, he said. South Africans still own the properties, and, according to his estimates, immigrants pay 20 billion rand in rent in townships annually.
“The assumption is that if they stop illegal immigrants from trading then immediately those jobs will be taken up, or those small businesses will be taken up by South Africans,” he said. “That’s not true.”
South Africa First and the Put South Africans First movement, founded in April, are demanding interventions from government including a citizenship audit, the introduction of a public-service fee for foreigners and an end to the issuing of non-essential work permits.
The African Diaspora Forum, which campaigns for migrant rights, made a submission on the bill on Nov. 25 and said it will challenge it in court if is passed.
As he listens to Nigerian gospel music and eats bread dipped in tea in downtown Johannesburg, Ekechukwu Nnadi points to a nearby street corner where he was beaten by anti-immigrant rioters three years ago. The incident hasn’t stopped him from coming back.
“This is where I make my ends meet to pay my rent and take care of my family,” he said.