African reaction to township riots is a wake-up call for South Africa

As anti-immigrant riots spark reprisals across the continent, there are many reasons why South Africa cannot afford to have another spate of xenophobic attacks.


South Africa’s latest spate of anti-immigrant riots not only caused loss of life but also led to reprisals across the continent. Preventing a recurrence is crucial for the future of the country and its neighbours, says Dianna Games.

The sight of the premises of South African household names including Shoprite, Mr Price, Pep and MTN being attacked and looted in other African countries was a reality check for South Africa that has been more than a decade in the making. 

The reprisals were an inevitable response to the violent attacks against African citizens in low-income areas of South African cities, which flared up in September and have taken at least 12 lives.

While such incidents date back to 2008, successive South African administrations have not reacted speedily or appropriately to address violent attacks on African migrants, fuelling a cycle of impunity.

These perceptions of a state that does not care about other Africans play into an existing view held by many in Africa that South Africans believe they are an exception and speak about the continent as if it is something apart from their more sophisticated economy. External actors have perpetuated this sense of superiority by, for example, nominating South Africa as the only African member of the G20 and the Brics bloc of emerging nations.

The ruling ANC has always stated its commitment to the African continent, arguing that the region is central to its foreign policy objectives, but the continent is actually just one of many priorities. Since the end of apartheid in 1994, South Africa has failed to balance its continental interests with its quest for advantage in developed economies and non-African emerging markets. 

Economic diplomacy has been compromised by mistrust between the ANC, which aspires to an interventionist development state, and large corporations seeking good returns on investment, many of them white-owned enterprises with roots in the apartheid era. 

It is these companies, the main drivers of the country’s African engagement, that stand to lose most from the reprisals. They have become household names in retail, mobile telecommunications, entertainment, hospitality, packaging and many other sectors across the continent.

It is ironic that citizens in other countries chose to attack business targets to convey their displeasure at the violence meted out to some of their nationals in South Africa, a problem that most South Africans instead blame on their complacent government. 

The retaliatory violence has been a wake-up call for South Africans at all levels, but is not unprecedented. In 2015, after similar incidents in the Durban area, South African cars were stoned at the border with Mozambique and Zimbabwean students marched on the South African embassy in Harare.  

In previous attacks on foreign Africans, Nigeria’s voice has always been the loudest, a result of the competitive nature of the relationship between Africa’s two biggest economies. Many felt Abuja’s objections tended to be an extension of this one-upmanship rather than a real threat to South Africa’s relationship with Nigeria. This time, Nigeria’s response was even stronger, as it responded by pulling out of the World Economic Forum in Cape Town and laying on free planes to bring citizens home from South Africa.

Targeted attacks 

Mostly, business has tried to keep out of the fray. But social media images of mobs conducting violent attacks on foreigners in parts of South African cities quickly spread across the continent. As a result, the retaliatory attacks in 2019 have become more targeted and aggressive. South African companies that had stores burned down in Johannesburg saw similar attacks on their investments in Zambia, Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria as Africans expressed their anger at Pretoria’s lacklustre response to the plight of their countrymen. 

High-profile companies and South African embassies closed their doors temporarily. But even after cleaning up the mess and counting their losses, companies are concerned about consumer boycotts and losing the battle for hearts and minds in African markets.

Many of the countries drawn into this drama are South Africa’s neighbours and main trading partners, including Mozambique and Zimbabwe, whose economic woes have contributed to a big influx of legal and illegal immigrants into South Africa. Nigeria accounts for less than 1% of South Africa’s exports but is a major supplier of its crude oil, making it strategically important to Pretoria. 

President Cyril Ramaphosa has done too little too late. Instead of wading in decisively, he waited days to condemn the violence, by which time it had gained real traction. The reality of the situation hit home at the funeral of Robert Mugabe in Harare, when Ramaphosa found himself being jeered by the crowd. He departed from his script to apologise for the actions of his countrymen. Days later, he sent envoys to other African countries, including Zimbabwe, to build bridges. 

Long-term prosperity at risk

The issues are complex. South Africa has many structural problems, such as widespread crime, corruption, poverty and joblessness. This has been exacerbated by uncontrolled immigration and porous borders, which mean foreigners are seen to be competing for jobs, housing and opportunities even though most are self-employed. Many have come to South Africa to escape a lack of economic opportunity at home.   

Beyond the immediate tragic loss of life, there are many reasons why South Africa cannot afford to have another spate of xenophobic attacks. One is the risk that intolerance of “others” may spill over into more localised ethnic conflict. But crucially, South Africa and its people are inextricably tied to the continent. Its companies offer jobs and opportunity to millions of Africans and its markets offer a buffer against slow growth at home. South Africa’s long-term prosperity depends on its hinterland.  

Damaging the fabric of African integration is not an issue about far-off investments. It is about South Africa’s own national interest, economic development and political survival. 

Dianna Games is CEO of advisory company Africa @ Work

Subscribe for full access

You've reached the maximum number of free articles for this month.

Digital Monthly

£8.00 / month

Receive full unlimited access to our articles, opinions, podcasts and more.

Digital Yearly

£70.00 / year

Receive full unlimited access to our articles, opinions, podcasts and more.