JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - Tensions are high in South Africa’s capital amid a wave of attacks against businesses owned by immigrants, who some angry residents accuse of spreading crime. A group of Pretoria residents are preparing to hold an anti-immigrant protest on Friday.
Several low-income Pretoria neighborhoods have in recent days seen violence evocative of the last major wave of of xenophobia that hit Johannesburg and Durban in 2015.
Police reported that at least 20 shops and homes were looted and burned and foreign residents were attacked Monday. No arrests have been made, police say, as no one has stepped forward to press charges.
Prince Binda, a representative from the (DRC) Congolese immigrant community, says many local Congolese residents are losing hope in the Rainbow Nation.
“I have a friend for instance in Pretoria West, who phoned and said, ‘Look, man, today I have nothing in this country,’” he said. “‘Because the car we were driving, we were thrown of out the car, and people came into the flat and they took everything.’ So really, so to be punished, or to be beaten up for what we didn’t do, makes you regret why you first came in this country.”
President Jacob Zuma’s office told VOA on Tuesday he had not made any public pronouncements on the attacks and had yet to issue a statement.
Many activists say politicians have a big role to play in these events, citing comments made by Johannesburg’s mayor Herman Mashaba in December in which he said immigrants are “holding our country to ransom” and equated immigrants to criminals. Those comments earned him sharp rebukes from other politicians.
Magnet for immigrants
South Africa has long been a magnet for migrants from around Africa, and beyond, because of its progressive laws, porous borders, advanced economy and a migration policy that does not require asylum seekers to live in refugee camps. Officially, the last census counted 2.2. million immigrants in South Africa; some estimates are as high as 5 million immigrants.
The nation is also beset by racial inequality and high unemployment, which has led to frustration. In 2015, xenophobic violence in Durban and Johannesburg left at least seven people dead and prompted thousands to flee. Another outbreak of violence in 2008 left at least 67 people dead.
Ethiopian community member Alemayehu Senbeta, a carpenter, disputes the notion that immigrants take jobs away from South Africans and hinder the economy.
“We’re not taking any jobs from the [citizens], but we are helping and supporting,” he said. “As you know, most of our people are in locations, rural areas. They go wherever, even risky places where people cannot go. Even some of the places citizens are very scared to go to that place, but our people go there and create a business for themselves. But we are not actually taking a job from the South Africans.”
University of Cape Town research supports him. A 2015 study found immigrant business owners in South Africa contribute to the economy in numerous ways, among them, by paying rent to South Africans, and by hiring South Africans.
Activist Mametlwe Sebei of Lawyers for Human Rights, who is South African, says the government urgently needs to address the situation, before any more immigrants pay the price.