Xenophobic violence in South Africa fuels cycle of retaliation in Nigeria and elsewhere

13 September 2019

Xenophobic violence in South Africa fuels cycle of retaliation in Nigeria and elsewhere

Long-standing underlying resentment felt by black South Africans against African migrants flared up in September, sparking mob riots and looting of foreign-owned shops and businesses in the cities of Durban, Johannesburg, and Tshwane (or Pretoria), and arson attacks against scores of commercial truck drivers across the country. At least two people died after violent protests in Johannesburg’s central business district on 8 September, elevating the total death toll, including from gunshot wounds and stabbings, to 10. Many of the shops are owned by migrants from across Sub-Saharan Africa, including Nigeria, Somalia, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Disenfranchised black communities in South Africa accuse them of stealing ‘their’ jobs and houses, damaging livelihoods, and being engaged in criminal activities such as human trafficking and prostitution.

The attacks have attracted widespread condemnation and reprisal attacks against South African businesses in Nigeria. The anger against South African interests has further been fuelled by fake news circulating online, and led to mob violence, violent protests, and looting of business premises. Eventually, they prompted the South African high commission on 9 September to close its facilities in Lagos and Abuja. South African companies, such as telecommunications giant MTN and supermarket retailer Shoprite, also shut some operations after attracting the ire of the Nigerian populace.

Resentment against South African interests in Nigeria have garnered momentum, with Nigeria’s ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) two days later calling for the nationalisation of South African businesses in the country, through the transferring the ownership of shares to locals. Throughout the week commencing 9 September, over 650 Nigerians have been evacuated from South Africa to Nigeria for fears of xenophobic attacks in their host country.

Beyond Nigeria, state delegations from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Malawi pulled out of the World Economic Forum on Africa, which was being hosted in the South African city of Cape Town. While no specific motivation was given, the decisions were likely tied to the xenophobic attacks in South Africa. Tanzania’s flag carrier, Air Tanzania, announced on 5 September it was suspending flights to Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport (JHB) due to the ongoing violence.

Old woes, new dimensions

Xenophobia against African migrants in South Africa has been simmering since 2008, with regular outburst of violence. But the scale of the current unrest is unprecedented. So has the level of response from other African populations and their governments. In Nigeria, this follows months of regular reports of violence perpetrated in South African against Nigerians. The recent eruption of violence against South African interests came after a Nigerian woman was found strangled to death in her hotel room in Johannesburg at the end of August.

But it is not only attacks on Nigerians abroad that have fuelled local grievances towards South Africa. The extent of retaliation in Nigeria follows two years of growing public resentment towards South African businesses in the country. In December 2018, Nigeria’s attorney-general alleged in a report that MTN Nigeria had accumulated USD2 billion in unpaid taxes. Although the company settled its debt to the government through a USD53 million transaction in July, the telecommunications operator’s reputation has suffered due to the tax issue, as well as because of growing demands it should hire more local staff. It sought to address the latter grievances by listing on the Nigerian Stock Exchange in May. MTN was again under fire in August over suspicion it was over-charging for WhatsApp data bundles in Nigeria.

The business impact

While weeks are likely to pass before the current spate of xenophobic attacks die down, the latest bout of violence has clearly disrupted South African business operations in Nigeria, and South African companies are likely to face increased hostile attention from local communities over the one-year outlook. While the PAC’s calls for nationalisation are unlikely to receive serious political backing, consumer-driven protest movements are likely to be much more disruptive. Both MTN and Shoprite sells consumer goods and services, which means that if a concerted effort to boycott South African goods or outlets are likely to seriously challenge South African companies’ bottom lines.

Although South Africa’s foreign direct investment in Nigeria has increased exponentially over the past decade, a growing number of South African entities have divested over the past three years. Many cite operational and reputational risks due to poor infrastructure and high levels of corruption, which has limited profitability. The recent bout of violence is likely to further complicate their security threat profile, due to the unpredictable nature of xenophobic attacks in South Africa.

No end in sight

Reducing the risk in Nigeria is contingent upon limiting attacks at home. The 2008 bout of xenophobic violence in South Africa ended with the deployment of the armed forces. However, there are few prospects of a negotiated solution being brought by local community leaders of politicians anytime soon. An attempt on 8 September by key stakeholders to calm tensions completely failed after many of the angry attendants walked off as Minister of Police Mbekhi Cele began his speech. This underscores the inability of local leaders in South Africa to effect change on the grassroots level, suggesting that further protests and mob attacks are likely to continue, or worse, gather momentum, over the one-month outlook. In turn, the lack of progress will fuel consumer-driven responses in the near term, but could also motivate government-led reprisals, such as the deportation of South African high commissioners or attempts by Nigerian authorities to frustrate business operations of South African companies.