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South Africa: How common are xenophobic attacks?

South Africa: How common are xenophobic attacks?
  • Some South African officials have blamed criminality instead of xenophobia.
  • Attacks have mainly taken place in large cities, but they have also been reported in smaller towns and rural areas.
  • Human rights groups say government needs to publicly recognise attacks on foreigners as xenophobic.

In the past few days rioters have caused chaos in Johannesburg, South Africa's commercial hub, torching vehicles and looting shops, many of which are owned by foreign nationals.

Some South African officials have blamed criminality instead of xenophobia.

However, the Nigerian government has summoned the South Africa's high commissioner, alleging Nigerian-owned businesses have been targeted.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has condemned the attacks, saying "there can be no justification for any South African to attack people from other countries."

TRACKING ATTACKS

So how common are attacks against migrants and are they on the rise?

The South African government does not collect data on attacks or threats against foreign nationals.

However, the African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS) has monitored these attacks across South Africa since 1994. Its Xenowatch tracker collates media reports as well as information from activists, victims and observers.

ACMS suggests violent attacks peaked in 2008 and again in 2015.

In 2008, there was a wave of attacks across the country against refugees and migrants - more than 60 people were reported to have been killed and thousands displaced.

In 2015, there were outbreaks of violence against non-South Africans, mostly in the cities of Durban and Johannesburg, which led to the deployment of the army to deter further unrest.

In March, the government launched an initiative to raise public awareness and improve access to services for victims of discrimination.

Human rights groups welcomed it, but said that the government needed to publicly recognise attacks on foreigners as xenophobic.

In a statement published in October 2018, South Africa's main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, blamed the governing ANC party for a "scourge of xenophobic violence".

Where are the migrants from?

About 70 percent of foreigners in South Africa come from neighbouring Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Lesotho.

The remaining 30 percent is made up of people from Malawi, UK, Namibia, eSwatini, previously known as Swaziland, India and other countries.

There are an estimated 3.6 million migrants in the country, a spokesperson for South Africa's national statistics body told the BBC, out of an overall population of well over 50 million.

How do different regions compare?

Gauteng province, which includes South Africa's largest city Johannesburg and the capital Pretoria, has the highest rate of violence against foreign nationals, followed by the Western Cape, according to the ACMS. KwaZulu-Natal, where Durban is situated, is third.

Attacks have mainly taken place in large cities, but they have also been reported in smaller towns and rural areas.

The violence is often triggered by local disputes, with migrants being accused of taking jobs away from South Africans.

Foreign-run shops have been looted and destroyed.

South Africa xenophobic attacks

Looters take items from an alleged foreign-owned shop during a riot in the Johannesburg suburb of Turffontein on September 2, 2019 in a new wave of violence targeting foreign nationals in South Africa. PHOTO | GUILLEM SARTORIO | AFP

The country has experienced poor economic performance, with officially recorded unemployment at more than 27 percent at the end of last year.

And more widely, the country has one of the highest murder rates in the world.

"The causes are poverty and has its roots in apartheid," says Sharon Ekambaram, who runs the refugee and migrant rights programme for Lawyers for Human Rights.