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In South Africa, a Measured Response to Anti-Immigrant Violence

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Anti-immigrant violence in South Africa is threatening the African National Congress' tenuous hold on power. The most recent wave of attacks has resulted in the deaths of at least seven African immigrants. Attacks on immigrant-owned shops across the country started in April in poorer townships around Durban and spread to other cities in the eastern provinces of Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal. Though this year's outbreak of xenophobic violence in South Africa has killed fewer than a similar surge in 2008, it is indicative of widely felt frustration in the face of an economic downturn.

South Africa has long had a problem with street violence, but attacks directed specifically at foreign migrant workers have increased over the last decade. Acts of harassment against migrants and the looting of migrant-owned shops occur intermittently in poorer communities and townships. Occasionally, there have been deadly outbreaks of violence, the most noteworthy being the flood of lootings and killings that took place in April and May of 2008, killing over 60 people across the country.

This year's anti-immigrant violence triggered negative political backlash across sub-Saharan Africa. The Somali government condemned the attacks, mainly because many Somali nationals were targeted. The violence even forced South African politician Julius Malema to cancel a speech at a conference in Zimbabwe after several attendees withdrew in fear of anti-South African protests. Furthermore, despite being largely unaffected by xenophobic targeting, Nigeria recalled its ambassador to South Africa. The decision followed the two-day closure of South Africa's consulate in Lagos, itself a response to Nigerian protesters who attacked some South African companies, such as mobile provider MTN, and called for a boycott of South African goods.

More worryingly for South Africa is the negative effect anti-immigrant sentiment is having on its relations with countries it immediately borders. Residents of Malawi, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, have expressed shock and outrage. Their governments have repatriated hundreds of their citizens as attacks displace more and more people fearing for their safety. In Mozambique, petrochemicals company Sasol and Irish mining firm Kenmare repatriated South African staff working on projects in the country. On April 17, hundreds of angry Mozambicans temporarily shut down border crossings with South Africa and stoned vehicles with South African license plates. About a week later, the Mozambique government announced it was boycotting a tourism fair in Durban to protest the violence.

A Need for Migrant Labor

To fully exploit the mineral wealth of its eastern highlands, South Africa must be free to tap a regional pool of labor, using immigration incentives to encourage workers. Besides aiding the growth of South Africa's mining industry, the flow of labor also increases South African economic influence in surrounding states. Controlled immigration can benefit the country's national security, because close economic ties lead to improved diplomatic ties that can lower the likelihood of military conflict.

Economic hardships, however, have exacerbated the relationship between local South Africans and immigrant workers, who are estimated to number anywhere from one to five million laborers, making up 4 to 15 percent of the total workforce. Despite the government's efforts over the past two decades to raise standards of living, South Africa still has one of the highest unemployment rates in the world, holding steady at 25 percent according to government estimates. Some unofficial estimates even exceed 40 percent. Economic stagnation has stoked resentment toward immigrant-owned shops among South Africans, especially in poorer neighborhoods. Similar to earlier outbreaks of violence in 2008, increases in the cost of electricity, fuel and food have further aggravated anti-immigrant sentiment.

To make matters worse, the unemployment situation is not likely to improve. Mining companies — particularly those involved in gold, diamond and platinum extraction — want to be able to bypass union negotiations and react to lower mineral prices as well as hikes in production costs caused by depleted reserves. Consequently, many mining operations are moving toward mechanization. If the mining industry succeeds in automating many of its processes, the resulting layoffs could create even more resentment toward immigrant workers, who would be competing with South Africans for a dwindling number of jobs. Mechanization would also intensify labor protests against the mining companies.

The ethnic dimension of the violence further complicates matters. Zulus, who make up the largest South African ethnic group, are the main perpetuators of the xenophobic attacks. Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini's comments in March — when he compared African immigrants to parasites and asked that they return to their homelands — may have instigated the first wave of attacks. Later, he claimed such comments were taken out of context, but Zulus in the eastern provinces have since carried out the majority of attacks. Earlier statements by South African President Jacob Zuma's son, Edward Zuma, also urged migrants to "pack their bags and leave."

Managing the Political Challenge

Though security forces are curbing outright violence, anti-immigrant sentiment among the Zulus creates a political problem for the ruling African National Congress. Tribal affinities, more than labor ties, will become increasingly important for the party's support base, and Jacob Zuma will have to enter careful negotiations in his final term over the ethnicity of those appointed to government positions. Any anti-foreigner sentiment among the Zulus will have to be managed without alienating voters. 

And while Pretoria has not yet taken steps to restrict the flow of legal migration, it has made other decisions to help the process. In recent weeks a joint police and military operation, "Fiela," cracked down on criminal activity in particularly violent regions. The same operation arrested almost 900 people, most of them illegal immigrants. On May 5, State Security Minister David Mahlobo also announced advancements in a project to construct the Border Management Agency, which aims to curb illegal immigration by next year. Whether the proposed agency will be effective enough to help the African National Congress curry favor among its Zulu support base is unclear.

Still, this military and police intervention has ended the worst of the violence, enabling the African National Congress to largely maintain civil diplomatic relations with its regional partners. Direct telephone talks between Zuma and outgoing Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan on April 26, along with the gradual return of South African workers repatriated from Mozambique and presidential visits from Namibian President Hage Geingob, are all evidence of continued diplomatic activity. In addition, African immigrants continue to flow into the country. South Africa still offers substantial economic incentives capable of attracting immigrants to its massive mining industry, despite threats of potential violence. However, as the government seeks to satisfy its frustrated citizens by strengthening immigration control, illegal migrant workers may not find South Africa to be the land of opportunity it once was.

Many constituencies both inside and outside South Africa will make demands on the African National Congress. As will the country's struggling economy. But with confidence in the ruling party steadily eroding and internal divisions making its future uncertain, the party will have difficulty maintaining popular support, and may even have to rely on welfare subsidies or ethnic ties to keep control.

Source: Stratfor Report

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