It began after the Zulu king, Goodwill Zwelithini, told his followers last month that foreigners in South Africa should pack up and leave. President Jacob Zuma’s eldest son, Edward, chimed in that foreigners were “taking over the country” in a “ticking time bomb.”
Then last week, violent attacks on immigrant shopkeepers in Durban townships exploded and have continued since. Dozens of immigrants in Johannesburg and other cities shuttered their shops Wednesday as anonymous cellphone text messages warned that Zulu people were coming to kill immigrants in neighborhoods with large migrant populations.
One message read: “Wednesday, Zulu people are coming to town starting from Market (Street) their mission is to kill every foreigner on the road please pass this to all your contacts in case they come people should be on alert.”
Violence spread in central Durban on Tuesday, after looters attacked shops owned by immigrants, some of whom armed themselves with machetes and knives. Five have died in the recent violence near Durban, along the country’s southeast coast.
Violence targeting immigrant shopkeepers, fueled by hate speech, envy and high unemployment, has dogged South Africa for years, although it is often dismissed by police and government officials as criminal but not specifically aimed at immigrants. In 2008, 62 people were killed in attacks on immigrants in townships around Johannesburg.
“The situation is very tense. There are many foreign nationals who are fearing for their lives. Some of them want to go back to their homes in other countries. I’ve met many people who are worried and don’t know what to do,” said Mkululi White, spokesman for the African Disapora Forum, which represents immigrants in South Africa.
The victims are often Somalis, Mozambicans, Ethiopians, Malawians, Pakistanis and Nigerians and other Africans. Estimates of the immigrant population in South Africa range from 2 million to 5 million, according to Human Rights Watch.
Some 2,400 people fled their homes in the Durban violence this past week and have been living in makeshift camps.
On Friday, in the worst attack in the latest unrest, two Ethiopian brothers in Umlazi township near Durban were locked in their small shop in a shipping container, which had been set alight by a mob. Tescma Marcus, 22, died that night at a hospital, while his brother, Alex, 24, remains in a serious condition.
Mobs looted shops Wednesday in the KwaZulu-Natal city of Pietermaritzburg, and the African Diaspora Forum reported a threat to firebomb a building in the town of Mthatha, in the Eastern Cape, that houses many foreign-owned shops.
In January, more than 120 foreign-owned shops were looted, often while police stood by. Six people were killed in the violence. There were similar mass attacks on immigrant businesses in May, June and September. But organizations representing immigrants in South Africa say that low-level attacks in small towns occur almost weekly.
Bereje Fana, spokesman for the Ethiopian Community Assn., said the organization had been pressing South African authorities to take attacks in immigrants more seriously and to protect them, their homes and businesses. He blamed Zwelithini, the Zulu king, for careless remarks that ignited the recent attacks.
The worst of the violence has been in and around Durban, which is the capital of Kwa-Zulu Natal state, where Zulus are the largest ethnic group.
“We have heard it’s going to continue,” Fana said. “We’re trying to highlight it and bring it to the attention of the authorities, to create awareness and protect their lives and protect their businesses.”
President Zuma last week condemned attacks on foreign nationals, adding that his government was taking steps against illegal immigrants, including curbing illegal migration, arresting foreigners involved in crime, and shutting down unlicensed shops.
“Citizens should also provide information to the police if they know of foreign nationals who are engaged in criminal activities. They should not be attacked,” Zuma said.
The leaders of informal associations representing South African owners of small cafes and shops have been blamed for stirring inflammatory sentiment in the past, accusing foreign shopkeepers of flooding the market with cheap, substandard goods and destroying South African jobs and businesses. Last month, a meeting in Soweto called on the government to stop treating foreigners with kid gloves.
It’s not clear what the business owners want the government to do, however. White, of the African Diaspora Forum, called on police to arrest those responsible.
“We think the perpetrators of this violence are some businesspeople from our own country who don’t like to compete with businesses run by people from other countries,” he said. “Our research has also shown that unemployment plays a big role, because the majority of the people who are attacking foreign businesses are unemployed.”