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Love Thy Neighbour: The wider implications of xenophobic violence in South Africa

Recent xenophobic violence in South Africa has resulted in security implications for South African businesses locally and elsewhere on the continent. Gabrielle Reid explores the commercial impact to businesses in South Africa and beyond.

In September 2019, widespread community level unrest specifically targeting African foreign nationals broke out across Gauteng, South Africa. This ‘xenophobic violence’ involved direct attacks on African nationals, the looting of local shops, arson, assault as well as clashes between police and rioters in central business areas. Over a period of two weeks, 12 people were killed, scores of others injured, and over 600 were arrested while rioting. The unrest resulted in over GBP 1.6 million in property damage and associated costs. In one reported incident on 2 September, more the 50 vehicles were set alight at a car dealership in Malvern, Johannesburg. Although calm has since been restored to the streets, this latest display of violent civil unrest has widespread implications for South Africa, and its business interests elsewhere on the continent.

City Centres: A Tinderbox for Unrest

South Africa has experienced several outbreaks of xenophobic violence targeting small businesses owned by foreign individuals of African, and to a lesser extent, Asian origins in cities across the country in recent years. The most severe violence occurred in May 2008, when at least 62 people were killed in xenophobic attacks in the country’s major cities, including Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town. Although subsequent outbreaks have not reached 2008 levels, between January 2015 and January 2017, for example, over 70 people were killed, 100 people were assaulted, close to 600 shops were looted and over 10,000 people were displaced due to xenophobic incidents. Meanwhile, 42 incidents of xenophobic violence were recorded in 2018. 

While the drivers of the latest violence continue to be debated domestically, much of it has been linked to socioeconomic grievances among South Africa’s citizens, stemming from worsening economic challenges in the country, including unemployment. Official government figures released in 2019 placed South Africa’s unemployment rate at 29 percent, meaning over 6.7 million South Africans are without a job; the unemployment rate among youths aged 15 to 24 years is 55.2 percent. Since 2008, animosity towards African and Asian foreign nationals, many of them economic migrants, has become an outlet for these grievances, prompting sporadic protests and targeted attacks. The complex drivers of xenophobic violence will not be easily or quickly resolved. South Africa is facing an unemployment crisis aggravated by a challenging economic and political climate and worsening crime. Some citizens are likely to continue to channel their frustrations towards African and Asian migrants, who they perceive as limiting their economic opportunities. As such, further xenophobic attacks are likely.

In September 2019, xenophobic violence led to GBP 1.6 million in property damage and associated costs.

The Ripple Effect & Threats Abroad

While the ramifications for businesses in central commercial districts in South African cities are clear, xenophobic violence has also impacted South African businesses abroad. The violence prompted a series of reprisal protests across the continent; South African telecommunications firms and retail giants temporarily closed their Nigerian stores due to protest action. The South African High Commission in Abuja also temporarily suspended consular services over safety concerns. In Lusaka, Zambia, protesters looted several South African stores. Meanwhile, Air Tanzania cancelled all scheduled flights to Johannesburg for several days. This reprisal action mirrored similar responses to xenophobic violence in the past. Amid a 2017 outbreak of xenophobic violence, for example, a Malawian civil society group called for a countrywide boycott of South African businesses; several South African businesses in Lilongwe and Blantyre closed for several days. That same year, retaliatory demonstrations in Nigeria saw protesters urging South Africans to leave the country, while similar violence in 2015 prompted South African workers in Mozambique to evacuate due to fears of being attacked, although direct attacks of this nature are uncommon. During the 2015 unrest, Mozambican employees at South African companies also staged protests on-site and the border between the countries was temporarily closed after protesters stoned South African-registered vehicles.

xenophobic attacks

Denialism & Disputes on the Diplomatic Front

These outbreaks of targeted violence have proven detrimental to South Africa’s relations with other African states. Nigeria, Zambia, Tanzania and others were quick to condemn the latest violence affecting their citizens in South Africa. Nigeria in particular has taken a hardened stance against South Africa. On 3 September, President Muhammadu Buhari summoned the South African High Commissioner over the matter and on 12 September he approved the government cost of the repatriation of Nigerian citizens. Over 1,000 Nigeria nationals have since returned to Nigeria for fear of further targeted violence. It is clear that these African governments and their citizens are poised to lay the blame for the recent violence firmly at the feet of the South African government, and South Africans in general, particularly given a hesitance on the part of South Africa’s political leadership to recognise the latest unrest as xenophobic violence. This is aggravated by irresponsible rhetoric from political leadership, where politicians including Police Minister Bheki Cele have denied the attacks are xenophobic, and instead link frustrations to alleged criminality among African migrant communities in city centres.

The strong response by its African counterparts should serve as a warning sign to South Africa to deal with the issue of xenophobic violence more responsibly. President Cyril Ramaphosa has since sent special envoys to Nigeria, Niger, Ghana, Senegal, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zambia to smooth over recent tensions. The country is now leaning on regional bodies including the African Union to shore up support to address the underlying drivers of the violence. Yet, the task will not be an easy one as the government will need to improve diplomatic relations while simultaneously tackling domestic socio-economic grievances.


While calm has returned to the streets of Johannesburg and elsewhere for now, the drivers of xenophobic violence in South Africa persist. Protest action is commonplace in South Africa, but as economic and crime woes worsen amid growing frustration over failing government delivery, these outbreaks could prove increasingly costly. According to the latest statistics, cities like Pretoria lose on average three days of trade per month due to civil unrest. While outbreaks of civil unrest will continue, targeted violence between citizens of African countries presents not only a threat to business domestically, but also for South Africans and their business interests across the continent.

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