Written by Julie Turkewitz
Pop stars have announced a boycott. Air Tanzania has suspended flights to Johannesburg. Madagascar and Zambia are refusing to send their soccer teams. Nigeria has recalled its ambassador and pulled out of a major economic forum.
South Africa is facing a backlash after rioters in and around Johannesburg targeted immigrants from other African countries this week, torching their shops and leading to at least 10 deaths. Now, angry citizens and governments across the continent are lashing out at South Africa and its businesses, denouncing what they call “xenophobia.”
Africans across the continent once rallied behind South Africans in their struggle to defeat the apartheid government, which was finally replaced in elections held 25 years ago. Now, some Africans find themselves in the unfamiliar position of protesting the actions of the same communities in South Africa that they once stood with in solidarity.
“The only time we’ve seen this type of cooperation of African countries in terms of backlash,” said Tunde Leye, a partner at the Nigerian political research firm SBM Intelligence, “was in terms of support of the anti-apartheid movement.”
The current level of political solidarity on the continent, he said, was “almost unprecedented.”
The riots, and the retaliatory measures, could not come at a more inopportune time for regional cooperation. This week, African leaders are meeting in Cape Town, South Africa, to discuss the African Continental Free Trade Area, an agreement made this year that sets the stage for the creation of the largest free-trade area in the world. It would join Africa’s more than 1 billion consumers into a single market.
The conflict, while not likely to imperil the free trade agreement, could at least slow its implementation, which is expected to take years, African analysts said.
Nigeria’s government, angry that its citizens have been victimized in the South African riots, has pulled out of the Cape Town meeting.
Nigeria is the continent’s largest economy, and South Africa is the second-largest. Both countries were already reluctant participants in the accord, which is supposed to help knock down the many barriers to trade among African countries.
Anti-immigrant sentiment is a long-standing issue in South Africa, where the legacies of colonialism and apartheid run deep, and a political shift has not delivered meaningful change to many poor South Africans. Immigrants from countries like Nigeria, Mozambique, Somalia and Zimbabwe are often regarded by South Africans as competitors for jobs and social services.
In South Africa, attacks on foreigners have become common, and they surged beginning Sunday when rioters stormed neighborhoods in and around Johannesburg, lighting fires and breaking into shops.
At least 10 people have died in the riots, President Cyril Ramaphosa said in a video address Thursday, in which he also condemned the violence.
“There can be no excuse for the attacks on the homes and businesses of foreign nationals,” he said. “Equally, there is no justification for the looting and destruction of businesses owned by South Africans.”
In Gauteng, the province that includes Johannesburg, authorities have arrested at least 423 people, said Col. Lungelo Dlamini, a police spokesman. On Thursday, he said that many shops owned by foreigners remained closed and that more shopping centers in the eastern part of the province “are being targeted.”
Police seized guns, he said, not just from South Africans, but also from at least two foreign nationals.
The rolling backlash has united broad swaths of the continent. Two popular Nigerian musicians, Burna Boy and Tiwa Savage, said they were boycotting South Africa. Burna Boy was set to headline the Afropunk festival in Johannesburg in December, alongside artists like Solange Knowles. Tiwa Savage had an appearance in South Africa scheduled for mid-September.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, protesters rushed and sometimes looted South African-owned businesses in Nigeria and Zambia, including Shoprite supermarkets. The company closed stores. The South African telecommunications giant MTN did the same.
On Thursday, the protests spread to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where demonstrators outside the South African Embassy in Kinshasa held signs that read “Don’t kill our brothers” and “No xenophobia.” In Lubumbashi, they broke windows at the South African Consulate.
Nigeria recalled its ambassador to South Africa. South Africa has shuttered its diplomatic missions in Nigeria, citing threats.
The clashes cast a cloud over the World Economic Forum in Africa, which began in Cape Town on Wednesday. Leaders were set to discuss the free trade pact, an agreement signed by 54 countries that supporters have said could reshape economic relationships on the continent.
The accord has the potential to bolster intra-African trade by 52% by 2022, according to the United Nations. Right now, intra-African trade accounts for just 16% of the continent’s trade volume. It can be cheaper to ship something from Nigeria to Europe, and then to Senegal, rather than directly from Nigeria to Senegal. This is a major barrier to regional development, economists say.
Still, a host of challenges await before the pact is put in place.
African analysts differed on whether Nigeria’s decision to skip the Cape Town meeting would have any effect in the long term.
Gilbert Khadiagala, a Kenyan professor of international relations at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, said Nigeria’s move was little more than “grandstanding,” and that would not impede the trade agreement.
But Leye, of SBM Intelligence in Nigeria, said that in his view, Nigeria’s boycott of the Forum “will have an impact in terms of the pace of implementation.”