JOHANNESBURG — A wave of violence targeting foreign workers and foreign-owned business has proved deeply embarrassing to the government and could be putting Africa’s two economic powerhouses — South Africa and Nigeria — on a collision course.
Armed police and paramilitary forces remain on patrol in the shantytowns around Johannesburg and other cities after a week of violence against migrants drawn from countries across Africa. The latest attacks left five dead and more than 100 under arrest as mobs targeted shops owned by recent arrivals from Nigeria, Somalia and Pakistan, among others.
The attacks have prompted retaliatory strikes against South African businesses in Nigeria, including the giant Shoprite supermarket chain. The World Economic Forum gathering this week in Cape Town, meant to showcase the achievements of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government, has instead become an exercise in damage control.
Mr. Ramaphosa, in his address to the summit Thursday, spent time condemning the riots and insisting xenophobia went against the national character. But a report of the summit by German news agency Deutsche Welle noted that the violence against foreigners “dominates the news. Hardly anyone is talking about the opportunities South Africa offers.”
Pretoria announced Thursday that it was closing its consulates in the Nigerian cities of Abuja and Lagos because of fears for the safety of South African personnel. Demonstrators have stormed the country’s diplomatic missions in Zambia and Malawi, and South African tourists in Mozambique report harassment at an unofficial road checkpoint near the capital, Maputo.
Nigerian Foreign Affairs Minister Geoffrey Onyeama this week called the attacks against foreigners in South Africa “sickening.” Nigerian airline Air Peace offered to fly Nigerian nationals living in South Africa home free of charge, and the Nigerian government boycotted the World Economic Forum gathering.
Xenophobic riots are not uncommon in this country of 55 million. Some say up to a quarter of the population was not born in South Africa.
Many illegal migrants are said to hold papers that are either fake or bought from officials in the South African Department of Home Affairs, which controls work permits and grants asylum to refugees.
Rights groups say the numbers of illegal immigrants are inflated and have called for tolerance. But South Africa’s relative wealth as the most diversified and modern economy on the continent has made it a magnet for those fleeing war, poverty and unemployment elsewhere.
Local media say the violence was sparked Aug. 30 when a Nigerian man shot a local taxi driver after a dispute. By Sunday, shops owned by Nigerians had been looted across Johannesburg, and some of the owners were beaten when they tried to flee. Somali and Pakistani traders also became targets of mob violence.
In a majority Christian country, Muslims also appear to have been targeted, but a police officer on guard at a burned-out row of shops said “criminal elements” took advantage when owners closed during the day to attend mosque, and the motivation of the rioters appeared to be far more economic than sectarian.
Shenilla Mohamed, who heads the South African office for Amnesty International, said the Ramaphosa government and its predecessors bore much of the blame for the violence.
“For many years, refugees, asylum seekers and migrants have been targeted for who they are and what they look like,” she said, while “unscrupulous politicians” use foreigners as scapegoats for the economy’s poor performance and the lack of jobs.
In his remarks in Cape Town on Thursday, Mr. Ramaphosa condemned the riots and called for calm. Police have been quick to arrest those suspected of violence and theft.
Vilna Khumalo, a 38-year-old widow from Zimbabwe, lives with her 13-year-old son in Hillbrow, a high-rise suburb of Johannesburg where immigrants form a majority of the population.
“My husband passed away some years back and my parents are not well enough to work, so I need to support them and my son,” she said. “There is no work in our hometown of Bulawayo, so I came here in 2012.”
Mrs. Khumalo said she paid the equivalent of $350 to buy citizenship papers.
She described the process: “At Home Affairs, they scroll the database and find a woman old enough to be your mother, who died when you were a few days old. The officer adds a note to say her death left you an orphan and no one registered your birth, which is why it is only being done now when you are adult. Then, with a South African birth certificate, you can get an identity card and a passport.”
Mrs. Khumalo said she had been stopped during previous unrest and got through the crowd by showing her ID card. This time, she said, she kept her son home from school and did not go to work.
“Even with papers, they ask you to say words that sound slightly different in the local accent,” she said.
The Sandton shopping district of northern Johannesburg is dubbed the “richest square mile in Africa,” home to global brands such as Gucci, Cartier, KFC and McDonald’s. Combined retail sales from this suburb are higher than the gross domestic product of some African countries such as Burundi and Sierra Leone.
In a city known for crime, guards keep constant watch over cars at Sandton shopping centers, a job Philip Mutombo from Kinshasa, Congo, does 12 hours a day, seven days a week.
“To enter the car park, we each have to pay a fee to the supervisor. Then you must hope you can earn it back,” he said. “We are not allowed to charge customers, so it’s down to tips. We will help pack groceries into the car, and it’s important to smile.”
He said his economics degree from Congo was not recognized in South Africa. Every six months, Mr. Mutombo visits the Department of Home Affairs to renew his asylum permit.
“I can go after work around 8 p.m. and sleep in the queue and, maybe by the end of the next day I will have my papers stamped for free,” he said. “But I can’t lose that much time or someone will take my job. So I get there in the morning, pay an agent who goes inside and pays the officer, and within an hour I’m done.”
He said corruption at the department has declined since he came to South Africa in 2015 but has by no means been eliminated.
“Now they will do the smaller things without a bribe, and there are cameras in the building and better supervision. But if you want citizenship or you’re in a hurry, it will cost,” he said.
In Johannesburg, Cape Town and other cities, black youth unemployment hovers around 60%, with claims that foreigners are taking what few jobs are available. Yet it is rare to find South Africans among the car guards or fruit and soft drink vendors who line the road.
“These are jobs only foreigners are willing to do because we have no option,” Mr. Mutombo said.
There are fears of more looting when Somali and Pakistani shopkeepers shut down Friday for lunchtime prayers.
Foreigners say things also grow tense on weekends when beer halls are busy.
“When you are faced with a crowd of drunks, it’s hard to reason with them,” said Mrs. Khumalo. “This weekend, I will be staying home.
“I’d move back to Zimbabwe if I could, but my family would starve. Even so, I don’t want to live like this.”