6 things to know about xenophobic attacks on Nigerians in South Africa

Attacks on foreigners, including Nigerians, in South Africa has heightened tensions on the continent.

A man kicks a burning piece of furniture during a riot in the Johannesburg suburb of Turffontein on September 2, 2019 [Michele Spatari/AFP]

Violent local mobs, expressing extreme xenophobic sentiments, let loose on businesses believed to belong to foreigners and vandalised, looted, and burnt dozens of such businesses.

A great deal of the violence took place in suburbs of Johannesburg, South Africa's biggest city and provincial capital of Gauteng.

Nigerians living in South Africa are believed to have been the most affected by this week's xenophobic attacks which have been commonplace in the country over the past few years.

Here's what we know about the recent wave of violence:

It's unclear what exactly triggered the latest round of attacks, but the unrest erupted on Sunday, September 1, 2019.

Some accounts by local South African media said the violence is the consequence of the killing of a taxi driver in Pretoria, one of South Africa's capital cities, on Tuesday, August 27.

The driver was allegedly shot and killed when he confronted drug dealers and police officers allegedly involved in selling drugs.

Taxi operators then commenced protests that eventually metamorphosed into revisiting aggression against foreigners who are believed to fuel the drug trade and other crimes in South Africa.

Foreigners are also believed by local populations to steal jobs that are rightfully theirs.

The protests in Pretoria were quickly quelled with at least 18 people arrested, but violence later kicked off in many suburbs of Johannesburg and surrounding areas on Sunday.

Protesters burned tyres, hassled bystanders and looted shops believed to be owned by foreign nationals, according to News24, a South African online news organisation.

South Africa's Minister of Police, Bheki Cele, has been careful about claims that the violence was fueled by xenophobia, noting that criminal elements were simply looking for an outlet to commit crimes.

"I really don't believe that it's only foreign owned shops that are being targeted. It's clear it's pure criminal elements that are taking advantage of a volatile situation," he said on Tuesday.

South Africa's High Commissioner to Nigeria, Bobby Moroe, also played down the xenophobia claims on Tuesday, pointing out that South African-owned businesses were also looted and vandalised by the mobs.

Cele met with leaders of Cleveland and Denver hostels in Johannesburg on Tuesday following indications that some of the perpetrators of the violence came from there. 

There's another general meeting planned for Sunday, September 8, and will involve hostel dwellers and all stakeholders including provincial structures of the Gauteng legislature and Police management.

The South African Police Service (SAPS) announced on Friday, September 6, that a total of 11 people have been killed since Sunday.

However, only seven deaths have been directly linked to the incidents of violence as Police continue to investigate the circumstances surrounding each death.

During a national address on Thursday, South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that two of those killed are foreigners, although he didn't reveal their nationalities.

Five deaths were recorded in Corronationville (2), Hillbrow (2) and Jeppe (1), all in Johannesburg.

Late on Thursday, two additional bodies were found burnt beyond recognition inside shops burnt by looters in Alexandria, also in Johannesburg.

Gauteng Police spokesperson, Colonel Lungelo Dlamini, disclosed that two of the known casualties of the unrest are South Africans, and another one a Zimbabwean woman.

SAPS also disclosed on Friday that a total of 497 people have been arrested for violence-related offences in Gauteng since Sunday.

Many arrests took place in Rossettenville, Malvern, Thembisa, Jeppe, and Germiston, with at least 100 arrested in Ekurhuleni, a metropolitan municipality in Gauteng. 

The arrest of 21 other people in Malvern, and some areas of Northern KwaZulu-Natal, were in connection to attacks on trucks, truck drivers, possession of firearms and dangerous weapons, and blocking of roads.

These attacks were also believed to have targeted foreign-truck drivers.

The attacks have angered many Nigerians who have called for a boycott of South African businesses operating in Nigeria.

Nigerian mobs attacked and looted Shoprite, MTN and PEP, all South African-owned businesses on Tuesday and Wednesday, and the South African embassies in Lagos and Abuja have been forced to temporarily shut down operations amid threats.

The Shoprite Group said some of its stores in Nigeria, South Africa, and Zambia could not open for business on Wednesday due to protests and extensive damage done to them.

MTN also announced on Wednesday that all its stores and service centres will be closed until further notice after it suffered attacks in Lagos, Oyo and Akwa-Ibom states.

Many Nigerians have also taken to social media to strongly condemn the attacks on Nigerian-owned businesses, and celebrities have boycotted South Africa with some cancelling already-scheduled work visits.

The strong reaction from Nigeria is fueled mostly by the fact that Nigerians have suffered xenophobic attacks in South Africa for years, with at least 127 believed to have been killed over the past three years alone.

When a violent mob attempted to vandalise a Shoprite store in Lagos on Tuesday, police officers shot and killed an unidentified man in the crowd.

Even though the Force has failed to address the death, Force spokesperson, DCP Frank Mba, disclosed on Wednesday that a total of 125 suspects have been arrested in connection to the looting.

They are being investigated for stealing, malicious damage, arson, and disturbance of public peace.

The Inspector-General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, has also ordered water-tight security around embassies, foreign missions, foreigners and their businesses within the country.

"Miscreants and criminally-minded people who masquerade as genuine protesters are therefore warned to stay-off the streets of Nigeria as the Force will not hesitate to bring to bear the full weight of the law on any such law breaker," DCP Mba said.

Even though Ramaphosa has strongly condemned the attacks and called for unity, the South African president has been walking a diplomatic tightrope with many countries, especially Nigeria.

Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari on Tuesday sent an unnamed special envoy to Ramaphosa to register his concerns over the attacks.

The Nigerian government also withdrew its participation from the World Economic Forum (WEF), which started on Wednesday, because it's hosted in South Africa.

Nigeria's Ambassador to South Africa, Kabiru Bala, has also been recalled to the country by the Federal Government.

The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama, said on Wednesday that the Nigerian government is firm in its resolve to ensure Nigerian losses are compensated by South Africa.

"We have made it clear that what has happened in South Africa is totally unacceptable. Enough is enough.

"We are going to draw a red line here. We are not going to accept it again," he said.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs also announced on Wednesday that it'll commence the evacuation of Nigerians who are willing to leave South Africa and return to Nigeria.

The evacuation, completely free of charge, will start on Friday.

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