Posted on December 28, 2020

Xenophobia Surges as Covid-19 Slams South African Economy

Gemma Gatticchi and Lwazi Maseko, Bloomberg, December 20, 2020

As the coronavirus outbreak has slammed the South African economy and pushed unemployment to a 17-year high, it’s awakened a recurrent social demon: xenophobia.

Anti-immigrant groups have staged demonstrations in recent months in Johannesburg, the biggest city, and in Pretoria, the capital, demanding the mass deportation of foreigners. The provincial government of Gauteng, the nation’s economic hub, wants to pass a law next year to limit ownership of businesses in low-income areas, known as townships, to South African citizens and foreigners who are fully legalized.

That threatens to upend an industry of convenience stores numbering over 100,000 nationwide with annual revenue of 100 billion rand ($6.8 billion), according to GG Alcock, a consultant on township marketing and an author of books on the informal economy.

“Every foreign national that came to our country since 1994 must be deported,” said Victoria Mamogobo, the 34-year-old chairwoman of the South Africa First party, as she demonstrated on Nov. 27 with a group waving national flags and banners in downtown Johannesburg. “You’ve got people all the way from Nigeria who are here to sell tomatoes on our streets. How is that helping us grow our economy?”

Since the apartheid system of racial discrimination ended in 1994, Africa’s most developed economy has been a magnet for migrants from the continent and as far afield as Bangladesh. That’s sparked bouts of violence every few years, with mobs attacking and looting shops and killing foreigners — the most extreme instance in 2008 left 60 people dead and another 50,000 displaced. {snip}


{snip} While it’s unclear how many migrants are in South Africa, estimates of the number of Zimbabweans alone exceed 2 million.


Finance Minister Tito Mboweni in April said locals should be prioritized in post-pandemic recovery efforts. The government of Gauteng has denied its township development bill unfairly targets foreigners.

“Which part is xenophobic? Because what that bill is saying is that you must be a South African, you must be in South Africa legally,” said Vuyo Mhaga, spokesman for Gauteng Premier David Makhura. “The bias will obviously be for South Africans.”


Xenowatch, which gathers information on xenophobic attacks, says that between January 2019 and November 2020, 1,376 shops were looted and 37 people were killed.