The South African government was last week on damage control after attacks on foreigners in Johannesburg drew strong reactions from around the continent.
Protesters smashed the windows of the South African consulate in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s second-largest city Lubumbashi and attacked South African-owned stores.
The South African government had to temporarily close its diplomatic missions in Nigeria following reprisal attacks.
Tanzania’s national carrier suspended its flights from the commercial capital Dar-es-Salaam to Johannesburg last week on Thursday citing risk to its passengers.
The presidents of Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo and Malawi decided not to attend the World Economic Forum, while Nigeria boycotted the event hosted in Cape Town last week on Wednesday.
Nigerian musicians and entertainers like Tiwatope Savage better known as Tiwa Savage and Damini Ogulu popularly known as Burna Boy vowed not perform in South Africa.
Xenophobic attacks, first reported in 2008, flared up again last week and reportedly claimed 10 lives, including two foreigners, according to a televised national address by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on Thursday.
Just like 11 years ago, the cause of the xenophobic violence is attributed to claims by a majority of South Africans that foreigners were taking over local jobs and engaging in crime. It has even been claimed that foreigners, derogatively called Makwerekwere, had taken over townships and parts of downtown Johannesburg.
In previous incidents, the South African government sent out special envoys in a flurry of shuttle diplomacy to African capitals appealing for understanding. In 2015, for instance, President Ramaphosa, then deputy president, visited Nairobi and offered a public apology.
On Thursday, he condemned the violence, both in South Africa and retaliations elsewhere in the continent.
Some 423 people, he said, had been arrested in Gauteng Province, where the violence began as well as in KwaZulu-Natal.
“I am calling upon each one of us to desist from fuelling a climate of fear and confusion.
“Where communities have genuine grievances these must be addressed through engagement and dialogue. But where people act with criminal intent, irrespective of their nationality, we will not hesitate to act to uphold the law and ensure order and stability,” said President Ramaphosa.
The violence received condemnations across the continent, with Nigeria even offering to airlift nationals willing to return home. A lobby of Kenyan residents in South Africa demanded compensation for loss of business.
The African Union chairperson Moussa Faki specifically called for the prosecution of perpetrators of the violence.
“We need to work to strengthen political, social and trade ties if we are to develop our economy and those of our neighbours,” said Mr Faki.
President Ramaphosa’s party, the ruling African National Congress routinely benefited from help from other African countries, with its leaders getting refuge in Mogadishu, Abuja, Kampala and Dar es Salaam from the oppressive white apartheid regime.
“Thanks to the people of Africa, we achieved democracy and must use this platform to live together in harmony,” said President Ramaphosa.
George Mucee, the practice leader of migration consultancy firm Fragomen-Kenya argued that with South Africa becoming one of Africa’s biggest economy, it was bound to attract foreigners.
“The xenophobic attacks are a consequence of unregulated influx of migrants into South Africa over a long period of time and many of these foreign nationals do not have valid immigration statuses in South Africa,” he told The EastAfrican.
“Open borders for Africans does not mean free for all: it means that people can move around with ease but within the proper legal channels because then host countries are able to look at the numbers vis-à-vis the national interests of such countries from time to time,” he added.
However, South Africa is ranked among the most stringent when it comes to accepting visitors from other African countries.
According to the Global Passport Index, an interactive website that aggregates immigration data from countries based on their passport and visa policy, South Africa’s passport lags behind those of tiny islands like the Seychelles and Mauritius.
Yet, South Africa is not all that bad, according to Zemelak Ayele, an Ethiopian academic.
“Many are condemning South Africans and their government for the violence. Some are lambasting South Africans for forgetting the sacrifices that the rest of Africa paid for their freedom, but it is rarely reported that every South African university provides world class education to thousands of Africans, including hundreds of Ethiopians. It is indeed justified to condemn the violence our African brothers and sisters in South Africa are facing. But, it is also appropriate to remind ourselves that there is a softer, kinder, accommodating side to and South Africans.”