South Africa’s government said on Thursday that prejudice was a factor in deadly rioting that has targeted foreign businesses, as those attacks and reprisals overshadowed a pan-African economic conference it is hosting for a second day.
President Cyril Ramaphosa had hoped the World Economic Forum summit would serve as a shop window for his efforts to revive South Africa’s ailing economy and boost intra-African trade.
But the backdrop of a week of anti-immigrant violence, during which at least seven people have been killed and hundreds of arrests been made, has dominated proceedings.
While the victims’ nationalities have not been made public, the rioting has above all exposed dormant tensions between the host country and Nigeria, the continent’s two biggest economies.
On Thursday Jim Ovia, chairman of Nigeria’s Zenith Bank and a co-chair of the whole Cape Town event, withdrew, citing the “hypersensitivity of the issues surrounding the lives and well-being of Nigerian citizens living in South Africa.”
Nigeria, whose vice president had boycotted the summit on Wednesday, also recalled its High Commissioner to South Africa.
But on Thursday the highest-profile absentee was Ramaphosa himself who, as his ministers sought to manage the fallout, cancelled his appearance at the WEF plenary session to address a crowd protesting for a second day about violence against women.
Speaking in his place, Finance Minister Tito Mboweni said most South Africans disapproved of attacks on foreigners and the principle of freedom of movement for the continent’s citizens was key.
But animosities were generating violence, and politicians were partly responsible. “We have to go to our people politically to discuss what some of them are doing is wrong.”
The riots began eight days ago in Pretoria before spreading to nearby Johannesburg. Both cities, in Gauteng province, have large immigrant populations.
Police on Thursday reported 15 associated deaths since then, of which Gauteng police commissioner Elias Mawela confirmed seven were directly linked to the violence.
Police had also made 423 arrests. Asked about the victims’ nationalities, he said that “has been taken to the pathologist.”
Threats of reprisals in Nigeria on Wednesday forced Pretoria to shut its embassy and consulate there, its foreign minister said, and South African companies MTN and Shoprite closed stores in the country after retaliatory attacks.
In Democratic Republic of Congo’s second city Lubumbashi, residents protested outside the South African consulate and a South African-owned shop was looted, witnesses told Reuters on Thursday.
Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor said the government was aware of a resentment-driven “Afrophobia” and was working to restore calm. It was also in constant contact with Nigerian authorities.
“There is a targeting of Africans from other parts of Africa, we can’t deny that,” she told Reuters on the sidelines of the conference.
“But, there is also criminality...because a lot of this is accompanied by theft,” she said, describing the attacks as a complex phenomenon whose root causes were not easy to define.
Police said they found two burnt bodies on Thursday in the Gauteng township of Katlehong, but the incident could not be immediately linked to anti-immigrant violence.
Some trade traffic was also affected.
In neighbouring eSwatini, the National Agricultural Marketing Board said trucks that normally carry farm produce south across the border were being kept in their depot after advice from South African counterparts that it was not safe to travel.
“We are keeping our fingers crossed that things will normalize by next week,” said NAMBoard Agribusiness Manager Tammy Dlamini.
Central Bank data on Thursday showed South Africa’s trade balance swung to a deficit in the second quarter while the current account deficit widened.
The economy grew more than forecast in the same period but it had contracted sharply in the previous three months, and the heads of two local financial firms said on Thursday that a meaningful recovery was years away.