The South African police intervened last Friday in Pretoria to prevent clashes between residents and immigrants at a demonstration against foreigners, targets of a new wave of xenophobic violence that put the country under tension.
For two weeks, dozens of buildings occupied by foreigners, including Nigerians, and suspected of housing brothels or drug trafficking have been burned by angry residents in Johannesburg and the capital.
These attacks, which have not caused any casualties, are common in South Africa, fueled by high unemployment and poverty affecting the townships population.
At the call of a collective of inhabitants of a neighborhood of Pretoria, about a thousand people walked in the morning on the Ministry of the Interior, accusing the immigrants of stealing their work and encouraging the Criminality.
“Nigerians are very bad, they spread the drugs in our communities,” a protester, Aysha Ali, told AFP.
The passage of the procession provoked confrontations in some streets. “People say we, foreigners, are selling drugs. Nobody could sell drugs here,” a Somalian, Mohamed Abdi, 31, protested, “that they come to search our stores!”
The police intervened late in the morning with shots of rubber bullets and deafening or tear gas grenades to avoid any pitched battle between the two groups.
Police forces were still deployed in several districts of Pretoria to prevent further confrontations.
“The situation is under control,” said the commander-in-chief of the South African police, Khomotso Phahlane. A total of 136 people were arrested for looting in the past two days in Gauteng province, where Johannesburg and Pretoria are located, he added.
Mute until then, President Jacob Zuma intervened on Friday to condemn the violence and call for calm.
– Failure –
However, he refused to “close his eyes” on the concerns of the population, promising to strengthen the fight against crime and undeclared work. “We are not a xenophobic country,” added the head of state, “we would not have as many immigrants in our country … if we were.”
“The main cause of this xenophobic violence is the failure of the government to create jobs and to provide our people with a quality education,” said the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA).
The recent wave of violence has sparked a diplomatic crisis with Nigeria, whose nationals are often targeted.
Abuja on Thursday summoned the South African ambassador to express his “deep concern” and demand measures to protect the “lives and property of aliens”.
Nigerian students marched on Thursday in retaliation in the Nigerian capital, especially in front of the headquarters of South African companies Multichoice (provider of satellite TV) and MTN (mobile telephony).
“All South Africans in Nigeria have to leave under forty-eight hours, otherwise we will not be able to guarantee their safety,” threatened their leader, Aruna Kadiri.
Many foreign aid NGOs have unsuccessfully asked the South African authorities to ban the demonstration on Friday, which they said could only “reinforce xenophobic attitudes and attacks”.
“We are afraid because we know the South Africans,” an immigrant from Pretoria, Alain Bome, 47, from Democratic Republic of Congo told AFP on Thursday night. “We decided not to leave our home”.
The Nelson Mandela Foundation, on behalf of the icon of the anti-apartheid struggle, called the South Africans to “measure” and “dialogue.”
Outbreaks of anti-immigrant violence are recurring in South Africa, whose standard of living attracts millions of foreigners from all over the continent, often illegally.
In 2015, seven people died during looting of foreign-owned businesses in Johannesburg and Durban. In 2008, xenophobic riots killed 62 people.