South Africa grabbed international attention earlier this year with images of angry demonstrators attacking foreign residents and their businesses. This type of xenophobic violence, analysts say, is largely driven by high unemployment, inequality and frustration with the government’s failure to provide everyone with basic services.
But like those enduring challenges, xenophobic attacks are also proving hard to wipe out. The nation has seen eruptions of major anti-foreigner violence in 2008, 2014, 2015, 2016, and earlier this year. Members of immigrant communities and watchdog groups say xenophobic violence is a daily occurrence.
Sharon Ekambaram leads the refugee and migrant rights program for Lawyers for Human Rights. She said her rights group hears daily accounts of crimes against immigrants, and South African authorities are often reluctant to intervene when foreign nationals are targeted.
“It’s not only my opinion, but it is well documented,” she said. “… And these acts of violence are a combination of very, very reckless statements that have been made by politicians, unsubstantiated statements using foreign nationals as scapegoats for their failure to implement policies and deliver services that they are constitutionally obliged to do.”
In central Johannesburg, Abdirizak Ali Osman, secretary-general of the Somali Community Board, agrees.
“Xenophobia in South Africa has never ended, and I think for me it is never going to end,” he said, rattling off a number of recent reports his office in central Johannesburg has received of lootings, robberies, and threats.
“It happens on a daily basis, on a very small scale, in different parts of the country.”
Scared and silent
Foreign shopkeepers say they are regularly targeted because of their nationality. One, Fatuma Hassan, said she has taken to wearing a face-covering niqab so that she can speak freely about the threats she faces.
“Xenophobia not one time, two times, three times – several times” she said. “Up to now, they came to me, took $300 from my shop. Now my brother came through to here, he told me that they looted, even today in my shop.”
Another Somali businessman, Soweto shopowner Mustafa Omar Caddow, said he recently stood by helplessly as a rampaging mob took at least $30,000 worth of appliances from his shop and then trashed the place.
“This month, in the evening around eight, the people who was destructing, they came, and they looted the shop,” he said. “They break, and they took everything. There is nothing left.”
Safety in numbers
Here in the predominantly Somali suburb of Mayfair, residents say they feel safety in numbers. They need it, they say, because they do not feel the government has listened to their suggestions on how to improve safety.
“I was expecting that at least they will say, we are going to take care of you from now on, so this will not happen,” said Caddow. “They do not say.They say, “Actually, we can do nothing.”
South African police did not answer repeated calls from VOA seeking comment.
Caddow, whose wife and children still live in war-torn, unstable Somalia, said he longs to be reunited with his loved ones after nearly eight years apart.
But, he said, it just isn’t safe.