The roots of this violence and anti-immigrant sentiments run deep and a mélange of factors collide, dissolve and divide, often crisscrossing social, economic and political lines.

It all started with the usual condemnation on social media.

Slowly, hashtags like #Xenophobia and #SayNoToXenophobia began to spread, as hundreds of thousands of users took to popular channels like Twitter to pour out their rage and indignation following the latest outburst of violence in South Africa’s commercial city of Johannesburg.

This recent violence coincided with a nationwide strike declared by truck drivers on September 2, partly over the “excessive employment” of foreign drivers into their industry, the South African Broadcasting Corporation reported. Human Rights Watch says attempts to force foreign drivers out of the industry have resulted in a cycle of violence, intimidation and harassment.

In the past week, foreigners and mostly foreign-owned shops were targeted in Gauteng province, which includes the capital Pretoria and Johannesburg. Destruction and looting, as always, followed. At least 10 people, including two Zimbabweans, have died. More than 400 have been arrested.

“The attacks are unfortunate and demonstrate how South Africa remains a transitional state: an African country that does not necessarily welcome other Africans,” argues Matthew T. Page, an associate fellow with the Africa Programme at London-headquartered Chatham House.

“It also reveals the tensions that can arise from economic migration within Africa — something that will only become more relevant as the continent forges its own free trade area in the years ahead.”

South African President Cyril Rampahosa condemned the violence and stated that “there can be no justification for any South African to attack people from other countries.” 

A regional powerhouse, South Africa has been a destination for many immigrants for a variety of reasons, including advanced infrastructure, education and work opportunities and business. It is, unlike some of its neighbours and others across the continent, unaffected by unrest and conflict.

According to the South African 2011 Census, the most recent, there were an estimated 2.18 million foreigners living in South Africa. Of these, 75 percent came from other African countries, primarily from its Southern African neighbours: Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho, and Malawi. This number could be up to 4 million now, South Africa’s statistician-general Risenga Maluleke estimates.

For more than two decades now, South Africa, a country of about 58 million inhabitants, has been grappling with xenophobia.

The African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS) at Wits University in Johannesburg has been monitoring and anti-migrant attacks since 1994. Its open source platform, Xenowatch, tracks threats and violence against foreigners.

As of December last year, Xenowatch recorded 529 xenophobic violence incidents, resulting in 309 deaths, 901 physical assaults, looting of 2193 shops and displacement of 100,000 people.

Deadly waves of anti-foreigner attacks in 2008 killed at least 62 people and displaced more than 100,000, according to ACMS.

The roots of this violence and anti-immigrant sentiments run deep. A mélange of factors collide, dissolve and divide, often crisscrossing social, economic and political lines.

Dr Zaheera Jinnah, a researcher at the African Centre for Migration & Society, blames a breakdown of law and order and lack of trust in the police.

Populist leaders latch onto the desperation and fear resulting from socio-economic realities like unemployment and poverty to perpetuate anti-migrant sentiments, she added.  South Africa’s unemployment rate sits at 29 percent

“The country has not dealt with the vicious violence within and right after apartheid, violence is a tool to settle scores and, together with the impunity that a dysfunctional police and prosecutorial system brings, becomes an everyday norm,” Jinnah told TRT World.

Widespread public outrage over destruction and looting of largely foreign-owned shops in the first week of September has led to reprisals elsewhere in Africa.

Zambia, citing attacks on foreigners, canceled a friendly match against South Africa in its capital Lusaka due September 7. Madagascar, pulled in hurriedly to replace Zambia, later withdrew from the fixture over similar concerns.

The reaction in Zambia continued with student protesters marching on streets and forcing shopping centres to close in the capital. Hot FM, a popular local radio station in the country, said it will stop playing music by South African artists “until further notice.”

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, protesters destroyed the windows of the South Africa's consulate in Lubumbashi, the country’s second largest city, and sacked South African-owned shops, AFP news agency reported.

But nowhere is the reaction more pronounced than Nigeria.

South Africa and Nigeria are the continent’s biggest powers, each maintaining a stranglehold on sub-regional blocs. Locked in a long-running rivalry over political and economic supremacy, their struggle for dominance goes beyond political and economic spheres into the soccer field.

In this photo taken Sunday, Sept. 8, 2019, residents of local hostels march with homemade weapons in Johannesburg. South African police say that two more people have been killed in Johannesburg, bringing to 12 the number of deaths since violence against foreign-owned shops erupted last month.
In this photo taken Sunday, Sept. 8, 2019, residents of local hostels march with homemade weapons in Johannesburg. South African police say that two more people have been killed in Johannesburg, bringing to 12 the number of deaths since violence against foreign-owned shops erupted last month. (AP)

South Africa’s 2011 census report that there were around 26, 341 Nigerians (1.5 percent of the entire immigrant population) living in the country. By 2016, a community survey by Statistics South Africa, the country’s national statistics agency, shows this number increased to 30, 314 (or 2.1% of the immigrant population).

Nigeria’s foreign minister Geoffrey Onyeama has had a very busy week. Though tempered by diplomatic overtures, his statements try to convey the general feeling back home.

 “Enough is enough,” Onyeama said last week of the anti-foreign violence. “We will address this once and for all this time.”

Nigeria dispatched a special envoy to South Africa to “share our deep concern” about the security and property of its nationals.  It further pulled out of the World Economic Forum on Africa that held in South African port city of Cape Town last week.

Nigeria’s high commissioner to South Africa was also recalled and South Africa’s high commissioner to Nigeria summoned for a briefing.

Influential Nigerian artists have rebuked South African rioters and denounced anti-immigrant attacks. Nigerian Afrobeats star Tiwa Savage withdrew from a concert in South Africa. Local commercial airline AirPeace offered free flights to Nigerian nationals who wish to return home.

Nobody captures this existing tension better than Adams Oshiomhole, the national chairman of the ruling All Progressives Congress.

Oshiomhole asked Nigeria’s federal government to nationalise some South African-owned businesses, including MTN, and called for a boycott of South African goods and services to send “a very strong message to South African authorities and the South African people.”

He asked that the landing rights of South African Airways be revoked until these problems are addressed.

“Nigeria needs to show that we are not chicken to be molested,” he added.

Angry demonstrations on the streets of Nigeria’s largest city Lagos, the Nigerian capital Abuja and a few other cities across the country have forced South African-owned grocer Shoprite and telecommunications giant MTN to suspend operations last week. Protesters marched to their premises, sometimes threatening to retaliate.

Bayo Michael, a Lagos-based agricultural entrepreneur, who was part of the protest in Lagos, said they asked Shoprite supermarket to shut down “to draw international attention to what is happening in South Africa.”

“Our brothers,” says the 34-year-old father, “are going through hell in the hand of South Africans: From ministers demonizing Nigerians as drug dealers to foreigners being accused of stealing their jobs and the use of xenophobic rhetoric during their election campaigns.”

Videos and pictures shared widely on social media last week show how a Shoprite store in the upmarket Lekki neighbourhood of Lagos was vandalized. South Africa’s foreign ministry said it would temporarily close its embassies in Abuja and Lagos over fears that its staff and premises might be attacked.

The use of social media to spread misleading pictures and videos has only inflamed tensions and spurred more public anger and resentment.

“It’s been a very challenging time,” says Mayowa Tijani, a fact-checking journalist at AFP’s Lagos bureau.

“You could see the immediate effect of fake news on the streets. My job did not end when I left the office; it continued in the streets, on the bus, in Lagos traffic. Fresh reprisals were fuelled by old videos.”

ACMS researcher Jinnah argues that this violence might likely “destabilize the [Southern Africa] sub-region and sidetrack the African Union considerably.”

“At play here is the prize for the biggest economy and most significant political player in the continent - a race largely confined to Nigeria and South Africa,” she said. 

“The stakes are high here for trade and political power.”

In October, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari would be visiting South Africa to meet with President Ramaphosa of South Africa to hold discussions over this issue and more.

“To tackle the violence there must be political will and institutional muscle from the police, prosecutors and even earlier from home affairs in regularising migrants,” Jinnah said.

Knee-jerk reactions would do little to address these problems, Page of Chatam House says.

“They are messy and require a sustained, nuanced response,” he explains.

“Resolving this kind of socioeconomic, populist grievances that underpin xenophobic violence would require leaders' to acknowledge their own."