JOHANNESBURG — South African president Jacob Zuma may have appealed for peace, but as opposition leader Julius Malema of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party delivered a blistering attack on his former ally, laying the blame squarely on the president’s shoulders for the ongoing attacks against foreign nationals in the east of Johannesburg, there were reports of more violence and looting targeting stores in the center of town.
Citing several examples throughout the corruption- and scandal-ridden two terms of Zuma, Malema declared that the president had shown the people that peaceful resolution does not exist. “You’ve lost control of the country,” he said.
This is not the first time that foreigners have been attacked, however. Previously Malawian, Nigerian, Mozambican and Zimbabwean workers, who are accused of stealing jobs from South Africans, have been the victims of past violence. At least 62 people died in 2008 from anti-immigrant attacks in South Africa.
This time, the targets also included Somali and South Asian nationals, like Pakistanis and Indians, who run shops in towns like Benoni on the East Rand. The overnight escalation of the most recent violence in the Johannesburg CBD, where many shops are owned by Pakistanis and Indians, has alarmed many.
Ironically, while these businesses may be foreign-owned, they employ mostly South African workers. Unemployment is more than 24 percent; South Africa is projected to have the eighth-highest unemployment rate in the world in 2015, according to a report released by the International Labor Organization (ILO).
The Nigerian government on Friday issued an ultimatum to the South African government to stop the xenophobic attacks in the next 48 hours, threatening to shut down South African businesses in Nigeria otherwise. Vandals at the border between Mozambique and South Africa have struck back, and many embassies advised their nationals to refrain from travelling by car to cross the Lebombo/Ressano Garcia border using South African license plates. Malawi, for its part, has begun repatriating its nationals from South Africa.
A spokesperson for giant retailer Massmart told WWD, “We are deeply concerned by the attacks on foreign nationals and are assisting the Gift of the Givers to provide support for people who have been displaced.”
For the moment, the violence seems contained to high-population-density and lower-income areas. While many retailers have chosen to shut their stores in these areas as a precautionary measure until the situation improves, in the more upmarket Northern Suburbs, it’s business as usual.
Catherine Trope, managing director of luxury hosiery brand Wolford in South Africa, situated at the posh Hyde Park Square shopping center, acknowledged that the situation was “from an emotional viewpoint, very disturbing. There was a photograph on the front page of the papers yesterday that I couldn’t even look at; it just breaks my heart. But honestly, in terms of business, we haven’t really been affected. There are so many issues, the dynamics in this country can be frustrating, but I think that you just have to put your head down and keep working, try to make good and do good and make this country work. If not for ourselves, then for the sake of the children.”
While retailers are alarmed and disturbed, it’s too early to tell whether the new international luxury players entering the market will have second thoughts and pull out. Louis Vuitton is still planning to reopen its flagship store this month in a brand-new location, the Diamond Walk area within the massive Sandton City shopping complex. Prada, according to a spokesperson for Sandton City, is still slated to open soon in the same area.
“The more brands come in, the more employment it creates for South Africans,” noted Trope. “If the brands pull out, it will just create more unemployment, more crime and more violence. We don’t need more of that.”
Josef Talotta, a U.S.-born immigrant living in Johannesburg for 22 years, said it was important to put things in perspective. “South Africa is a massive country, twice the size of Texas and home to 50 million people from all over the world,” he pointed out. “There are large immigrant communities from throughout Africa, Asia and Europe, and, to a far lesser extent, Latin America. The situation at the moment is serious but must be seen in its full context, where thousands of people are putting the reputation of millions of kindhearted South Africans in jeopardy.”
He added that the violence has galvanized forward-thinking South Africans. “Ironically, this could be a positive turning point for the country, as it’s highlighting long-dormant challenges.”