from Africa in Transition , Africa Program , and Democracy in Post-Apartheid South Africa

Poor South Africans Attacking Foreign-Owned Business

Nigerian entrepreneur Basil Onibo, one of the victims of the latest spate of xenophobic attacks, looks at the burnt out cars at his dealership in Johannesburg, South Africa, on September 5, 2019. Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

September 11, 2019

Nigerian entrepreneur Basil Onibo, one of the victims of the latest spate of xenophobic attacks, looks at the burnt out cars at his dealership in Johannesburg, South Africa, on September 5, 2019. Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters
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Mob attacks on foreign-owned shops in Johannesburg have damaged relations between South Africa and Nigeria. The Nigerian government has announced that it is evacuating some four hundred Nigerians from South Africa. The violence is being characterized as “xenophobic,” which, by all accounts, it is. But the story is more complicated, and aspects of it have roots in apartheid South Africa and the dislocations resulting from too-rapid urbanization.

According to the Washington Post, the mobs comprise mostly single, black men who have recently arrived in Johannesburg from the countryside looking for work. Many of them live in apartheid-era hostels, squalid shelters for workers away from home long known as breeding grounds for ethnic violence. Work in Johannesburg is hard to find. Unemployment is over 50 percent for those under thirty-five, while among the entire working-age population it is almost 30 percent. In terms of education and training, many or most of the newly-arrived are ill-equipped to enter the modern economy. Elite educational institutions have become racially integrated, but they serve a tiny proportion of the population. The quality of primary education available to the poor, especially in rural areas, has not advanced much since the days of “Bantu” education in the apartheid era.

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Again reflecting apartheid strictures on black self-employment, the informal sector of South Africa’s economy is smaller than, say, in Nigeria. In Lagos, a far poorer and less developed city than Johannesburg, everybody has a hustle. Begging among southern Nigerians is rare; those that beg are usually from elsewhere in Nigeria or West Africa. The popular culture is highly entrepreneurial. Hence, when Nigerians emigrate, and millions do to all over the world, the often set up small enterprises, creating wealth, but also engendering envy.

The Johannesburg mobs are attacking “foreigners,” who are probably disproportionately Nigerians and Somalis—known for being similarly entrepreneurial—because they are seen as taking away jobs from local people. That appears to rarely be the case; if anything, foreigners may well be creating jobs.

A final factor to consider is that, all over Africa, urbanization is proceeding rapidly—probably too rapidly. South Africa is now said to be 60 percent urban and over half of Nigerians live in cities. In Nigeria, investment in urban infrastructure, ranging from clean water to roads to schools, has not remotely reached the level needed to accommodate the urban influx. There has been more such investment in Johannesburg and South Africa in general, reflecting (among other things) that South Africa is a much richer, more developed country than Nigeria. Hence its attraction to economic immigrants. Nevertheless, the investment shortfall in Johannesburg is there for all to see. It is particularly acute in education. Unemployed male youth would appear to be drivers of Johannesburg crime and violence, in part because there is no place for them. 

What to do? Reversing urbanization is not really a possibility. Infrastructure investment takes time and money. South Africans are conflicted over education reform; everybody agrees it is necessary, but there is no consensus about how to do it. So addressing the roots of mob violence will take time. For now, the Ramaphosa government appears correctly to be dealing with mob violence as a law-and-order issue.

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South Africa

Nigeria

Immigration and Migration

Poverty

Race and Ethnicity

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