The Price of Anti-Immigrant Violence in South Africa

5 MINS READMar 3, 2017 | 09:00 GMT
A crowd of Nigerians faces off with South Africans in Pretoria on Feb. 24 while a South African policeman (L) tries to calm them. Populism has taken root in the impoverished and unemployed segments of South African society.

A crowd of Nigerians faces off with South Africans in Pretoria on Feb. 24 while a South African policeman (L) tries to calm them. Populism has taken root in the impoverished and unemployed segments of South African society.


Relations between South Africa and Nigeria have been rocky over the past few years. Nigeria's government was troubled when Henry Okah, a former Niger Delta militant currently imprisoned in South Africa, appealed his conviction in late 2016. The year before, the West African country imposed a $3.9 billion fine on South African telecom giant MTN after the company failed to deactivate unregistered SIM cards in compliance with the Nigerian government's orders. In both instances, Nigeria and South Africa managed to settle their differences without jeopardizing their pragmatic relationship. But today they are facing another kind of problem.

For the past month, incidents of violence against foreign Africans living in South Africa have been on the rise. On Feb. 27, police in Johannesburg stated that at least 100 attackers participated in a riot that destroyed numerous foreign-owned stores. A few days earlier, law enforcement officers in Pretoria resorted to tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons to disperse a march by hundreds of protesters after fights broke out and stores were looted. Though the violence has targeted foreigners from countries across the African continent, Nigerians have increasingly found themselves in the crosshairs. Citizens in Nigeria, in turn, have begun attacking South African businesses in their country and calling for their withdrawal. If the violence continues unabated, it could take a financial toll on the two largest economies of sub-Saharan Africa and cause bigger problems for the Nigerian and South African governments.

In February alone, attacks on Nigerian properties and businesses in South Africa caused millions of dollars in damage. Some reports also claim that Nigerian civilians have been killed in the violence — an allegation the government in Abuja has denied. At home, meanwhile, mobs of angry Nigerians have targeted several South African businesses that maintain branches in Nigeria's capital. The assailants responsible for the attacks initially claimed to represent the National Association of Nigerian Students and issued an ultimatum demanding that all South African businesses leave the country within 48 hours. Though the organization was quick to distance itself from the statement and from any destructive acts directed at South African businesses, other established groups in Nigeria have latched onto the issue, albeit nonviolently. The Trade Union Congress of Nigeria, for instance, asked the government Feb. 27 to immediately evacuate Nigerian citizens from South Africa, a demand the government is unlikely to heed.

Economic Fallout

More important, the group's statement singled out several South African businesses that are prominent in Abuja and that are accused of violating labor laws, including MTN, retailer Shoprite and DStv, a television distribution company. Trade between South Africa and Nigeria stands at around $5 billion, and several South African firms beyond those highlighted in the statement are active in the West African country. But the amount of economic activity between the nations depends not only on their governments but also on their consumers. If the violence continues, consumers in Nigeria may boycott South African goods and businesses.

Furthermore, the Nigerian government is under mounting pressure to take a tougher stance on South Africa, something that could further hurt its business interests. The two countries, which have tried to keep the spate of violence from affecting their trade relationship, have unresolved economic disputes between them even apart from their current troubles. Until now, however, the Nigerian government has had the political leeway to deal with the matters as it saw fit. After slapping a steep fine on MTN in 2015, Abuja dropped the penalty by more than half in an effort to ensure the telecom giant's continued activity and investment in Nigeria. The government may have a harder time making similar moves to preserve its trade ties with South Africa if the violence persists and public opinion of the country continues to sour in Nigeria.

Beyond the Government's Control

Likewise, the unrest could force the South African government's hand in policymaking. Populism has taken root in the impoverished and unemployed segments of South African society, though support for the anti-immigration agenda has not yet grown into a significant voting bloc. The same sentiments driving the attacks on foreign-owned businesses in the country have also caused the government and ruling African National Congress to adopt more populist policies. And since the party's electoral clout in South Africa is ebbing, it has little choice but to keep yielding to the demands of its impoverished constituency

The rising tension between Nigeria and South Africa, or rather between their populations, offers a reminder that geopolitics is not solely the purview of states and governments. Popular movements and public perception often play a central role in influencing their leaders' behavior and policy options. And as the violence in South Africa demonstrates, the anti-immigrant movement sweeping the country has surged beyond its rulers' control. Although the governments of each nation may intend to keep supporting the other's economic growth, the decision may not be theirs to make unless South Africa's leaders can control the outbreaks of organized violence against immigrants in their country. 

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