South Africa: Xenophobic Attacks Prompt Angry Backlash in Nigeria

A series of xenophobic attacks on foreigners in South Africa have provoked an angry response in Nigeria, where protesters ransacked the offices of a South African telecoms giant Thursday.

A spokesman for South African mobile phone firm MTN said that protesters in the Nigerian capital of Abuja had “vandalized equipment, stole customer phones and iPads” and attacked MTN customers at the firm’s customer care center, Reuters reported. The MTN spokesman said that the protesters were motivated by the xenophobic violence in South Africa.

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Over the past week, residential buildings occupied by African immigrants, including Nigerians, and Nigerian-owned businesses in the South African capital Pretoria have been attacked and looted by demonstrators, who accuse foreigners of taking local jobs. Protesters also burnt buildings alleged to be brothels or drug dens in a Johannesburg suburb earlier in February; the buildings were reportedly owned by Nigerians.

A vigilante mob attacks a Nigerian man outside a church in Pretoria, South Africa, on February 18. A wave of attacks on foreign-owned properties in South Africa has aroused concern in Nigeria. James Oatway/Reuters

Nigeria and South Africa, the continent’s two largest economies, have endured rocky relations before. Xenophobic violence flares up periodically in South Africa, and Nigeria recalled its ambassador to the country in 2015 after seven people were killed in a spate of anti-immigrant attacks in Johannesburg and Durban.

Nigerian Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama said Wednesday that the government had summoned South Africa’s high commissioner in the West African country to discuss the response to the attacks.

In a statement to South Africa’s parliament Thursday, the country’s interior minister, Malusi Gigaba, said that local businesses were inflaming anti-immigrant sentiment by disrespecting local employment laws. South African labor law requires that 60 percent of a company’s employees be either South African citizens or permanent residents of the country.

“[Businesses] should not fuel tensions playing locals against foreigners but should be on the side of the law,” Gigaba

. The interior minister added that more than 33,000 people were deported from South Africa during the last financial year and urged South Africans to desist from xenophobic violence.

Tensions remain high in parts of the country, however. A citizen group calling itself the Mamelodi Concerned Residents has organized an anti-immigrant march in Pretoria Friday, according to South African newspaper The Citizen. The group’s spokesman, Makgoka Lekganyane, said they were tired of jobs going to Nigerians, Pakistanis and Zimbabweans, among other foreign nationals, ahead of South Africans. Police have reportedly denied an application for the protest to go ahead, according to South Africa’s Eyewitness .

South Africa’s unemployment rate remains high at around 26 percent and the country recorded slow economic growth of 0.2 percent in the last quarter.

Unemployment is often linked to outbreaks of xenophobic violence in South Africa. According to the 2011 census, 2.1 million foreign nationals were living in South Africa, while the U.N. Refugee Agency estimated in 2015 that a further 600,000 asylum seekers and refugees were also living in the country, according to fact-checking site Africa Check.

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