South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has told citizens that by attacking and intimidating foreign nationals they are replicating the tactics of the apartheid government.
Strong words. But they may have come too late.
Days earlier, a crowd of South Africans went door-to-door in Diepsloot, an impoverished community north of Johannesburg, seeking out foreigners before stoning and burning a 44-year-old Zimbabwean man to death.
Elvis Nyathi’s name now sits alongside Ernesto Nhamuave, a Mozambican who was set on fire in xenophobic riots in 2008, and his countryman Emannuel Sithole, who was stabbed to death in front of a cameraman in 2015, as the faces of one of South Africa’s most shameful problems. The country’s intolerance of African migrants has soured relations with continental peers.
Since losing votes to anti-immigrant parties in municipal elections last year, the ruling African National Congress has tacitly been stoking resentment of foreigners.
Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi said almost 200,000 Zimbabweans, granted the right to live and work in South Africa since 2009, will need to go home. He also announced plans for limits on foreigners in some professions. ANC spokesman, Pule Mabe, called an anti-immigrant vigilante group that’s been active in Johannesburg “constructive.”
The leader of the group — known as Operation Dudula — spoke to a crowd in Diepsloot a few hours before Nyathi was murdered.
By feeding the fires of xenophobia in a country where unemployment is at a record and government services are deteriorating, Ramaphosa’s party may have let a genie out of the bottle.
Once again, South Africa’s reputation is on the line.