At least seven people have been killed in the past two weeks, thousands have been displaced and the army has been deployed in Johannesburg and the eastern port city of Durban to end attacks on immigrants. Still, of the 30 mainly undocumented immigrants who spoke to Bloomberg in Johannesburg, only three said they may leave.
“Go back to what? I left because of political violence in 2008, now I must leave again from here because of political violence?” Takesure Gumbo, a 26-year-old waiter from Zimbabwe, said in an interview while crossing the road at a traffic light in northern Johannesburg with six fellow nationals. “No, my family needs the money I send. I work hard and live in squalor so I can send most of my wages home.”
While the latest bout of violence, the worst since 2008 when 62 people were killed and more than 50,000 were displaced, has been blamed on South Africa’s sluggish economic growth and a 24 percent unemployment rate, the size of Zimbabwe’s economy has halved since 2000. Immigrants have also moved to South Africa from impoverished nations such as Somalia, Malawi, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Some of them, especially from countries like Zimbabwe, where most people speak English and the education system is superior to that of South Africa, find work ahead of locals, which is a source of tension.
“It’s not my fault I am more employable than South Africans because I’m educated and they’re not, it’s their fault,” Gumbo said, shaking his head. “If they want work, they should tell their government to do something about their schools.”
South Africa is ranked by the World Economic Forum in a 2014-15 report as having the worst math and science scores of 144 countries, while Zimbabwe is ranked 66th. Zimbabwe’s education system is ranked 43rd, while South Africa comes in at 140th, beating only Egypt, Angola, Yemen and Libya.
In Johannesburg, migrants from other African countries have displaced South Africans from jobs such as waiters and pump operators at gas stations. They also guard cars for tips and work as gardeners and maids.
Immigrants from Somalia, Ethiopia and the Indian subcontinent predominantly run convenience shops in townships, where they pool finance to buy goods in bulk, often allowing them to sell products for less than their South African rivals.
“Foreigners do undercut South African workers in terms of wages, but that’s a worldwide trend,” Wendy Landau, a researcher at the University of the Witwatersrand’s African Centre for Migration and Society in Johannesburg, said by phone. “They’re often employed in precarious jobs without benefits or formal contracts, often they’re self-employed or in the informal sector.”
Xenophobic attacks in Johannesburg earlier this year mainly involved the looting of foreign-owned shops in Soweto, a township southwest of the city. The latest violence included the torching of car repair shops and autodealers owned by Nigerians in central Johannesburg.
South Africa is home to 1.7 million foreigners out of a population of about 54 million, census data from 2011 shows. Estimates from the University of Witwatersrand, known as Wits, put the population of Zimbabweans alone in South Africa at 1.5 million.
For every South African employed in the informal sector, there are almost two migrants, according to a 2012 survey by the government’s statistics agency and the Migration for Work Research Consortium, which is part of Wits.
Comments made by King Goodwill Zwelithini, the Zulu monarch, may have fueled the recent violence. He was cited last month by Durban’s Mercury newspaper as saying foreigners were taking South African jobs and should leave the country. His office has said his speech was misinterpreted and this week he called for the attacks to end.
“I blame Zwelithini,” said Tafadzwa Nguruwe, a 25-year-old Zimbabwean who works as a bank clerk in Soweto. “It’s a tribal thing. It’ll happen every few years.”
About 20 people died in xenophobic violence in 2009 and 2010, while 4,000 were displaced and 200 foreign-owned shops looted, according to Landau. In 2011, 120 deaths were recorded during the year, including five people who were burnt alive, she said.
Still, the immigrants plan to stay.
“Go back to DRC for what?” said Jean Membwe, a 38-year-old from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who guards cars outside a mall in western Johannesburg. “Compared with home, this is paradise.”