JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The attacks on Somali-owned shops spread like a wildfire through the townships around Port Elizabeth, a city on South Africa's southeastern coast.
When it was over, more than 100 small businesses mostly run by Somali nationals had been looted, some destroyed by petrol bombs, and their owners driven from the area by rampaging residents.
The scale of the violence over four days in September was unusual, but xenophobic attacks on Somalis and other African migrants in South Africa's impoverished townships are all too common.
Many people accuse “foreigners” of taking their jobs, or of putting South African shopkeepers out of business by undercutting their prices.
Xenophobic violence in South Africa drew international attention in 2008, when riots targeting black African immigrants spread through townships around Johannesburg and elsewhere in the country, leaving more than 60 people dead and thousands displaced.
Since then, sporadic incidents have continued, though they have received little attention.
Amir Sheikh, chairperson of the Somali Community Board of South Africa, said that around a hundred Somali nationals are murdered every year in this country, most of them shopkeepers in the townships.
Sheikh said that young Somalis who sought asylum in South Africa to escape Al Shabaab, the militant group that still dominates large areas of Somalia, and to seek better opportunities, are now moving back home to escape the violence.
“Many of them realize that this dream is just an illusion, and if they are to die it is better to die back home,” he said. “There is no difference between Mogadishu and the townships of South Africa.”
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The September attacks in Port Elizabeth were sparked by accusations that a Somali shopkeeper had shot and killed a 19-year-old South African man in a dispute over cell phone airtime.
However the complaint may have been flimsy, as the shopkeeper accused of the murder was later released by police due to a lack of evidence.
Facing pressure over the continuing violence, the South African deputy minister of foreign affairs in June met with Somali community leaders and promised to launch a program to bring together local and foreign business owners.
But according to Sheikh, nothing has happened since the meeting.
“What we are getting from the South African government is lip service,” he said.
Last month Elizabeth Thabethe, South Africa’s deputy trade and industry minister, drew criticism for her comments about foreign migrants running small shops in the townships, known here as “spaza shops.”
“You still find many spaza shops with African names, but when you go in to buy you find your Mohammeds and most of them are not even registered,” the South African Press Association quoted her as saying.
Sheikh said that apart from the attacks on township shops, institutionalized xenophobia exists in South Africa, with African migrants facing discrimination at schools and hospitals.
“It’s not only in the townships but even in the government offices,” he said.
A report titled “Somalinomics” released last week by the Johannesburg-based African Center for Migration and Society argued that foreign-owned businesses create economic benefits to local communities.
Foreign-owned spaza shops — local convenience stores often run from homes — help consumers by providing better, more flexible services, and cheaper products, the report said.
“Both government and individuals are quick to turn their frustrations with economic hardships against foreign businesses,” Roni Amit, a senior researcher, said in a statement.
“In fact, many South African consumers would be in a far more precarious position without these shops,” Amit said.
“Unfortunately, the dominant voices are often those of competing shopkeepers who turn to xenophobic sentiments to veil their reluctance to adopt competitive practices that make everyone better off.”