South Africa promised on Thursday to tackle the prejudice fuelling a wave of riots and xenophobic attacks, as growing international anger over the violence overshadowed a pan-African economic conference in Cape Town.
President Cyril Ramaphosa said at least ten people had died during a week of violence targeting foreign-owned businesses, of whom two were foreigners.
“Over the past few days our country has been deeply traumatised and troubled by acts of violence and criminality directed against foreign nationals and our own citizens,” he said in a televised address.
He had hoped the three-day World Economic Forum would serve as a shop window for his efforts to revive South Africa’s ailing economy and boost intra-African trade. But the violence, which has also led to hundreds of arrests, has all but eclipsed proceedings.
While the foreign victims’ nationalities have not been made public, the rioting, and reprisal attacks, have above all exposed tensions between the host country and Nigeria, the continent’s two biggest economies.
On Thursday Jim Ovia, chairman of Nigeria’s Zenith Bank and a co-chair of the whole Cape Town event, withdrew, citing the “hypersensitivity of the issues surrounding the lives and well-being of Nigerian citizens living in South Africa.”
Nigeria, whose vice president had boycotted the summit on Wednesday, also recalled its High Commissioner to South Africa.
South African government officials have up to now largely blamed the attacks on criminals. But Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor acknowledged some of it was being driven by “Afrophobia” – resentment of other Africans living and working there.
“There is a targeting of Africans from other parts of Africa, we can’t deny that,” she told Reuters on the sidelines of the conference.