Ferial Haffajee: Shoprite, Joburg today. Shoprite, Nigeria tomorrow


As police brought four days of targeted looting and arson in Johannesburg and the broader province under control, Gauteng police commissioner Elias Mawela announced that seven people had died in incidents related to the violence by Thursday.

While the WEF Africa meeting was planned to dominate the news agenda, with South Africa planning to announce a series of economic reforms, this was supplanted - globally - by the violent and targeted attacks on migrant traders.

On Thursday, the UN spoke out against the violence targeted at people from other countries living in South Africa, following similar statements from the African Union and the Nigerian government, which issued a demarche against the South African high commissioner. As President Muhammadu Buhari dispatched a special envoy from Abuja to Pretoria, the South African High Commission in Abuja and the Consulate in Lagos closed after threats.

Looters on the attack 

The violence started on Sunday night and by Monday, the looting of areas where there are large numbers of migrant traders or communities were underway and out of control. 

I first covered Mayfair, my childhood home, where community WhatsApp groups zipped messages of attacks by the dozen.

The attempted looting of the Somalian-owned Amal shopping centre and the nearby Shoprite was thwarted by toughs from Mogadishu, but still by the time I got there the usually teeming grocery store was shuttered. So were all the shops in Fordsburg and Mayfair.

The retail economy took strain in all the city hubs including in the east and west of the city. 

By Tuesday, the CBD was shut after looters attacked there too. The big stores like Jet were closed; so was the usually humming Nando's near the High Court while the quarter called Addis (after the Ethiopian capital and a symbol of the traders who dominate there) was like a ghost town as locks were clicked on the hundreds of foreign-owned businesses there.

By Tuesday, as the news of the attacks spread via WhatsApp chats, Facebook and on Twitter, the retaliation started in several parts of Nigeria and Zambia, both countries where there are significant South African interests.


By Fin24’s count, Shoprite, MTN and Multichoice were all impacted by retaliatory protests within a day of the protests deepening across 11 areas in Johannesburg and on the East Rand. 

Migrant traders run small businesses and the looting and arson costs are still to be tallied; the impact on big businesses was almost instantaneous. This is because incidents of looting and violence now go viral very quickly. Whereas news travelled more slowly before and was dictated by how the old, mass media covered it, now everybody with a mobile phone (and that is most people impacted) can spread it.

'Killed like chickens'  

And, in addition as we saw this week, misinformation fills a panic. By Wednesday, a video of South Africans (as it turned out) being lined up on the ground and frisked by police was used as evidence on social media of Nigerians being manhandled by the cops. 

It was nothing of the sort and was, in fact, hostel residents being searched for drugs by police in 2015. Well-known Nigerians like the artist Tiwa Savage tweeted about her people being "butchered" while the former government minister, Femi Fani-Kayode, alleged on Twitter that Nigerians were being "killed like chickens" in South Africa.

While the identities of the seven people who have died in the violence have not been released, the press conference by Mawela on Thursday suggests that the majority are South African. Truth is always the first casualty in violence.

The week does throw up a new threat to business in South Africa. With many SA-headquartered businesses operating on the rest of the continent, what happens here matters there almost immediately.

As this week shows, the regular looting of migrant-owned businesses in South Africa is not something that can be ignored or be soothed by a statement any longer. 

It can impact operations and reputation, as this week revealed, and threaten enterprises. Fani-Kayode, for example, called on the government to nationalise South African businesses in Nigeria. This would impact companies like Multichoice and MTN significantly; Reuters, for example, pointed out that MTN has more active subscriptions in Nigeria than South Africa has people. 

Dangerous strategy

I keep a tally of attacks on migrant-owned businesses through looting. My list started in 2015, and while I need to update it from the beginning of this year, the number is high and the rate of justice almost nil. 

This week, as we reported, I saw police doing their level best, but they were so stretched (and, to be honest, not really equipped to deal with the public order policing requirements of the moment) that all that was achieved was containment. 

Prosecutors seem unable to prosecute against public violence in an effective way and there is no evidence that any of the arrests have ever resulted in successful prosecutions. 

If the trend is to be reversed, it will take efforts by business working with the police against these crimes. This is not impossible; cash-in-transit robberies were once almost completely stopped through a business-police partnership that is still one of the best examples of how to make partnerships work.

In an era of social media and misinformation, the status quo of ignoring the trend until the next flare-up is a dangerous strategy.  

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
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