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Store Owner Set Alight in Latest Attack on Foreign Businesses in South Africa

The brutal attack in Johannesburg comes amid a series of violent incidents across the country targeting migrant communities.

by Samuel Oakford
Feb 27 2015, 8:50pm

Photo via AP

A foreign business owner was badly burned Thursday after a mob of locals doused the man and his store in paraffin and set them on fire in an urban area of South Africa's capital of Johannesburg.

The man, whose name and nationality has not been revealed, is expected to survive, despite receiving severe injuries, police told Al Jazeera. Police said a group of people had been circling the area and threatening foreign business owners, telling them to leave the area, prior to the attack. An unspecified number of arrests were made following the incident.

The attack in the township of Soweto came amid a series of xenophobic incidents across the country, and a month after two people were killed during large-scale riots targeting migrant communities.

Elsewhere in Soweto, police arrested four foreign national business owners Thursday for allegedly firing warning shots at locals who attempted to loot their stores, authorities said. No deaths were reported in that incident, and no locals were arrested.

The violence and looting in Soweto began last month after a14-year-old local boy was shot and killed by a Somali shop owner for allegedly attempting to pilfer his store in Snake Park.

As unrest spread across other townships, police rounded up more than 120 people for targeting shops owned by Somalis, Ethiopians and Pakistanis. Riots that followed the shooting left at least two dead, including a baby.

Related: South Africa's Power Grid Is on the Brink of Collapse.

Corlett Letlojane, Executive Director of the Human Rights Institute of South Africa told VICE News that weak economic conditions in the country, particularly in townships like Soweto, have led locals to resent foreigners who seek out or are successful in making a living by opening small stores.

"For many years South Africa provided guaranteed jobs for people coming from [other parts of] southern Africa," said Letlojane. "But currently there are a lot of people unemployed, so now there's this competition."

Foreigners are advantaged by their ability to band together to buy goods in bulk — something locals, who see each other as competition, do not do, she added. Immigrant business owners can then sell their products for less than some South African businesses are able to.

Lack of police enforcement in townships has long allowed vigilante justice groups to form. In 2008, rioting in townships across the country claimed more than 60 lives, including a Mozambican who was burned alive in the street, in the worst violence seen in recent years.

Letlojane said that South Africans had frequently targeted immigrants from neighboring Mozambique and Zimbabwe, as well as those from other East African countries, who are identifiable because they do not share regional dialects with South Africans and are "easier to isolate and identify."

"Somalis are often the main victims because they do not speak the local languages," she explained. "They don't hear what people are saying and have trouble integrating. Even in schools they segregate themselves."

Two years ago, a Somali man was beaten to death by a crowd in the South African city of Port Elizabeth. A video of the incident was widely shared online, but despite protestations from activists around the world, authorities have struggled to ensure security in townships.

Related: South Africa to release apartheid death squad leader known as 'Prime Evil'.

In 2012, the South African government introduced its National Development Plan, which highlighted scarce job opportunities and aimed to bring unemployment down to 6 percent by 2030. But despite an average annual economic growth of 3 percent, the unemployment rate in the country remains at roughly 24 percent, and the World Bank estimates more than half of young people are jobless.

The South African government estimates there are between 500,000 and 1 million undocumented immigrants in the country. Other studies by local universities have derived figures more than double that.

According to the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, there are more than 1 million Zimbabweans living in South Africa, some legally and others without proper documentation. Still, compared to countries in Europe and North America, the foreign-born community in South Africa is relatively small.

Many migrants that travel to South Africa are asylum seekers fleeing conflict zones in the Democratic Republic of the Congo or from political persecution in places like Rwanda, Burundi, Ethiopia, and Zimbabwe.

The UN's refugee agency says the country's system for handling asylum claims is "overwhelmed" and reported that at the start of 2014 some 230,000 asylum seekers were still awaiting a decision on their status.

Related: Video shows brawl break out in South African parliament.

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford