President Cyril Ramaphosa has pleaded with South Africans to refrain from violence against women and foreigners after a week of death and turmoil in two of the biggest crises facing his country.
In a televised speech to the nation on Thursday night, Mr. Ramaphosa vowed to impose harsher sentences on those who kill and rape women. He also reminded the country that African migrants – increasingly the victims of South African violence – are from countries that had supported South Africans during the worst days of apartheid.
The two deadly crises – often summarized here as femicide and xenophobia – have haunted South Africa for many years. But the latest deaths have sparked growing outrage. Tens of thousands of South Africans this week protested in the streets to show their anger at the violence against women, while the anti-foreigner violence has led to a wave of reprisals and boycotts across Africa.
Mr. Ramaphosa began by mourning the recent murders of several women, including 19-year-old university student, Uyinene Mrwetyana, allegedly raped and bludgeoned to death in a Cape Town post office by a postal employee. Another woman, 25-year-old female boxing champion Leighandre (Baby Lee) Jegels, was shot and killed last week, allegedly by her boyfriend, a police officer.
“I am appalled at the war being waged on our sisters, our mothers, our wives, our partners and our daughters,” Mr. Ramaphosa said.
“Our country has been deeply traumatized by acts of extreme violence perpetrated by men against women and children. These acts of violence have made us doubt the very foundation of our democratic society. … Let us declare that enough is enough.”
Last year, according to police statistics, more than 3,200 women and girls were murdered in South Africa, an average of more than eight a day.
The murder rate for women in South Africa is five times higher than the global rate, according to research by Sonke Gender Justice, a non-profit advocacy group.
This week, after the latest murders, thousands of black-clad protesters marched to South Africa’s Parliament and to the doors of a conference centre where African leaders had gathered for a meeting of the World Economic Forum. They demanded that Mr. Ramaphosa take emergency measures, including tougher jail terms for those who kill or rape women. Police used water cannons and stun grenades to prevent the protesters from reaching the doors of the conference centre.
In his speech on Thursday night, Mr. Ramaphosa promised to ask Parliament to create a public registry of all men convicted of acts of violence against women and children.
He also promised harsher minimum sentences for all crimes against women and children, and he pledged that the state will oppose bail and parole for those charged with rape or murder of women.
On the crisis of anti-foreigner violence, Mr. Ramaphosa disclosed that the death toll had climbed to 10 this week, with more than 440 people arrested.
Hundreds of foreign-owned shops and other businesses have been looted or set ablaze in the Johannesburg and Pretoria regions in the latest eruption of the attacks on foreigners that began in 2008. Scores of foreign truck drivers have also been killed in South Africa over the past year. Many South Africans blame foreigners – mostly African migrants – for taking scarce jobs or committing crimes, although studies have shown that immigration has boosted the economy.
“No amount of anger and frustration and grievance can justify such acts of destruction and criminality,” Mr. Ramaphosa said in his address to the nation.
“There can be no excuse for xenophobia or any other form of intolerance. The people from other countries on our continent stood with us in our struggle against apartheid. Thanks to the people of Africa, we have now achieved democracy, and we must use this platform to live together in harmony.”
South Africa recently signed a free-trade agreement with most of Africa’s countries, but free trade will be undermined if Africans are unable to move freely around the continent, South African finance minister Tito Mboweni warned in a speech to the World Economic Forum on Thursday.
Gareth Newham, a criminal justice expert at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, said the anti-foreigner attacks are “driven by a toxic mix of increasing unemployment and inequality, deteriorating trust in government and especially the police, and growing desperation among the poor and jobless.”
In an analysis published this week, he noted that public violence is a fast-growing problem in South Africa, with its Public Order Policing Units responding to almost 10 incidents a day – a fivefold increase in the past decade. Foreigners are particularly vulnerable because they live in underdeveloped and crowded areas, he said.
In other African countries, there is growing fury at the attacks against their migrants in South Africa. This week, Nigeria recalled its top diplomat from South Africa and announced a boycott of the World Economic Forum meetings in Cape Town. It announced that an airplane would fly to South Africa to “evacuate” Nigerian citizens if they wanted to leave.
In retaliation for the anti-foreigner violence, South African-based businesses were attacked this week by protesters in Nigeria, Zambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. For safety reasons, South Africa decided to temporarily shut its diplomatic missions in Nigeria, while South African businesses MTN and Shoprite closed several stores in Nigeria after they were attacked. Shoprite also closed shops in Zambia for the same reason.
Tanzania’s national airline suspended its flights to South Africa on Thursday because of the anti-foreigner violence. Soccer matches were cancelled between South Africa’s national team and scheduled opponents from Zambia and Madagascar.
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