The riots which swept Johannesburg yesterday were, according to the Guardian, “the worst violence to hit Johannesburg since the politically-driven killings of the final years of apartheid.” Judging by the photographs, one could be forgiven for thinking yesterday’s uproar actually were scenes from the 1980′s. The targets of these roving mobs–which rampaged through not only the poor, sprawling townships on the outskirts of Johannesburg but also ravaged the city’s downtown business district–were foreigners, most of whom are Zimbabwean. South Africa has an unofficial employment rate believed to be hovering around 40%, and the presence of outsiders willing to work cheaply has for many years been a source of embitterment for South Africa’s poor blacks. (And a glaring shortcoming of the African National Congress’s promise to redistribute the country’s wealth.)
This latest outburst, while reprehensible, was bound to happen. Over the past eight years, what started as a steady stream of migrants fleeing the tyranny of Robert Mugabe has turned into a flood. At least three million (and perhaps many, many more) Zimbabweans (a full quarter of the country’s native population) now reside illegally in South Africa. Some 3,000 people cross the border every week. Zimbabwe has become, as a South African economist told me in 2006, “South Africa’s Mexico.”
Yet the situation is far more dire than that of Mexico and America. The glaring deficiency with this analysis is that we don’t have a 40% unemployment rate. Moreover, you can be sure that were Mexico experiencing the tumult that Zimbabwe has over the past 8 years–a dictator stealing elections, killing his political opponents, and starving his people–America would do something about it, from enforcing stringent sanctions to carrying out regime change.
South African President Thabo Mbeki, meanwhile, has carried out a policy that has amounted to saying nothing about the human rights catastrophe next door while keeping the United Nations and Western countries at bay. South Africa is beginning to experience the chaos wrought by its negligence towards Mugabe. The only beneficial outcome of the growing refugee crisis within its borders is the possibility that it may change the government’s attitude towards the dictator.