south africa xenophobic attacks
South African men run from police as rioting and looting was quelled during anti-foreigner violence in Durban Rogan Ward/Reuters

South Africa is caught in the midst of another wave of xenophobic violence, as tensions between citizens and foreigners escalate dangerously.

In a country with almost 40% unemployment, and a recent history of pervasive enmity between South Africans and the country's many immigrant communities, it does not take much for violence to be sparked.

Most people agree that the latest wave was caused by inflammatory statements from some influential leaders.

On 25 March the Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini said: "We request those who come from outside to please go back to their countries."

Similar sentiments were expressed by President Jacob Zuma's son, Edward, who was this week quoted as saying that South Africa is "unnecessarily accommodating illegal immigrants in this country".

Rising tide of violence

In late March, mobs attacked over 250 Congolese immigrants in Isipingo, a town 25km south of Durban. Violent attacks continued, and by early April approximately 400 refugees were sheltering in tents near the town. Following the deaths of two Mozambicans, attacks spread to other areas closer to Durban's city centre.

Angered by the rising tide of violence against them, foreigners twice attempted to stage peaceful protests in Durban but were denied permission and forcefully dispersed by police who shot at them with rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannon.

'As new ideas emerge about a more assertive role for women in rapidly changing African societies, they are coming into direct conflict with a group that views customary law as integral to African heritage and identity, and therefore something that must be protected and conserved.'

Read Cathal's assessment of women's rights in Africa here.

As foreign-owned shops were looted and petrol bombed, violence spread to other areas, including Durban city centre. By this stage, over 1,000 people had been driven from their homes.

In an attempt to get the situation under control, President Jacob Zuma and his government intervened, creating a high-level ministerial team and increasing police deployment in affected areas.

For now, this appears to have calmed the situation in Durban, where a large peace march is planned for later today (16 April).

However, tensions are now spreading to areas of Johannesburg, South Africa's economic capital and home to its largest concentration of foreigners.

'This could easily escalate'

Johannesburg has recently experienced its own spate of xenophobic violence. In January, widespread unrest, looting and violence resulted in the mass exodus of foreign business owners from Soweto and other parts of the city. Now, foreign-owned shops remain shut in Jeppestown and Primrose as angry residents threaten to remove all non-South Africans.

The violence has been condemned on all fronts. In addition to the government's own statements, NGOs like the Nelson Mandela Foundation have called the violence "a terrible failure of memory by South Africans", in reference to the support provided to the anti-apartheid struggle by many of South Africa's neighbouring countries. The Zimbabwean information minister Jonathan Moyo has slammed King Zwelithini, claiming that the current spate of xenophobia could "easily mutate" into genocide.

In an apparent attempt to avoid comparisons with the widespread violence of 2008, when over 60 foreigners died, the South African government insists that the current unrest stems from criminality and not xenophobia, preferring to call it "violence directed at foreign nationals".

A worrying trend

Semantics aside, the attacks of this past week, coupled with days of violence and destruction targeted at foreigners in parts of Johannesburg in January, and Cape Town in February, point to a worrying trend.

Economic disparities and a lack of jobs are undoubtedly driving factors behind the current violence. Many of the poorest people in South Africa live side-by-side with Zimbabweans, Nigerians, Malawians, Congolese, Mozambicans and others who have left their countries to find a better life.

Driven by the need to survive, many immigrants find work in the informal economy. Many of them are self-employed or 'micro-entrepreneurs', doing whatever they can to survive. Some have proper documentation, some do not.

A study by the Centre for Forced Migration at Wits University on the 2008 xenophobic attacks suggests that although poverty was a driving force, it was not the only explanatory factor behind the violence.

The study reveals that perpetrators of the violence were young and old, male and female, employed and unemployed. A large proportion of the attackers were not the poorest of the poor - that is those without jobs - but instead they were South Africans who already had some economic stake in the community that they wanted to protect.

A political hand in the violence?

Whether similar forces are at play this time around is unclear. There are worrying suggestions that the violence is not as sporadic as it appears on the surface and that mobs are sometimes seen to spring into action after answering calls on their mobile phones. There are even whispers of a hidden political hand in the violence, as South Africa approaches closely contested local elections in 2016.

What is clear, however, is that immigration remains a fact of life in South Africa. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that, in 2011, South Africa received one in 10 of the world's asylum applications, dealing with 107,000 cases. The United States, by contrast received 71,000 applications. This puts huge strain on a government that is already struggling to cope with reversing the imbalances and exclusion caused by decades of Apartheid policies.

This large influx of immigrants means that the government has no choice but to find a solution to the current violence. Jacob Zuma will address parliament on the violence this afternoon at 2pm South African time. He will need to show strong leadership in the months ahead and many will be watching closely to see if the president will use this speech to discard semantics and face the xenophobia problem head on.

Cathal Gilbert is a human rights consultant.